The Importance and Complexity of Trans Media Representation: A Media Psychology Exploration of the Video Game Tell Me Why

A media psychology analysis of the video game Tell Me Why, exploring the importance and complexities of trans representation.

A young person with short hair has their back to the camera and is looking at a snowy mountain vista.
Tyler Ronan in the video game Tell Me Why.

This presentation has been adapted for this format and was originally written for Dr. Jedediah Walls' undergraduate Media Psychology course at The New School in New York City.

A slide image that says: The Importance and Complexity of Trans Media Representation: A Media Psychology Exploration of the Video Game Tell Me Why, by B. Reid Lewis (they/them)

Hello! My name is Reid Lewis, and for my final presentation, I decided to explore the importance and complexity of trans media representation by looking at the video game called Tell Me Why.

It’s important to preface this with a note that trans representation in media has a complicated and spotty history, and if you haven’t seen the documentary Disclosure yet, I highly recommend checking it out. The documentary delves into Hollywood’s representation of trangender folks in the media. The context it brings has certainly helped inform my analysis today.

It’s also worth noting that while I myself am trans, trans folks are not a monolith and this analysis is from just one perspective and experience in a galaxy of perspectives and experiences.

Two young adults in a house, one with longer hair and in the background, the other with short hair and facial hair. The second person is in focus and reaching out towards etheral sparkles.
A still from the video game of twins Alyson and Tyler in the childhood home they both lived in.

So let’s talk about DONTNOD’s 2020 game: Tell Me Why.

At its heart, Tell Me Why is about twins Tyler and Alyson Ronan coming together after years of separation caused by their mother’s death. It’s about finding answers and finding a way to move forward through the trauma of what really happened, even when it challenges what they thought they knew.

Their story unfolds in the small community in Alaska that they grew up, and that one of the twins has been separated from. The driving game mechanic is the twins telepathic connection that allows them to communicate as well as to see past memories, which sparks back to life when they are reunited.

Finally, and most importantly to this analysis, one of the twins is transgender.

Two young people sit on the bottom bunk of a bunkbed. The one on the left has choppy but short hair, while the one on the right has a ponytail.
A still from the video game of Tyler and Alyson as children in their bedroom.

If you’re at all familiar with DONTNOD’s most well known title (published by Square Enix), Life is Strange, the game mechanics of Tell Me Why have a lot of similarities. It’s an episodic narrative game where you step into the shoes of the protagonist and the choices you make influence what happens in the game. There is a supernatural power element to the story as well, but in this case it is the twins telepathic connection.

Two young adults are in the woods with a truck parked behind them. The person with long hair is in the background, while the person with short hair and facial hair is standing with eyes closed and arms opens.
A still from the video game of Tyler and Alyson, when Tyler first returns home after his absence.

While you get the opportunity to play both Alyson and Tyler in relatively equal parts – and this is Alyson’s story as much as Tyler's – the focus of my analysis is specifically around Tyler. He is not the first trans masculine character in a video game (Krem in Dragon Age: Inquisition and Lev in The Last of Us 2 both have to be mentioned, of course), but he is the first one to take center stage as a main playable character.

A webpage titled "Resources" with logos from GLAAD, Huna Heritage Foundation, and CheckPoint.
Screenshot of the Resources page from the Tell Me Why website.

It’s also worth noting that the content of the game deals with some heavy subject matter, especially around mental health, as well as LGBTQ+ and Indigenous communities. DONTNOD partnered with organizations (GLAAD, Huna Heritage Foundation, and CheckPoint) in those respective fields to help ensure they handled those aspects of the game as accurately and respectfully as possible. While they are by no means perfect, the amount of care does show.

A text-heavy slide covering the four media psychology concepts/theories used in this analysis.

Let’s shift gears into the media psychology side of things.

The concepts and theories of media psychology that I plan to explore within Tell Me Why are:

  1. Media Framing (Giles, Psychology of the Media, p. 137) - the particular angle of presentation that influences audiences to draw specific conclusions
  2. Defaultism (Beltrán, Why Minority Settings in RPGs Matter) - the “default” assumptions of overrepresented identities as the “norm”
  3. Theory of Mind (Giles, Psychology of the Media, p. 158) - the ability to assume the mental state of others
  4. Prosocial Influence (Giles, Psychology of the Media, chapter 3) - the potential positive influence that media might have

I think these concepts and theories are especially interesting when considering the good and bad of trans representation in media and video games in particular.

A text heavy slide with a poster for the game Tell Me Why in the middle, explaining the two different aspects of experience in the game.

I don’t have time to delve into this today, but I did want to note a really interesting thing about looking at Tell Me Why in this way. While I’ll only be looking at the audience experience, there is also a meta game experience that is worth looking at from the perspective of these same concepts. The game itself grapples with ideas of psychology, memory, identity, and influence, and I’m really curious what a more in-depth analysis of this meta game experience might reveal.

The Audience Experience: The audience experiences the game itself as a piece of media, whether they play it (make decisions that impact the story) or watch someone else play it (observe someone making decisions + the story).
The Meta Game Experience: The game itself has its characters grapple with ideas of psychology, memory, identity, and influence, creating a meta experience of these for the participatory audience that must engage with these directly when they play through the game.
A still from the video game of Tyler and Alyson "remembering" a childhood moment together.

Let’s go ahead and dig into Tell Me Why, starting with media framing.

A text-heavy slide outlining the concept of media framing.

One of the things that makes Tell Me Why stand out is that it is such a contrast to typical media framing of trans people and their experiences. Typical media framing has often painted trans people as mentally ill or even dangerous, often out of ignorance but sometimes out of malice. In contrast, Tell Me Why went out of their way to be careful about how they framed Tyler’s own trans identity and experience.

