Anna Anthropy’s game dys4ia starts with hot pink, pixilated chunks of text which strobe at the player like sirens beckoning gamers to the rocky shores of their first epileptic seizure. After you click “down,” and some strange voice says, “zzziiiip,” The player sees the text, “This is an autobiographical game about my experiences with hormone replacement therapy. My experience isn’t anyone’s else’s and is not meant to be representative of every trans person.” And then we can advance to Level 1: gender bullshit.
We try to fit an oblong block through a single wall of a maze, and we don’t fit. We attempt to block projectile feminist commentary with a pong-style paddle. We walk down a street where everyone calls us “sir.” We move a razor over our face, but inevitably cut ourselves shaving. We attempt to infiltrate a woman’s bathroom, by moving our character around other women.
Level 2 is medical bullshit, where we jump through hoops; there is a game where we literally navigate our character through large yellow hoops. But in the different mini games, we do find a clinic willing to give us hormone therapy. Level 3, then, is hormonal bullshit. Taking estrogen pills begins dealing percentage-based damage to our liver, so we get, “PRO-TIP: LET ESTRADIOL DISSOLVE UNDER YOUR TONGUE.” We must navigate a set of breasts around scratchy asterisks, with the text, “My nipples are incredibly sensitive.” The final level, Level 4, is it gets better? The games we’ve been playing change. The mechanics change, the aesthetics change. In some, there’s the sense of a real transformation. In others, the games are the same as before estrogen therapy. It feels unique, and personal, because it’s you who just played through it. dys4ia is built out with the kinds of experiences we can only get when we press “play” ourselves.
Anna Anthropy has written that dys4ia is for trans women, by a trans woman. It’s about that experience, in the medium that deals best with experiences. On her blog she writes,
dysphoria is looking in the mirror and not recognizing what stares back at you. it's the layer of static that obscures your reflection. it's the laughter you wait for when you walk down the street, the fear that keeps you from stepping out the door wearing the clothes that you want. it's the way you look to the side when you pass a stranger so they won't see your face straight-on. it's listening to a recording of your own voice and hearing crumpling aluminum. it's looking at a photo of yourself and feeling like a lie. it's the half-hour you spend shaving every morning. it's the five times you redo your make-up during the day. dysphoria is the feeling that your identity is a cardboard cut-out, that you see through your costume as easily as everyone else will.
Anthropy mentioned frustration, over her twitter, when a journalist from a well-known national newspaper started making obvious mistakes in characterizations of trans people. She wrote, on twitter, “and fuck that, no, not all games are designed for you. I made dys4ia for other trans people, not to help cis people relate to me.” She was especially concerned with the attitude, especially among white men, that these games were made specifically to help them to better understand trans women. As a sort of primer, purely for their benefit. So they could learn to treat transgender people like people. “that it HAS, according to some cis people, helped them better relate to me is cool, but it was a side-effect, not my objective.”
Without that strong internal voice, it would not have been the same game.
Hers is a voice that’s acutely aware of what games are capable of. In Anthropy’s book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, she uses Tetris, SimCity, and a talk by game dev Greg Costikyan, to say that these experiences teach us how different parts of the world relate. Tetris may not hook directly into complex social situations, but SimCity has obvious pointers on zoning, taxation, and the general economics of city planning.
Though that may not stop Tetris from becoming a revealing experience. Anthropy writes, “…the player places all the pieces herself. Every player will place the pieces differently, will play a different game, but experience a similar result. The same holds true for any system of rules, as simple as Tag or Tetris or as complicated as SimCity. Games have a lot of potential for examining the relationships between things – or, rather, for allowing the player to examine the relationships between things, because the player does not merely observe the interactions; she herself engages with the game’s systems.”
The games journalist Jenn Frank remarked on this passage, “…in a game where you are its player, every revelation can be personal, rather than having the moment explained to you in some cinematic cutscene. There are all these panels in any given story, and then there are the spaces between the stages and…!
“Anthropy’s book is about everything!”
dys4ia might evoke a certain response among privileged folks, and Anna is fine with that. It’s still not what she had in mind. It wasn’t the inspiration. She made the game for transgender people, and that’s what gives it an almost violent strand of identification, that misery and that daybreak of joy at the game’s end. That’s only my interpretation, but I moved the pieces in my own way, and came into it with my own assumptions. dys4ia wasn’t for me, and I’m fine with that. I liked the game, and I suppose Anthropy is probably fine with that.