Game On: Interview with Anna Anthropy
Anna Anthropy is a video game designer and the author of a new book, Rise of the Video Game Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form. PrettyQueer contributor, Bryn Kelly had a conversation with her recently about wrestling, cowgirl dykes, and taking over the world of gaming. She spoke with Bryn from her apartment in Oakland, California, which she shares with a couple of sleepy roommates, a kitten named Encyclopedia Frown, and a colony of hissing cockroaches.
PQ: So, what’s a video game zine?
AA: It’s a small, personal video game that is self-distributed. The self-distribution is the important part. The internet means we don’t have to care about the publishers, who have been acting as gatekeepers to the gaming industry for years, controlling who can make games, and keeping games held hostage. Now, anyone can make a game and anyone can distribute a game, like anyone can photocopy a zine and stick it in the mailbox.
PQ: But aren’t games hard to make, even if just from a technical standpoint?
AA: I had next to no programming experience when I made some of my earlier games. There are lots of tools for people who don’t know anything about how to write code. Grab a copy of Twine or Stencyl or Scratch or Game Maker and make stuff! Make a game about your dog or someone you think is cute. Anywhere is a good starting place, so long as you’re getting your hands dirty.
PQ: So video games don’t have to be about shooting zombies and squashing mushrooms? They can be personal, about our individual experiences?
AA: Yes! I made a game recently about going on hormone replacement therapy: about having to find a clinic, lower my blood pressure, deal with crazy hormone mood swings and start using the women’s bathroom.
It was probably my best-received game by the games press, even.
PQ: I was just about to ask you about that! dys4ia, right? Why a game about hormone replacement therapy?
AA: Games are really good at exploring dynamics, because the player or players are actually interacting with all these sets of rules. In the case of dys4ia, players experience frustration because the game gives them all these goals that, because of the way the rules are rigged, are really hard to achieve.
Because the player herself is acting out this role, there’s this level of empathy that might not be as strong in another form, like film or writing. Some anonymous player told me, “If this was a YouTube video I probably wouldn’t have watched to the end, and if this was a blog post i wouldn’t have read it. But because it was a game, I played it through.”
The other important reason to make a game about hormone replacement therapy (instead of a film or a novel) is that no one has done it before. I could watch grishno‘s videos about her transition or read a million Tumblr posts, but I couldn’t play a game about HRT before I made one. And that’s valuable, because every new experience we put into games expands our definition of what games can be and what they can talk about.
PQ: My favorite part of the game is when people say mean things to you, and the mean things are like little darts being thrown at your heart. You have this emotional shield that can sort of block them, which gets stronger as the game goes on.
AA: It’s a really video game-y metaphor. I tried to use familiar video game metaphors whenever I could.
A natural advantage of a Warioware-type format, is the structure of the game, which changes every few seconds. The player never has a single avatar or body, but a million different ones, which is what it felt like when I was starting hormones. One thing I wanted to make clear in dys4ia is that my transition isn’t done by the end of it. The game just describes a single step in a long journey.
PQ: Yeah. I liked how, in the end, the shape that represents your body was like, electric and constantly changing. I saw you just made a new game that continues with that thought, a wrestling game called Body Issues.
AA: My ex-roommate is a queer activist and she stages wrestling matches because they make her feel empowered about her body. I made Body Issues as a simple game for a show in Los Angeles because I liked the idea of these irregular forms trying to take advantage of their shapes to outmaneuver the other shape.
That metaphor from dys4ia was one of my favorites. It was the first screen I ever came up with, in fact. It’s about the way we’re alienated from our bodies so often, but you have to own your body, whatever it looks like.
PQ: On this idea of design-based metaphors, I wanted ask you about your game Mighty Jill-Off. I’ve heard you say before that the design of that game — and game design in general — is a metaphor for BDSM relationships.
AA: So, in really demanding games, there’s this strong dynamic going on between the game and the player: the player is trying to meet the game’s expectations, but if the game violates her trust by putting her in a situation that’s beyond her limits, that it hasn’t prepared her for, she’ll call her safeword and hit the ESC key. As both a domme and a designer, I saw this as incredibly reminiscent of a dominant/submissive dynamic.
Mighty Jill Off is about putting that metaphor in the foreground, because in a lot of super hard Nintendo games it’s in the background. Mighty Jill Off makes it overt by putting the hard-game-challenge-learning in the context of an explicit dominant-submissive relationship between two women, which was inspired by the one I share with my consensual slave slut.
PQ: Speaking of inspiration, what inspired Calamity Annie, the game where you are a dyke cowgirl trying to get your lady-friend to stop drinking?
AA: God, a lot of things. I started it right after I got kicked out of video game school for caring too much about ART and CREATIVITY. The school was in Texas, and there I was, marooned in the Old West, trying to get back to California, to the woman I loved. Calamity Annie is a story about how passion leads to passion, if not success, although I am super grateful for the success I ultimately had.
PQ: Was the game successful?
AA: It depends on how you quantify success. That game didn’t make a lot of money and it didn’t get very much press, but it reached people, and I think that’s my personal gauge of success.