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When simply existing is dangerous, everything is a risk

Why I helped create a game about being trans

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Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager, took her own life in December 2014. Her parents had forced her to attend a conversion camp to try and cure her feelings of gender dysphoria without allowing her to transition. Coupled with the pressures of trying to transition and the reactions of those around her, she killed herself at the age of 17.

As a trans woman, I hear stories of transgender individuals dying by murder or suicide depressingly often. At least 81 transgender people were murdered in 2015, while 41 percent try to kill themselves at some point in their lives.

I don't always have the emotional energy to engage with the topic, but in the wake of Leelah Alcorn's suicide, I decided to try and do something to help raise awareness of what it's like to go through the rough early stages of gender transition.

I got together with coder Alex Roberts, artist Joanna Blackhart and writer 8BitGoggles to develop a game called Acceptance.

Why we felt this was important

The goal of Acceptance is to put people who are happy with their birth-assigned gender — commonly referred to as cisgender — in the shoes of a transgender person by taking away agency over how they identify.

Acceptance opens by asking if you are a man or a woman. After you make a selection, it tells you that you, as a player, are wrong. You are not the gender that you identify with, and you will be made to understand that fact. You will eventually be made to give up and accept that fact, if you want a livable existence.

Acceptance 1

The reality of this situation isn't much different from the game. Gender transition in the U.K. is set up in a way that adds much unnecessary danger for trans people seeking medical help and support.

Before private doctors or the National Health Service (the U.K.'s taxpayer-funded health care system) will prescribe hormone replacement therapy or discuss surgical options, they require transgender people to present as their "target gender" in their day-to-day life, full time, to demonstrate a commitment to their desire to transition.

While there are some partially understandable reasons for this step, the situation puts transgender individuals at risk in the early stages of transition. There's only so much you can do to disguise that 5 o'clock shadow poking through; your body fat distribution is tough to hide; and a binder is only going to compress breasts so much.

Transgender people are expected to go out into a world that is still rife with transphobia for extended periods of time before doctors will provide them with any help to begin appearing as the gender with which they identify.

The dangers are very real

Because of all this, gender transition can be incredibly distressing and dangerous. As I pointed out earlier in this article, 81 transgender people were murdered last year, and rates of attacks, harassment and discrimination run much higher.

While the end result is worth fighting for, the journey of gender transition can be incredibly difficult. It's a situation that's very hard for many people to understand, and it can be tough to imagine a reality in which your mere existence makes you a target for daily violence.

Acceptance puts the player through a series of daily activities as a transgender person. Things like using the bathroom at the cinema, trying to go to the gym or even something as simple as picking which route to walk home on can become stressful, if not dangerous.

Inevitably, there are no good choices. Some decisions might carry less risk than others, but there are always downsides to simply trying to live your life. Handicapped-accessible bathrooms are gender-neutral, but usually require a key to access.

Using the women's bathroom as a trans woman can lead to being bullied out with claims you're a sexual predator, while using the men's bathroom as a trans woman can result in reactions ranging from odd looks to outright attacks. Faced with situations in which there are no easy or correct choices, weighing the pros and cons on a daily basis can be incredibly draining.

Acceptance also deals heavily with themes of suicide, while hopefully making it clear why — as a trans woman who has attempted suicide — I felt it important to address many of the misconceptions about why trans people so often turn to suicide as a way out. I never wanted to die, but I did not believe I was mentally strong enough to live a life in which I might be harassed forever.

I was terrified of death, and I regretted my suicide attempt pretty quickly, but the fear that the worst moments of my transition would exist for the rest of my life were all-consuming. It's not about wanting to die; it's about weighing the option of a life that will always be incredibly stressful and finding the unknowns of death to perhaps be preferable. It's about being given two horrific options, and being scared that life may actually never become livable, no matter your choices or reactions to how society views you.

81 transgender people were murdered last year

My own past certainly affected the development of Acceptance. I wanted to ensure that my firsthand account of attempting suicide as a trans woman was heard. I wanted, in a way, to let others experience my reality. This is something games do incredibly well, but it's also an area where voices like mine rarely break through to a larger audience. It's one thing to talk about what it might be like to be transgender; it's another to force someone to face the realities of what it can be like.

Acceptance was my attempt to convey some of the struggles of being transgender to people who are not transgender. It's short and it can be emotionally heavy-hitting, but I feel like it's an accurate representation of some of the worst days many trans people have to live through just to get help with a recognized medical condition. It's not about making other people feel bad; it's about trying to foster a sense of empathy and compassion. It's about seeing the world through the eyes of someone you may not understand.

It may not ultimately be much, but anything I can do to try and help people understand the struggles of gender transition a little better felt worth doing. I hope you enjoy it.

Laura Dale is a U.K.-based full-time video game critic who, on rare occasions, develops small, short, narratively focused video games about topics close to her life. Acceptance is available now. If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please seek help. The world is better with you in it.

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