Around six weeks ago, in early November 2021, We talked a little on this show about the release of Forza Horizon 5, the newest open world racing game from Microsoft and PlayGround games, in which players drive around a virtual version of Mexico taking part in racing competitions to a licensed music soundtrack.

When Forza Horizon 5 first released, the game launched with a fairly comprehensive list of accessibility features, ranging from difficulty modes that slow down other cars to help users catch back up with the pack, through to options to turn down the speed of the entire game, from the movement speed to the physics engine.

While the game’s most discussed accessibility feature, on screen sign language interpreter inclusion in cutscenes, is still not implemented in the game six weeks post release, today I want to take some time to talk about a smaller scale issue in the game impacting some Transgender Forza Horizon 5 players, automated systems deadnaming trans players via voice acting.

So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to be talking about video games automating the process of detecting a player’s name, and the impacts this can have on some trans players. We’re going to talk a little about what deadnaming of trans people is, how Forza Horizon 5 unintentionally does this in an attempt to improve player experience, and how this differs in execution to games like Doki Doki Literature Club which use similar tricks for horror effects.

So, let’s start off by talking about the concept of deadnaming and how it relates to the trans community, using myself as an example.

I am a transgender woman, meaning that when I was born I was assigned male by doctors, but when I was old enough to express my internal sense of self Identity, I came out as a trans woman. For me, part of this process involved having my birth certificate updated, both to list me as female, and to update my name on my birth certificate to Laura.

If someone were to ask about my deadname, they would likely be asking for my name at birth, given to me when my parents believed me to be male, that I stopped using when I came out as a trans woman.

The reason why the trans community generally uses the term deadname to refer to their pre transition name is disputed depending on who you ask. Some will argue it’s because their old name is dead to them, but it’s more generally accepted to be a reference to the fact that, if you happen to have transphobic family members and pass away before managing to navigate the legal bureaucracy involved in transition, it’s the name you’ll end up referred to after you pass away. As depressing as that concept is, we see it in practice, as many trans people around the world who die young are buried under their deadnames.

Like many trans people, my relationship to my deadname is complicated, and has shifted over time. As a visible trans person in the video game industry, my deadname is out there and pretty easy to find, shared widely by those who wanted to cause me distress early in my career. As such, I have had to hear my deadname used maliciously a lot in my career.

So, let’s talk a little bit about why hearing your deadname can be somewhat distressing when early in transition, but generally becomes less so over time.

When I was early in my gender transition, like many trans people, exterior validation of my identity was pretty important to me. I was pretty new to exploring who I was, and trying to assert to myself, and the world, that it was okay for me to be myself. I was trying to get doctors to see my experiences as legitimate so I could get medical support, trying to assert my identity to friends and family who were resistant to changing their sense of who I was, and was trying to have the confidence in my identity required to stand up for myself and my rights should I face harassment while out in the world for who I was.

Early transition is often a time where a person is trying to be seen as valid by people who mean a lot to them emotionally, or have the ability to gatekeep their access to support. It’s also in many cases paired with going through a second puberty, where emotional ranges are changing, and feelings are volatile. Understandably, it’s a time where perceived invalidation of identity, such as being referred to by a pre-transition name, can be particularly hurtful.

For reference, starting Oestrogen hormone replacement therapy largely removed anger from my emotional palette, and replaced it with the ability to feel sad in a more nuanced way than I had before, and express that sadness rather than bottle it up. Understandably, this impacted how I responded to perceived invalidation of my identity.

By comparison, over a decade post transition, I have a very different relationship to my deadname. It’s not my legal name by any conceivable metric someone might use, and anyone who does use it today is very clearly doing so to try and get a rise out of me. I’m confident enough in who I am, and my ability to be forever known as Laura, that I can brush off uses of my deadname in a way I couldn’t in early transition.

In early transition, even an accidental use of my deadname by a close friend or family member, with an apology swiftly following, would be a knock to my confidence. Today, I kind of laugh at the fact that people think it’s going to bother me at this point in my life.

