Experiment in Empathy:Anna Anthrophy’s Dys4ia

Some games have characters we related to. Others ask us to relate to others.

The world of video game design has long been dominated by men; Anna Anthropy perhaps, knows this better than anyone. In her book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Anthropy criticizes digital games for being mostly about men shooting each other. Anthropy, a transgender freelance game designer, is a vocal advocate of accessibility for “women, people of color, queer and trans folk” in her field. She argues that the demands of the video game industry and gaming culture are to blame for disproportionately excluding these marginalized groups.

As a queer transgender woman, she noticed there were few games which resembled her own experience. And when there were representations of queer women, she notes, they were being written by white men and not the women themselves. In her autobiographical creation Dys4ia, she subverts these traditional notions of game development, design, and narrative by telling her story in her own way.

In a sea of games that cater to the average player, there was one game that I played this year that put me through a powerful, mind-changing experience. That game is Anna Anthrophy’s flash-based art/experience game Dys4ia. Anthropy had to overcome many barriers while developing Dys4ia, which is a minimalistic art game chronicling her experiences with hormone replacement therapy. Dys4ia is an unconventional and heavily narrative-driven game that guides the player through a series of simple yet symbolic tasks.

By breaking down her experience into a series of creative mini-games, Anthropy opens up her autobiography to the player; each challenge for the player reflects a challenge Anthropy herself has had to overcome. For example, players must try to fit blocks through openings which don’t always match, or avoid verbal projectiles, nevigate a woman’s restroom or bounce negative comments off a shield. All of these virtual tasks represent the social, medical, and emotional struggles that accompanied Anthropy’s transition in real life.

One can see how these trials work as metaphors for real-life anxieties about not fitting in to or being ostracized from society. Furthermore, it is sometimes impossible to complete these challenges; no matter how much the player presses the down key, those girly clothes will not fit; and after the hormone replacement therapy, it is impossible to maneuver the enlarged breasts around obstacles.These instances emphasize the struggle of the experience rather than the ability to win the game. This kind of gameplay offers the player a unique perspective into the experience of another person. As Anthropy puts it…

“It’s hard to imagine a more effective way to characterize someone than to allow a player to experience life as that person”

The game’s visual and sound design are also important aspects of the game experience which lend themselves to interpretation. Bright, neon colors and unusual shapes in the game are jarring and at times confusing. The music and sounds are a jumble of muffled voices, static, and high-pitched tones. This dissonance in the audio and visual presentation of Dys4ia can be uncomfortable, perhaps intentionally so, eliciting a feeling of unease in the player.

By the time the 15-minute experience was over, I was closer to understanding the “T” in LGBT than ever before. And not just from a factual standpoint. I understood the feeling. It’s one that many of us can relate to: being misunderstood, outcast, and consequently frustrated by everyone else’s inability to connect and relate. No matter how “normal” you are, we all have felt that at some point.

But gender dysphoria goes beyond that. It’s about feeling uncomfortable in your own skin, feeling on a deeper level that what’s inside doesn’t match what’s outside. The opening mini-game of an oddly-shaped block having to fit through a space that just can’t quite be navigated — and then forcing you to try in vain — immediately pushed me into the mindset experienced by transgendered people. It’s a deep-down feeling that “this doesn’t work” — or, perhaps, “I don’t work” or “I’m broken.”

While we can all relate to those generic feelings of being misunderstood, hardly anyone I know can speak to this specific experience. By guiding the player through short, simple mini-games that produce shock and embarrassment, the developer pushes the player far outside of their selves and their normal experiences, but in the context of familiar retro-game scenery.

Despite addressing themes of frustration and pain, Dys4ia ultimately carries a message of hope. Anthropy described the game as her attempt to “create an ‘it gets better’ for other trans women.” The game also touches upon the damaging effects of feminism without intersectionality and trans-inclusiveness, a topic she has frequently addressed in her work and writing. Dys4ia was widely acclaimed for its simplicity, poignancy, and honesty, a small but important breakthrough in the indie video game scene.

The very existence of “LGBT community” is a controversy in some cultures and to some people. I acknowledge and respect the controversy. However, I also believe in understanding the suffering of others, regardless of what you make of non-heterosexual (or, the term “queer”) individuals. Working to understand how people feel, “walking a mile in their shoes,” is something I have always believed is central to this life. Compassion doesn’t know boundaries.

And I certainly feel compassionate about these issues, much more than I did before playing Dys4ia. Having cringed alongside Anthropy at all the awkward and embarrassing moments, and having gotten frustrated and downright angry when unable to achieve what should be achievable goals, I’ve experienced a very, very small piece of someone else’s challenges. In that sense, I am rewarded. I have gained perspective.