In the relatively homogeneous world of video game designers, Anna Anthropy stands out as a proud, outspoken, S&M-loving lesbian trans woman. She left the videogame program at Southern Methodist University without completing a degree out of frustration with the school’s curriculum and culture, and then turned to making her own small, personal, idiosyncratic games and distributing them over the web, acquiring a cult following along the way. Her games include Lesbian Spider Queens of Mars and Mighty Jill Off, which both integrate lesbian bondage imagery into the visuals and the game design. One of her most recent games, Dys4ia, Is about her own experience as a trans woman. This year she wrote a book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, in which she encourages budding designers to make their own games by themselves with simple tools that don’t require a lot of coding knowledge, while simultaneously railing against a corporate videogame industry culture that values conformity and marginalizes outsider voices. Her work will be featured in SUPER TETRICIDE, an art show that opens at Home Room on June 23rd. This interview conducted via email by Charles Mallison
What games are you playing right now—new, old, digital, board, corporate, indie, or otherwise? Tell me about them.
For my girl’s birthday we played 1856, a six-hour game about building Canadian railroads and exploiting the stock market. I like playing a game about being a robber baron, a game that encourages you to fuck people over—we had cigars to help us get in character—but the rules to those games have so many exceptions and special cases that it’s hard for me to come up with a good strategy. Next time we’re playing a train game set on the Isle of Wight.
Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is largely addressed to people to outside of the mainstream of the commercial videogame world. Have you had a lot of response about your book from inside the industry? From academia?
People in the industry, who are so entrenched in the way things are done in the industry that they can’t conceive of everything different, seem like they’re struggling with it. When I described the book to Kyle Orland while I was writing it—Kyle Orland used to run a site called The Videogame Ombudsman, where he took games journalists to task for their shoddy practices; now he’s writing books like Farmville for Dummies—he asked, ‘Won’t all the programs be outdated by the time the book comes out?’ Not understanding that a book about games doesn’t have to be about technology. But my book also sold out twice at the Game Developer’s Conference in March, which I take as a sign that there are people in the industry who really want change.
Do you have anything to say to people who are entrenched in the industry? What would you want to say to a career designer of Triple-A console titles or someone who is on that career path?
Shed your chains, burn your design documents, eat your marketers. Reject crunch time, reject rape jokes, rejoin humanity. If you signed a non-competition agreement, invent a pseudonym. Make your own games. Be free.
Towards the end of your book, you write, ‘Fuck Steam and the App Store.’ One of the dominant narratives about video games over the past few years is that methods of digital distribution like Steam and the App Store have allowed small developers making games with experimental content to distribute their content to an eager audience, and for a profit too. Do you feel that this doesn’t tell the whole story about this model of digital distribution?
Steam and the App Store have opened up a lot of new possibilities for game authors—I know a lady who made a year’s worth of income off of Steam sales of her game. But the App Store and Steam are both owned and operated entirely by corporations who answer only to themselves. When a couple years ago Apple decided to delete 5,000 Apps overnight for being ‘too sexual,’ there was no one the developers could go to. What authors really need is an infrastructure for distributing and selling games that is owned by authors and answerable to authors.
Many of your games embrace an 8-bit era sensibility when it comes to visual and sound design, as well as deployment of game mechanics. What draws you towards this aesthetic over and over again?
This is the vocabulary that videogames have. When in Dys4ia I want to give the player a sense of my alienation from my own body, I don’t play a movie or show a screenful of text, I give the player a weird-shaped block and a hole it can’t fit in. People have seen games like Tetris about fitting pieces inside other pieces, players can try and fit the pieces and discover for themselves that it’s hopeless. I’m studying other games to learn how to make games and other people are studying movies to learn how to make games. I think my solution makes more sense.
Dys4ia is about your own experience with hormone replacement therapy. What motivated you to turn that experience into a video game? What kind of responses have you received from the games community? What kind of responses have you received from the queer and trans communities?
I needed to vent somewhere! And if I’ve been saying nothing for the past few years it’s that the videogame form is that it’s fantastically suited to autobiography. It’s gotten a surprisingly positive response from the games community—who largely insist that it’s not actually a videogame. And a lot of queer and trans folks were really excited about it—and, I hope, more excited about videogames in general. A sex educator in Chicago told me she uses the game as an educational tool.
Is it hard to be openly queer in videogames world? Is it hard to be openly trans in the videogames world? What are the challenges? Are there any rewards?
It’s not easy to be anything other than straight, male and cis-gendered in a rape culture. Gamer dudes think they have the right to police my identity—Anthony Flack, the author of a rejected Xbox Live game called Cletus Clay, accused me of lying for not being out as trans a couple years ago when I was making all those games about my lesbian identity. So have a lot of dudes who probably fantasized about me before they realized I wasn’t a ