I meet Chelsea Shepard on one of those dim gray days that never seem to break free from the haze of morning. I’m thankful for her decision to meet at Ramen Takumi, a snug divey noodle bar on the corner of Washington Square Park. I grab a table by the front window and watch people sprint through the apocalyptic wind. Through the gray throngs of outerwear I spot a brilliant pink crop of hair. Chelsea is waiting at the crosswalk with her arms securely crossed over a matching magenta shirt. She’s bewilderingly coatless save for a thin black cardigan. Taking note of her super human strength, I stand up to greet her.
Even at age seven, Chelsea knew she wanted to make video games. Twenty years later she’s studying at New York University’s Game Center, a prestigious masters program that teaches even the most un-trained coders how to create their own games and find success in the business. Like most grad students, Chelsea took out quite a few loans to be here (“you know, just enough that you could pay off as a barista at Starbucks or something”) but she doesn’t show much regret until we talk about the competitive market for gaming jobs. “I’m not looking forward to trying to find jobs as a trans woman game designer,” she laughs. “But I have it on good authority from another trans woman designer in the program that we don’t have it any worse than cis women game designers,” whose gender identity corresponds with their biological sex.
Chelsea peeks out from behind her lime green glasses as we struggle to choose between 10 nearly identical pictures of a bowl of ramen. She orders the Syo-yu Tonkotsu, a dish she first tried in Japan. Her parent’s conservative Christian beliefs led her to take a mission trip to Tokyo. “I always loved Japanese culture, so they were like, ‘Hey ‘dead name’ why don’t you spread the joy of Christianity in Japan for a month.’ And I was like, ‘Sure, why the hell not.’”
It’s no surprise when Chelsea tells me she used to be a writer. As she hurtles jokes at gamer bros and dishes witty retorts, the quiet pauses in our conversation evaporate. She’s giddy to talk about her own work, a tabletop game called Zaibotsu— a Japanese word for a huge corporation or business—she’s creating for her final thesis project. The players will act as CEOs of a megacorporation. Maybe you’ll destroy another player for personal gain, or because of a long-buried grudge, but ultimately, you have to decide whether you’ll do what’s best for the company, or follow your own personal interests.
Chelsea’s goal is to bring out the competition between the players. “Games can be really useful in that they allow us to experience realities that we don’t necessarily belong to.” she says. She wants players to experience being the most powerful person in the world. The game sheds light on social class dynamics and disparities. “If I could,” Chelsea said. “I want to debunk the American dream.”
Brimming with enthusiasm for gaming, Chelsea could make anyone interested in her work. For three years, Chelsea was a writer and game critic and eventually became the editor-in-chief of the Ontological Geek—a website that studies pop culture as more than just entertainment, combining essay with research on games, movies, and more. One of Chelsea’s proudest pieces was an article looking at transgender themes in The Matrix as seen through and the series’ trans directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski. After years of writing about games, Chelsea felt an overwhelming desire to make them, so she researched programs and found NYU. The game center is perfect for students that might be coming in with little to no coding experience, making it the ideal place for Chelsea to switch from theory to practice and start developing on her own.
I tell Chelsea that when I found her name, I was looking for someone in New York who was making gaming a better field, someone who was pushing the boundaries of the “typical” gamer, someone who could speak to the challenges of being LGBTQ in such a male dominated field. “Well, you’ve found the right girl,” she responds. I ask her whether NYU has support programs in place for trans women and LGBTQ students, and she chuckles. “Well you’ve asked the right girl about that, too. On the one hand, I have a lot of really great friends at the game center who either get it or try really hard to get it.” In academia, and especially in games academia, Chelsea runs into pressure from male peers, and so she and a few other trans students in the game center are developing a group called The Guardians—based on the game Destiny—to provide a safe space for students who don’t fit the traditional gamer mold. “We’re given a space to speak up,” she adds. “Mostly.”
What draws Chelsea to games is the ability to tell stories through your characters and their worlds. She believes that games can be great for fostering empathy, for showing players another perspective. But it’s nearly impossible to find games like Chelsea’s coming from the top developers like Nintendo, Bethesda and Ubisoft. She thinks the biggest problem with trans visibility in popular culture isn’t just that there’s a total lack of it, but that the trans stories being told are usually created by cis white men. “Since most games are made by cis white men, what stories do you think they’re telling?” she asks. “It’s the same shooter game all the time.”
But despite that, the average gamer doesn’t just want to buy shooter games. The top three games ever sold are, in order: Tetris, Minecraft, and Wii Sports — all of which cater to a huge audience of people from all age groups and sexes (though the fourth most popular is the notoriously sexist and violent Grand Theft Auto V). Chelsea pushes back on the idea that gamers won’t buy games that don’t fit the shooter mold. She says the big game developers think they know what the audience wants, but they total misjudge the diversity of gamers — and she’s right.
The Entertainment Software association published their annual report which says the number of women age 18 or older playing games almost doubles the number of young boys. With consumers spending more than $23 billion on the gaming industry each year, it’s critical that developers represent their audiences.
Though she’s a game designer first, Chelsea sees herself as a storyteller second. “In an answer to the question, ‘Why am I making games,’ it is to normalize being trans,” she says. “We need to tell our own stories, and not just because we can tell them better, but that we need to be the ones in control of our own narratives.”
We shovel the last of our ramen’s thick noodles on our chopsticks, slurping hastily between questions and answers. The waiter hovers over us, monitoring the emptiness of our bowls. “I’m actually really glad we got to talk about this today, since it is the trans day of remembrance,” she says. Since 1999, once a year on November 20, people gather in countries around the world to memorialize those who were murdered and to bring awareness to the continued violence experienced by the trans community worldwide. “We keep seeing this violence in part because our stories are not being told,” she says. “Trans is not normalized. Until it is, we’ll probably still be having these days.”
By developing games that reveal and celebrate the complicated and exceptional lives of trans people, Chelsea is rewriting the trans narrative. “My goal is to make things better for everyone in games and I’m not going to give up,” she says. “The role is on all game designers to make it a better field for us all to work in. That’s cheesy enough for an ending, right?”