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CD Projekt Red’s Troubling Representation of Trans People In Cyberpunk 2077 Marketing

We are on the precipice of what will likely be a game of the year contender, if not a favorite to win the award from outlets and fans alike, Cyberpunk 2077. A title hailing from “darling” developer CD Projekt Red that took Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher series to a new audience, and just so happened to be one of the first games I reviewed as a writer. A developer that vaulted the franchises popularity into three third-person titles, a pair of card-game spinoffs in Thronebreaker and Gwent and a Netflix TV series starring Henry Cavill. CDPR has done a tremendous job in transforming the property into their own and spawning countless new audiences in the process. But their ability to iterate on a property and bring it to the masses is starting to reveal what might be underneath. CDPR’s take on Mike Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk board game appears to be the very thing Cyberpunk tries to point a finger at, the exploitation of people for the benefit of the company. In this case, people who are trans. CDPR appears to be more than toeing that line to benefit their company.

Tweet of Cyberpunk 2077's gender "joke" response to a fan.
Image from Polygon via Twitter: |https://www.polygon.com/2018/9/13/17854886/transphobia-in-game-marketing-cyberpunk-2077-twitter

Cyberpunk 2077 – “It’s just a meme” (August 2018)

For how long social media has been a thing, companies have proven time and time again that their ability to navigate these waters is akin to tossing your kid into the pool praying they learn to swim and not drown at the bottom. No matter the size of the company, social gafs are a dime-a-dozen; yet, we shouldn’t be excusing behavior that should be condemned. Hailing from an industry that is notoriously built upon misogynistic, transphobic, alt-right figures, the waters are even more treacherous. 

Enter Cyberpunk’s first tweet that really started to draw ire. A typical “joke” at someone discussing gender identity on Twitter is usually one of two things: 1) I identify as an attack helicopter 2) Did you just assume their gender? As can be seen below. A clear pejorative that is at best incredibly tone-deaf and at worst pandering to an audience that has led campaigns of exclusion for all walks of people that aren’t cis-white males.

Losing the Benefit of a Doubt with Non-Apologies

When dealing with social apologies, the corporate world has done their damndest to apologize without actually… well…. apologizing. Companies, no matter the industry or their stand in the marketplace, universally place the blame on the person versus the nature of their dehumanizing tweets. CD PR is no different in this regard. Their “apology” to the gender “joke” above was this: “Sorry to all those offended by one of the responses sent out from our account earlier. Harming anyone was never our intention.” Like one of the worst corporate templates to exist.. Sorry to all those offended…Not only does it ring hollow, it reinforces the fact that they didn’t recognize the impact the tweet had. I’m obviously not the head of a multi-billion dollar company, but I feel like this would have been an insanely easy instance of a quick and easy PR win to shift the optics. It’s mind-boggling that the tweet wasn’t something like: ‘We sincerely apologize for a tweet that was sent from our account that minimizes the effects and damage that has been done to people struggling with their gender identity. We will look to do better in the future.” Is the tweet perfect, and does it cover all nuances involving many peoples’ struggles with gender identity? Certainly not. But, it would at least begin to show sympathy for a very marginalized group in areas where their games sell like gangbusters (US and UK/EU). The tweet doesn’t even do anything to hold them accountable, but it does at least show an effort in conveying sympathy and compassion for a marginalized group. 

Having been in social media marketing, I am well aware that the social media team is often siloed away from the team actually getting the work done on the game. They have very different goals, and any actual face-time with them is minimal if any. The marketing arm is a far reach from the development arm. 

Enter the Fetishization of a Group That Knows It All Too Well. (June 2019)

The LGBT group has never really been outright accepted, and until just recently has been recognized (vs being pandered to) by lawmakers. The only constant being the fetishization of the group. The most obvious one is that of lesbian women in media, but CD Projekt Red have taken to utilizing a transwoman as a featured selling point, aka a prop.