But, because this is a depiction of a singular specific fictional trans experience, it still hit on some classic trans tropes, including around masculinity and emotion, as well as trauma being a central narrative to the trans experience. This trauma element is explored both in terms of Tyler’s own original understanding around his mother’s death as well as the revelations around Tessa pushing his mother towards conversion therapy for young Tyler.

And sure, there is trauma for many trans people in their lives, but it’s not a given and not something that everyone experiences. Thankfully, Tell Me Why does also focus on trans joy in Tyler’s experience which helps temper this trope somewhat. But it still complicates the framing of the game and what different people might take away from it.

A still from the video game of Tyler from the ferry trip back to his childhood home.

It’s interesting, because the tropes that Tell Me Why does fall into around transness dovetail into the concept of defaultism.

A text-heavy slide outlining the concept of defaultism.

We have these preconceived ideas about people and unless we are explicitly told otherwise, we fall back to those societal defaults. If you didn’t know Tyler was trans (and the story didn’t reveal this about him), you would probably assume he is another cishet white guy, while in fact he is neither cisgender nor heterosexual.

Representation really does matter, for both marginalized groups so they can imagine futures for themselves and for everyone else to help challenge their notions of defaultism.

Tyler’s transness both doesn’t matter (he is just a young white guy still) and at the same time it is central to his experience and can’t be ignored.

Tell Me Why challenges defaultism in highlighting Tyler’s experience. It’s often subtle, but there are moments where Tyler reminds the audience of his experience transgressing the default.

The example of this reminder on this slide really made me laugh when playing the game. It’s corny, but also very real when Tyler’s response to the question “coffee or tea?” is “I’m more of a T-guy”.

A still from the video game of Tyler and Alyson in the car together.

Defaultism leads interestingly into the concept of theory of mind.

A text-heavy slide outlining the concept of theory of mind, with a screenshot of a dialogue choice menu in the game.

I think a really central thing to consider when it comes to theory of mind is how defaultism shapes it.

The crux being: how do we understand people and experiences we aren’t familiar with, that aren’t “the default”, and how does that influence our theory of mind for those people?

By putting the audience in Tyler’s shoes, the audience “sees” his experience and some of his thinking – essentially, why he does what he does. Of course this is scripted and fictional, but if media influences us and our attitudes, then wouldn’t it influence how we conceptualize others and how we predict the behavior of others, particularly when it comes to marginalized identities where people may have very little experience or interaction with people holding those identities?

A still from the video game of Alyson and Tyler as children outside at night, soaked with rain.

This leads into the idea of prosocial influence, of course.

A text-heavy slide outlining the concept of prosocial influence, with a a still of Tyler and Alyson in their childhood home.

Tell Me Why, as a whole, is a game designed to steer and elicit empathy from the audience. It puts players in the shoes of protagonists with marginalized identities: in this case, a queer trans man and a cis and presumably heterosexual – an assumption which is a clear example of defaultism – woman. They have been through a traumatic experience in their childhood, and they played a part in their mother’s death, but that wasn’t the end of the story. It’s not even the story, really. Rather, their path to trying to understand their mother and the other adults in their lives at that time is the story. And a part of that is, of course, Tyler’s own trans experience and the experience of those around him of his transness.

While thinking through this concept of media psychology and how it plays out in Tyler's story, this favorite quote of mine by James Baldwin came to mind as particularly relevant:

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
A quote by Elise Galmard, lead narrative designed at DONTNOD.

I also wanted to share this quote from the game’s website. In a blog post exploring the multiple endings of the game, lead narrative designer Elise Galmard had this to say:

We definitely didn’t want any ‘good’ or ‘bad’ endings – we wanted all endings to be on equal footing. We wanted to let people know that things are going to be okay, and we didn’t want players to feel like they had done something wrong. My personal goal was to give an underlying sense of hope, especially during the epilogues. We all make different choices and we all have regrets, but that doesn’t mean that the road we take isn’t just as beautiful as any of the others.

And so I think, if it is possible for media to have prosocial influence on an audience, Tell Me Why has done a great deal to lean into that.

A still from the video game of Alyson and Tyler.

This is such a rich game for analysis and commentary, and one I'd love to explore more in depth, but for our current purposes, let's summarize everything I've discussed.

A text-heavy slide outlining the summary & theme.

Media framing is complex and important, and even when trying to carefully frame something such as trans experience, it’s impossible to do so perfectly.

Defaultism plays into our ideas of Theory of Mind – if we can’t understand the experiences of others (such as trans people) because we rely on “defaultism” (assuming people are cis), how accurate is our own theory of mind of them?

Prosocial influence is a bit more nebulous but made up of all these other aspects examined, and in the face of defaultism and missteps in media framing, it must be deliberate.

Keeping in mind that Tell Me Why is just one of many possible trans stories, it deliberately pushes the audience to take on other perspectives and build empathy.

A text-heavy slide outlining questions for future research and analysis.

While putting this presentation together, these were a few of the questions that came up for me as possible areas of further research. Unfortunately the contraints of this presentation meant they couldn't be done justice, but I definitely think they’re worth exploring further in the context of media psychology and Tell Me Why.

  • What do we mean by “prosocial”, especially when looking at marginalized groups and media depicting them if they are a minority group?
  • How does the “meta game experience” influence the audience? Does it influence them differently than the traditional audience experience?
  • How do nuanced, complex media depictions of marginalized identities help or harm marginalized groups when it comes to influencing audiences?
  • What do these questions look like for the rest of the characters in Tell Me Why, such as Indigenous characters, women, people with substance use disorders, and from the mental health perspective?
A still from the video game of Tyler with his back to the audience.

Hopefully this little journey through Tell Me Why and these media psychology concepts has left you with something to consider in your own approach to media. Thanks for joining me.