Anna Anthropy’s game Dys4ia speaks to “a desire for inclusion, and for games as a platform for self expression”
March 15, 2012
From the website Medium Difficulty:
Anna Anthropy has just released her latest game online, Dys4ia. There is little doubt that it is her most personal work to date, and likely to remain so. The game design agent provacateur here offers an autobiographical account of her experience with hormonal replacement treatment, beginning with her general discomfort with her body, proceeding through her grappling with the medical establishment and social mores, and finally ending with her new found sense of possibility in her life and body.
Anthropy, known for her pointed and insightful criticisms into games and game culture, as well as frequently typing in ALL CAPS, is uncharacteristically earnest in Dys4ia; while three of the four chapters are titled “_____ Bullshit,” there is surprisingly little irony throughout – just palpable frustration with the people and social structures that made transition difficult. This is, as far as I can recall, the only time I’ve seen where Anthropy has characterized herself as vulnerable without giving as good as she got.
As a game, Dys4ia most resembles the “micro games” of the Warioware series, offering brief scenarios which the player has to figure out on the fly. It strikes me that this is a conscious choice, tied to the very concept of dysphoria: a sense of general anxiety and unease that is associated with the experience of being uncomfortable with the gender one is assigned at birth. Presumably, the constantly shifting scenario is meant to suggest panic and discomfort, providing a structural metaphor for the experience.
It can’t be said to actually draw the player into this panic, however; curiously, Anthropy does not apply her typical design philosophy of sadism towards the player. There are no fail states, nothing to impede the player from making her way to the end. It’s a straight shot, from start to finish. This has raised the question in some quarters as to whether or not Dys4ia is “really” a game. Certainly, it is a great departure from the game design Anthropy has pursued to this point.
And it is here, in the context of its release, that one understands why Dys4ia was designed the way it was. For one, there is nothing other than the player’s own prejudices to prevent one from finishing. Dys4ia is not a challenge, it is an invitation. Rather than hiding her experiences behind a gate, Anthropy makes them accessible, open to anyone.
Released on Newgrounds days after the GDC Pirate Kart, Dys4ia speaks to the same ethos informing that project: a desire for inclusion, and for games as a platform for self expression. Anthropy, an outspoken advocate for the Kart as well as its implicit message that anyone can, and should, make games, puts her money where her mouth is with Dys4ia, offering an example of how to use games as an articulation of personal experiences. In other words, Dys4ia is an expression, an attempt at communication, using the palette of the “game” as its medium.
Ultimately, Dys4ia presents two parallel statements: one is the content of the game, a plea for understanding and acceptance for transgendered persons; the second is the form of the game, an expression of what games can potentially be. In order to present both these ideas, Anthropy returns to the design of a game that she called, in 2007, the “aleph” of video games: Warioware. In the eighth volume of The Gamer’s Quarter, Anthropy suggests that the concept of the “micro game,” in forcefully boiling games down to their barest essentials, reveals them as consisting of two things: “that is ultimately why we play Warioware, and why we play any games: abstract gameplay plus meaningful context creates compelling experience.”
Anthropy’s definition of what constitutes a “game,” then, is ultimately just that: abstract gameplay plus meaningful context. Dys4ia, in addressing two parallel issues, offers both. Based on those terms, it’s up to the player to decide whether or not her math checks out.