An early 2019 in-game poster featured a character-ad splayed with the words “Mix It-Up” above an overly-sexualized trans woman. The energy drink being advertised, “Chromanticore,” also lends to a less than stellar look. As restera user Kyujji (CDPR is a transphobic company. It’s time we stop making excuses for them. | ResetEra) pointed out, “Finally we have “Chromanticore” which on a generous read is a mix of “chrome” and “manticore” and at worst “chromosome” and “manticore”. Forgiving the ambiguity of the first word the second still becomes inherently insulting.

Screen from Cyberpunk 2077 Chronmanticore ad.
Image via Kyujji | Restera | https://www.resetera.com/threads/cdpr-is-a-transphobic-company-its-time-we-stop-making-excuses-for-them.307474/

Kasia Redesiuk, Cyberpunk 2077 Art Director, explained their reasoning with: “Personally, for me, this person is sexy,” Redesiuk said. “I like how this person looks. However, this model is used — their beautiful body is used — for corporate reasons. They are displayed there just as a thing, and that’s the terrible part of it.” The above statement could very well be true, but it rings hollow when the very product they’ve created should work to give us a look into why this is an abhorrent take from a company, but instead they are holding up a mirror being that same company they are pointing a finger at. They are profiting, be it sales or engagement, from using a trans model for corporate reasons with zero context. The end of that sentence being an exact quote about why it exists in the first place. 

Tying Pitch to Gender Pronouns (August 2019)

For a game that seems to want you to create your story, it feels oddly restrictive to do something such as tying the voice pitch of your character to your character’s pronouns as explained via Kotaku. In what feels like a pretty easy issue to avoid, it’s unconscionable why they would go this route. Is it due to this causing issues in development? Or, just due to the fact that they didn’t realize how damaging the decision could be? Restera member Kyuuji  explains the weight that trans people might feel when they fail to find acceptance due to their voice not aligning with dramatically outdated gender stereotypes . “Your voice is as personal to you as anything else, and there are many trans people that would prefer to be able to feel comfortable using their real voice as opposed to putting in considerable effort toward changing it in the hope of better acceptance.”

While it is unknown whether a patch can remove the rigid structure of this aspect of their character creator, it seems like a no-brainer to provide an option. 

Cosplay Contest (October 2020)

Of all the interesting takes CDPR could showcase from the game, it just so turns out that their cosplay contest prominently featured a cosplayer cosplaying the trans model from above as one of their finalists (although they didn’t win).Cosplayer Yugoro Forge expertly mimicked the look of the Chromanticore model to the finest of details, and yet, it again goes on to show the flippant nature in which CDPR understands just how distasteful and dangerous it is using trans women as a prop. Add to the fact that, as far as I know, she isn’t trans her self which adds another layer of complexity to the situation. Cosplayers are generally ok with “crossplaying,” but playing a trans character that already seemed to be used as a prop makes that a bit tougher of a pill to swallow. I can’t say whether or not this is understood by Yugoro, but her “apology” for it doesn’t even scratch the surface as to thinking she understands the impacts it may have:

It’s impossible to convey how much the phrase “”beyond politics” gets thrown around with instances that are inherently political. The freedoms fought for and the laws that directly impact trans rights are political. Trans people are demonized and their rights are stripped away through politics. It’s a reply that might come from the right place, but as they always do when being “non-political,” they always land in the wrong spot. Her joking attitude further plays into fetishizing a marginalized group.

Polish Values are Not a Scapegoat

According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association of Europe report for 2020 (Country Ranking | Rainbow Europe), the status of LGBTQ rights in Poland is the worst among European Union countries. These rankings take into account laws and policies from the country which impact LGBTQ people. So, could this be a case of the lack of representation of LGBTQ people at Poland-based CDPR (and the gaming industry as a whole) making it challenging to properly and tastefully represent LGBTQ people? While it could play a part, it’s hard to rest on that crutch in 2020. The world and its media is far more interconnected than it had been 10, 15, or 20 years ago. So while Poland doesn’t appear to be a progressive country pushing for the values of LGBTQ people, that doesn’t mean that CDPR can’t be that force of change. The main issue stems upon the idea that they would likely be cutting off a chunk of their users. This is a gentle reminder that companies exist to make money and always make decisions that help them reel in more, no matter the cost. I’d hope that a company that has so much sway in the industry would work to better the industry for their potential customers and the developers that will come after them.

