Anna Anthropy: Games should share an idea, not rob us of time and money

A guest post by Josh Spiro

All professions are conspiracies against the laity,” according to the playwright George Bernard Shaw. But it would be interesting to see Shaw have a chance to re-evaluate his stance in light of the numerous digital technologies that put professional-grade tools for making movies, music, and visual art at the fingertips of the masses.

In her new book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form, game designer Anna Anthropy both chronicles and advocates for taking this populist approach in video games as well. In her view, there are tools new and old⎯like Scratch, Klik & Play, and in the near future Ian Bogost’s Game-o-matic – that are making it easy for those without a game design background to step to the podium and make their voices heard.

In our interview below, Anthropy talks about her book, her new game Dys4ia, which deals with her experiences with hormone replacement therapy; the most annoying question she’s being asked about her games, and how she hopes to make the “straight male nerd world of mainstream videogames” sit up and pay attention.

As more and more people take up the call to create their own games, how will the video game space change as a result?

It’ll look a little more like you and me, that’s my hope. Maybe I won’t feel like as much of an outsider as a queer trans woman in this space. I suppose that queers will always be marginalized, but maybe we can actually carve out a space in games where we can feel safe and powerful. “Gamers” will be forced to make room for people outside themselves. Games will have some sort of meaning to people who aren’t young straight dudes.

Your most recent game, dys4ia, is about your experiences with hormone replacement therapy. Is this one of the more personal games you’ve created and how did that change the way you felt about people’s interactions with it?

All of my games are personal; they all reflect me. This game is closer to a diary than anything else I’ve made, and I think that’s why I’ve received such a strong reaction. I interviewed with NPR last week and the host was really interested in knowing why I chose to tell this story as a videogame over any other form. The answer is that you get a tremendous level of empathy out of actually forcing the player to participate in the frustration that I had to deal with, in forcing her to act out an unwinnable scenario. It was absolutely the right stage for such a personal story.

What do you hope people will take away from playing the game?

A lot of trans or gender dysphoric people have contacted me and said that it made them feel less scared about going on hormones, or gave them some kind of comfort in shouldering through their own situations, or just let them laugh at a painful part of their histories. That’s one of the things I wanted the game to achieve. I also wanted it to serve as a kind of ambassador to the straight male nerd world of mainstream videogames, to force them to meet and maybe get to know the Other that they’re so hostile towards. That’s part of why the game’s on Newgrounds.

You once said in an interview that, “video games are not worthwhile unless we’re doing something worthwhile with them.” What are some of the worthwhile things you feel can be done with them?

Telling us something, anything. Making me feel a connection. Not wasting people’s time, like an eighty-hour blockbuster game that’s all filler. I want people to realize that a game can be a way to share an idea, not to rob them of time and money. To help us understand each other a little better instead of pushing us apart.

How do you feel about the games for change or social impact games label?

I don’t think labels are helpful. Instead of cordoning off an “art games” section in the room, we should be expanding the definition of games to include things that are artful, or meaningful, or come from a social conscience or nudge our political values. We should be redefining games so that those kinds of games are no longer outliers, but are just how games are.

Do you think there’s a time in the near future when video games will be as easily and commonly produced as short videos? Could we end up with a YouTube for games in which 48 hours worth of playable games were being uploaded every minute? What would that world look like?

We’d have to find new ways of sorting games, new filters. Imagine, though, being able to look at your best friend’s profile, or your classmate’s or even your mother’s, and being able to click and play the games that have been important to her. We’d all be curators. We’d all be, to some extent, creators. Play a game your friend just made today about her cat getting out of the house, and having to go find her and coax her back. It took ten minutes to make.

You’re a pretty prolific game designer. What are the benefits and tradeoffs of rapid iteration and how do you know when it’s time to let a game out into the world?

“Rapid iteration” is not a phrase that means anything to me. I spend exactly as much time on any game as suits the idea, exactly as much as it takes to communicate the idea. Sometimes that’s a few months; more often, I’m finding, it’s a few days or a few hours. The games I find myself wanting to make are the ones whose ideas are so pure and intense that I can put them together quickly and feel that they’re complete.

Do you feel like making more games and making them faster increases focus on any particular game elements such as mechanics, narrative, etc.?

All of my games tell stories. Many games stories’ are about a particular rule of the game: this game is about pushing blocks. This game is about shooting aliens. In my games the rules emerge from the story, to serve that story and to tell it as succinctly as possible. I just don’t have time for a whole game about pushing blocks. I only have enough blocks as necessary to lead the player to the place I want her.

What’s the most annoying question you get asked about your work in the game space?

Right now, it’s “Is this really a game? Isn’t it just an interactive movie?” Conventional gamers are threatened by the lack of challenge in a game, like dys4ia, in which scenes progress regardless of whether or not the player fails, as though the game has failed to validate their masculinity in some essential way. All my game has failed to do is waste the player’s time. Games are defined by the player’s interaction with rules, not by her struggle with challenge – in fact, I feel challenge often gets in the way of the experience a game is trying to create, rather than aiding it.

Learn more about Anna Anthropy’s games on her website.
You can play Dys4ia on our game arcade.


Anna Anthropy Discusses How Everyone Can Make Games | Will Play Games for Change

[…] experiences with hormone replacement therapy and you can read an interview I did with her that focuses more on that game on the Games for Change […]

Time Change Make Your Own

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Sean Critz

"As though the game has failed to validate their masculinity in some way"

I have been playing games with my trans cousin since we were children, when he identified as a she and not a trans. All throughout this time we have enjoyed games with narratives but preferred games with challenge and deep, meaningful gameplay. Are you trying to say that my cousin has problems with masculinity validation?

If you want your games to be taken seriously by "Conventional Gamers" then you cannot make broad sweeping generalizations like that.


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