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Why Is This Gender Swap Video Game Inspiring Outrage and Death Threats?

<i>Gender Bender DNA Twister Extreme</i> may be the first game in the West to address autogynephilia – but not everyone thinks that's a good thing.

It's hard to reconcile the amateurish presentation of the video game Gender Bender DNA Twister Extreme with the high tide of emotion it has evoked, at least in the slim swathe of the gamer community that is even aware of its existence. Death wishes and even death threats are being levelled at the game's developers.

Gender Bender is a visual novel video game in which several young men are permanently transformed into petite, large-breasted teenage girls through a laboratory accident. There is some lip service paid to how annoyed the guys are to be stuck as girls: "I was so weak and girly now and I hated it." But, ultimately, it is presented as a thrilling, sexually charged experience. While Gender Bender is still in development it is available in early access on the digital store Steam as its makers work to finish its intertwined story threads.

A look at Gender Bender's archived Steam Greenlight campaign – the process through which games can lobby to be made available for sale on the storefront – shows more than 1,400 stupefied comments. You barely have to wade into them to come into contact with handfuls of people wishing the developers death. "KILL. YOURSELVES," is the message of user "Metalstar", while "The ale Pyro" offers: "hang yourself, oh my fucking god, please humanity does not need more 35 year old redneck basement dwellers playing this shit." From "{HR} Ninjaneer", more of the same: "this is a fucking stupid game i will never buy this gmae even if its for free, so i will find whoever made this stupid game and shoot the people who made this retarded game."

Over in Steam's forums there are 138 separate conversation threads devoted to the game. It's blasted for being transphobic, misogynistic or just puerile.

One perceived problem stems from the fact that the men's transformation into busty young girls is clearly a source of erotic delight – the game does not seriously attempt to engage transgender issues. As one person puts it: "Reminder that the only people who want to 'support,' buy or defend the game do it because it's their fetish."

David Kerr, the game's artist (working beside writer Lachlan Snell), tells me over Skype from his home in southern Quebec that people outraged by the game have tried to hack both his email and Steam accounts.

'Gender Bender DNA Twister Extreme', Bri trailer

"I can't even say anything without it being twisted out of context and posted elsewhere," Kerr says. "There's an Encyclopaedia Dramatica page on me and my partner, twisting things we've said, trying to make us out to be horrible people because we express our opinions on the toxicity going on at our Greenlight page."

I ask Kerr for his thoughts on the accusations of bigotry. "I don't think the game is transphobic in the least. There isn't even a transphobic character in the game." And as far as the game being misogynistic, he replies: "I think the main issue with it is I'm not sure what defines misogyny in games."

Kerr says that while he does not think of himself as transgender, he would take the opportunity to be transformed into a woman in the way depicted in the game if he could, even if it was permanent. Since this isn't his orientation, I ask him if this is a fetish. "I suppose you could say so, yes."

Gender Bender may be the first video game in the West to fully explore this concept, but the notion that some heterosexual biological men are aroused at the idea of themselves as women has a term in the world of psychology, where it is also quite controversial: "autogynephilia", the word translated from the Greek to mean "Love of oneself as a woman". It is a term and a concept developed by Ray Blanchard, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto.

According to this theory, there are biological men who are attracted to women, and who wish to identify as female because they are sexually aroused by the idea of themselves as a woman – and this is the origin of their transsexualism. The genesis of the orientation, according to this model, is actually a heterosexual male impulse: "the fusion of longing to have a woman and the longing to be a woman," as Blanchard's concept puts it, "the confounding of desire and envy." Of course, this runs counter to the idea that transgender women are simply women who have been born into the wrong body.

Autogynephilia is also classified as a paraphilia, and so, its critics say, it unjustly connects being transgender with mental illness. The leading proponents of autogynephilia have faced intense criticism, protests and even accusations from the transgender community of personal and academic misconduct. However, one of the theory's leading proponents is Dr Anne Lawrence, the author of many papers and a book on the subject, Men Trapped in Men's Bodies. She is transgender herself.

When I speak to Blanchard on the phone, he tells me that many people have relied on regurgitated expressions of his theory, with most of his first-hand research locked behind academic pay walls: "The popular version of [the autogynephilia theory] that people attack ignores all of the subtleties and qualifications that are quite clear in the original."

According to Blanchard, the libido acting as an initial kernel that flowers into something more meaningful has a parallel in a cisgendered man getting married to a woman:

"You wouldn't say that a straight guy marries a woman and stays with her for 40 or 50 years because she's sexually exciting," Blanchard says. "Sexual attraction might be what gets the relationship established, but once it is established then other kinds of motivations, pair-bonding and other stuff, keeps the relationship going... Something can be established on a basis of a sexual attraction, but that doesn't mean that's all it is. It means it's a foundation, a beginning of something. I've been explicit about that."

One consequence of the theory's extreme blowback was that someone who disagreed with Blanchard attempted to get him fired by "[accusing] me of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people".

But not all autogynephiles want to actually live as women: "There certainly are guys who are sexually excited by the idea of being women but for whom this remains episodic, perhaps confined to masturbatory episodes."

As angry as some people are at both the theory of autogynephilia and at Gender Bender DNA Twister Extreme, there are some transwomen who recognise that the fantasy represented in the game might not be so bad.

Jessica Kylie Nichols-Vernon, a transgender woman who defended the game online, writes to me: "It is still something useful and beneficial to us... It is a light-hearted comedy that uses transgenderism as a subject of humour and asks cispeople not to laugh at transpeople but to laugh with us."

Andrea James, an LGBT rights activist and one of the fiercest critics of Blanchard and the autogynephilia theory, tells me via email, after I've linked her to the Gender Bender page on Steam: "There are plenty of people (trans and non-trans) with erotic interest in feminisation and masculinisation. I'd argue that someone like Kim Kardashian has an erotic interest in feminisation, embodying and expressing a sexier version of herself.

"One of the reasons a lot of people play characters who are not their sex assigned at birth is because gaming is one of the few socially acceptable outlets for gender-nonconforming behaviour."

As for Kerr and Snell, Gender Bender is still in development. I send Kerr some of Blanchard's work, and a New York Times article mentioning Andrea James and the backlash against another proponent of autogynephilia theory. He writes back: "I hope to be able to make more games, or maybe even a comic someday dealing with issues like these, but I have genuine fear that they might be my undoing."

@GoForRainbow

Previously:

The Three-Decade-Old 'Out Run' Is One of 2015's Best New Games

Six Ways in Which 'Pillars of Eternity' Is Incredible

Ten Things I Hate About Video Games in 2015