An Opportunity Missed

Cyberpunk 2077 will garner loads of game of the year awards. It will sell millions of copies. It will push the limits of storytelling, and at the least provide a deep roleplay of what they feel Cyberpunk is. As a huge fan of The Witcher series that came before it, even each side-series, it’s shameful that CDPR doesn’t seem to be using their stature in the industry to stand against the vitriol hurled at trans people; instead, it seems perfectly fine in using them as a promo piece, and at worst catering to the worst parts of the gaming audience.

CDPR is one of the premiere developers in the industry. They are often the benchmark of open-world games, and nearly always are mentioned when discussion arises of best side-quests and story. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the gaming sphere who isn’t familiar with or hasn’t played a CDPR game. That’s what makes this all the more painful. Like most companies, it seems like they are happy to reap the benefits, regardless of the cost. Luckily, the opportunities to change are there, but will they be willing to take them?

What I Hope For

It’s a weird situation where I hope the developers are happy and truly proud of what they’ve created, but also that the impact of their (at best) tone deafness is answered to either by virtue of discussion or sales. I’m never one to want a company to fail, especially since most people at said company have the right mindset, and have put so much time and passion into something they truly believe in. They don’t deserve it, but trans people also don’t deserve propping up the sales of a company.

Having interfaced with a few people from CD Projekt Red at various conventions in years passed, I couldn’t be more happy for them finally releasing Cyberpunk 2077 and in such a difficult time due to COVID. Everyone I’ve met there has been incredible, and that’s why I truly hope that Cyberpunk 2077 somehow delivers a poignant response to the fetishization of its characters. It won’t simply dismiss their drastic missteps in marketing the game, but it could help to show that they have sympathy for those affected, that maybe they care about the Cyberpunk that is more than just a façade of cool colors and vibes. I almost always err on the side of giving people, companies less so, a benefit of the doubt, but it’s hard to turn a blind eye to a pattern of behavior.

To Buy or Not to Buy

With the game out, there is no doubt this decision has already been made. As anything in a capitalist society, it’s entirely a personal choice in supporting or voicing your opposition for a company. I can’t tell you which is right or wrong, nor should you seek validation for your purchase. While “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism,” it also doesn’t mean that you don’t have a choice to support or oppose. I have loved CDPR games since the first Witcher game. It was actually the first game I had ever reviewed. But with their insistence of using trans women as props and their non-apologies, I am passing on a game I had been looking forward to for the past six or seven years. Am I a hypocrite for buying something like a cell phone or a gaming system that has almost certainly used forced labor to manufacture… most certainly so. This just represents an instance where I am attempting to spotlight an issue and voice my concern. The hate isn’t for the developers at CDPR nor for any other arm of the company, but it’s impossible to look past their failure in advertising their game. Cyberpunk 2077 could expand upon why the trans woman was such a focal point via in-game quests and story, but that still doesn’t scapegoat them for perpetuating everything the game supposedly points against.

A quote to end from Kasia Redesiuk via Polygon: “Cyberpunk 2077 is a dystopian future where megacorporations dictate everything,” Redesiuk said. “They try to, and successfully, influence people’s lives. They shove products down their throats. They create those very aggressive advertisements that use, and abuse, a lot of people’s needs and instincts. So, hypersexualization is apparent everywhere, and in our ads there are many examples of hypersexualized women, hypersexualized men, and hypersexualized people in between.”

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Joey Lampe

Joey Lampe

I am passionate about games and the gaming industry as a whole and am excited to be able to share it with all of you.

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