I've never been a gamer myself, but when I heard about Anna Anthropy's dys4ia, I decided to give it a shot. In the 15 or so minutes it took me to "play" the arcade-style documentation of Anthropy's transition, from deciding to begin hormone treatment to dealing with gatekeepers to breaking the news to her family, I found myself tremendously touched. Forcing the player to experience what so many (cis) people find difficult to grasp about being transgender -- our dysphoria -- disrupts the player's cultural, I-don't-get-it "dysphoria," as well.
I spoke with Anthropy this week over e-mail.
Dys4ia, to me, felt like interactive art. I had a different reaction to the experience than reading about it or seeing a film or even having a conversation. Why did you want to explore this topic through a game platform?
Games have a capacity for empathy that other art forms don't because the audience is actually performing the art. Hormone replacement therapy was, for me, an experience of constant frustration. I can't think of a form better suited to conveying frustration than the videogame. And people told me they got it -- I remember one of the first comments I read was, "If this was a blog post I wouldn't have read it; if this was a video I wouldn't have watched the whole thing, but because this was a game I played it until the end."
As a trans man, I found the experience of playing dys4ia really profound and relatable, though I imagine anyone who's experienced frustration en route to self-actualization could find themselves in it. Did you design the game with a particular audience in mind?
I made the game with other trans people in mind, an attempt at a kind of "it gets better" message -- or rather, "it gets worse, and then it gets even worse, and then it gets better." I didn't think most people who are into videogames would care about it at all. It was to my total surprise when lots of cisgender players told me that the game affected them, made them cry, helped them relate or understand one of their trans friends better. I've never been more pleased to be wrong.
What has the response been like?
Dys4ia has gotten the most press of anything I've made, by far. People have exhibited it all over the place. I learned just today that someone's planning on giving a presentation on dys4ia (and "lim," a game about passing and violence by my friend Merritt Kopas) at an academic conference. I released the game, by accident, almost concurrently with my first book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, about how videogames can tell personal stories from marginalized perspectives. A lot of people held dys4ia up as a proof-of-concept of the principles of that book.
I'm not a gamer myself, but would love to see more work like yours. Could you recommend some recent games for those of us not steeped in gaming?
Here are some recent games by trans folk I think are important:
Mainichi by Mattie Brice
Kim's Story by Kim Moss
The end of dys4ia acknowledges that it's just the beginning for you. What's next?
I'd love to make a game about collecting lasers with my face but in truth I don't have the budget for that. In fact, my submissive and partner broke her arm in October and we've been trying just to keep our heads above the deluge of medical bills. But I've still got things in the works: My queer pulp "choose your own adventure" book, Star Wench, is due is March, and I'm writing a textbook on game design. So don't worry, you haven't seen the last of me.
Do yourself a favor and play the game -- it's free, fast, and beautiful.