Anna Anthropy turns a personal struggle into a heartfelt game
Anna Anthropy is a prolific game creator, long a member of the design underground online. Her games often act as personal statements about identity and otherness, rally flags for outsider culture in an industry and an art form that tends to favor its traditions.
She's also a devoted writer; for years she has written and blogged online (her earlier writings appear under the names "Dessgeega" and "Auntie Pixelante", for example). Her vocal and opinionated writings often advocate that the game community must acknowledge a wider variety of voices and individual experiences -- and when she was approached by Seven Stories Press to write a book, Anthropy reasoned it might be a valuable effort toward that goal.
The result is Rise of the Videogame Zinesters
, released a little over a week ago. It's partly an essay on Anthropy's view of the games industry and how it developed what she sees as a prohibitive homogeny among creators and players, and partly a manifesto for the idea that anyone and everyone should try making video games as a way to communicate their experiences to the rest of the world, the way independent artists and writers popularized zine-style, homespun publications.
On tour in support of Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Anthropy has been lecturing and giving readings in New York City. At one Gamasutra-attended reading, she told a small but diverse audience who came to hear her in a SoHo bookstore that her games have been in part a way to show the game community that she exists.
Many of her best-known titles, like Calamity Annie
and Mighty Jill Off
, intentionally address themes and issues personal to Anthropy that aren't commonly expressed within video games, like sexuality, gender and the kink community. As a trans woman, Anthropy has encountered ignorance and even hostility throughout her life in video games, which are often perceived to suffer from a predominance of male power fantasies.
Through her games Anthropy has hoped to confront and challenge exclusivity and prejudices, even if it creates confusion or discomfort with people who haven't been confronted with identity issues. For example, her Mighty Jill Off
casts the player as a sexual submissive climbing a ruthless tower to reach her beloved queen.
The persistence and speed required to successfully complete the game have an analogue to the mutual contract inherent in BDSM relationships; one thing Anthropy has said she likes about games is that players feel "topped" by a game challenge, and that "submitting" to play requires trust on the part of players that the game will educate them, create clear expectations without misleading, and be satisfying.
Alongside the release of her book, though, Anthropy has also released a new game, Dys4ia
. It's a series of thick-pixeled minigames in four acts of sorts that aim to communicate the often challenging, emotional process Anthropy has endured since making the decision to begin hormone therapy.
Rather than focus on challenge per se or on complexity, Dys4ia
's different activities, arranged throughout Anthropy's personal narrative, are illustrative, employing familiar and even simplistic design forms that are intuitive to any player but not necessarily immediately solvable -- intuitive but not immediately solvable, perhaps an analogue for Anthropy's own search for comfort in her body.
It feels like something of a tonal departure from the work for which she's most commonly known; the sadist queen of game design confiding in players on Newgrounds about the deep vulnerability she has experienced at times during the hormone therapy process, which has physical and emotional side effects.
Having followed Anthropy's work and writing for some years -- full disclosure, I consider her a friend and contributed a jacket quote for Rise of the Videogame Zinesters -- I asked her about Dys4ia
following her New York reading, and why it feels somewhat different in both tone and approach to things she's done in the past. I told her it seems like a step back from what even Anthropy herself identifies as "[her] veneer of tough chick."
"I wanted to make something that could communicate with other women and other trans people who were going through a similar experience," she tells me. Although it has hardly been an easy road, and some of the challenges may continue indefinitely, Anthropy says that the hormone therapy process becomes easier with time and signs of hope begin to emerge, something she hoped to share with others who might be in a challenging stage of their own process.
Surprisingly, though, there's been a wider audience for Dys4ia
's simple but poignant experience than Anthropy expected. "I put it on Newgrounds because I thought, 'here is something people will never encounter otherwise, and will never be aware of,'" she says. "There were so many people [who said], 'maybe I didn't get it entirely, but now this makes sense to me; your story really resonated with me.'"
One challenge in Anthropy's process, as she depicts in the game, involved a physician who declined to support her continuing the hormone therapy until she addressed her high blood pressure; many players of the game even left comments or sent messages in concern about that issue.
"That was super special," Anthropy said of receiving concern from so many strangers about her health. "It meant that the game connected with them on a deeper level than what I expected."
There was the anticipated misinterpretation and hostility that one might expect toward someone whose identity falls outside historically-enforced prejudices, but Anthropy is inspired by how many responses indicated that even those who couldn't relate to her experience respected her honesty about something so personal.
"It was a game about my experience being frustrated and feeling vulnerable, and not being able to have a conversation with my girlfriend without bursting into tears afterwards," Anthropy says. "And people keep telling me that they cried playing the game, they played the game more than once and cried every time. Absolutely that was the experience that I wanted to create."
is in some ways stylistically different from Anthropy's previous work; for example, "I tried to paint with a much broader range of color, because identity comes in a broad range," she says.
But like much of the work Anthropy herself admires and enjoys, Dys4ia
draws on the "established vocabulary" of games: "A lot of scenes look like games that people have played before... the mechanics or the rules are all really familiar ones," she explains.
"The game is about the experience of having a really clear goal, and having to struggle to meet it, or not really being able to meet it... it's done by framing these different scenes as variations on things people have already seen," she adds.
Anthropy has made the decision to share something deeply personal and painful about herself in the hopes of inspiring others -- and as a way of living her own philosophy that such profound self-expression is part of games' calling and purpose. She does this even at the expense of her own privacy, and at the risk of inviting ignorance and even hostility.
But even that's something to which she's acclimated: "My hope had been that after going through all this shit [with the hormones], I would eventually reach a place where I was more confident, and comfortable with myself and my body, and I'm getting there," Anthropy says. "I kind of no longer believe in privacy."
"I don't even view it as a sacrifice anymore," she says, crediting her longtime girlfriend Daphny (vivid character; frenetic Twitterer) with transforming her ideas about privacy. "I feel a lot more liberated now putting everything out there than I would trying to maintain some idea of privacy," Anthropy says.
"I think it's better if I live a transparent life. People in the same situation as I am might see me and be like, 'oh, it does get better. It is
okay.' I want to put it all out there... so that people can see there's a light ahead," she adds.
"I'm as connected to my work as I have ever been; my work comes from me as much as it ever has. I cry a little more now. It's pretty good most of the time."