So, let’s get into Forza Horizon 5 specifically, and how the game ended up unintentionally deadnaming some trans players.

If you pick up Forza Horizon 5 as your first Forza game, and play on a guest profile, you’ll find that the game avoids referencing you by name until the end of a playable introductory sequence. The player will be given a selection of real world names, as well as titles like “champ”, which have had voice lines recorded for them. The intention is that, for example, I could find the name Laura on that list, and have characters in cutscenes refer to me by name in game.

However, if you’re a returning Forza player, or playing using an Xbox Live account, you may find that the game picks a name to refer to you with, using voiced dialogue, before you’re given the chance to choose how you are referred to.

So, how does Forza Horizon 5 do this? Well, simply put, if you’ve listed your real world name on your Xbox Live account, or have previous game save data where you selected a name to be called, Forza Horizon 5 pulls that data, checks it against its list of names it has voice lines for, and opts to call you that name.

You can change what name the game calls you when you reach the character creation screen after the playable intro, but for some trans players this unexpected pulling of name data without being asked first caused some distress.

If someone last played a Forza game prior to coming out as trans, or has not updated the name listed on their Xbox Live account yet for reasons such as legal name status or safety in a household where they are not yet out as trans, the game would pull their deadname, and the opening of the game would feature voice lines referencing that name.

For trans players who may not know how this name was pulled into the game, or if it would at some point be changeable, this unexpected use of an invalidating name by a game they were excited to play could be upsetting or distressing. It could also potentially out their deadname if it happened around people who didn’t know they were trans. I can imagine, for example, a trans streamer booting the game up on stream, and having their deadname used by the game, being a pretty upsetting potential experience.

Now, I want to be clear, I do not think this is malicious on the part of Playground Games. Most people do not drastically change their first name during their life, and what occurred here is likely a lack of foresight for a small portion of the player base rather than malice. That said, this was raised a few weeks ago, with outlets reporting on the story, and Playground Games has not officially responded to the accounts of those impacted.

A potential solution would be for the game to ask at the start if you’d like them to pull your name info from your Xbox Live account or not, rather than automatically doing so.

That all said, Forza Horizon 5 is not the only game to pull this trick of grabbing a player name from the ether without asking the player first, and perhaps the more well known genre to pull this trick is psychological horror games.

An example of a game that deliberately pulls a player name without permission to insert into the game is Doki Doki Literature Club, which in its final act disregards whichever name you selected for your character, and instead uses your User Profile or PC name. This is done to deliberately suggest a certain character is aware of the player, and to make them feel uncomfortably seen. This is a case where the pulling of a name is used deliberately to shock the player and make them feel uncomfortable. In this example, there’s more of a justifiable reason to not ask the player for that information before accessing and displaying it, but obviously the hurt caused if it pulls a player’s deadname and inserts it into the game is likely to be more intense as a result of the narrative context in which it pops up.

Where Forza Horizon 5 pulls player names without asking to try and be helpful and seamless, without spotting a potential impact that could have, games like Doki Doki Literature Club pull player names to try and unsettle the player, a context where pulling a deadname into the game and pointing it at the player could have more actively hurtful results.

I do not think that Forza Horizon 5 pulling Xbox Live names without warning was done in any way to be malicious to trans players, but the end result has had that impact, and the lack of response from PlayGround Games has been a little disappointing.

This video isn’t so much to put PlayGround Games on blast, but to suggest a simple solution that might help trans players avoid accidently experiencing something upsetting, and to let trans players know to be aware of this before booting up the game.

I’m at a point in my transition where if a video game finds my deadname somewhere and decides to use it that’ll be a bit shitty, but not actively upsetting. For folks much earlier in their transitions, I know how much this would have hurt, and I hope that at the very least this video helps you know in advance what places Forza Horizon 5 might decide to pull your deadname from for voice lines.

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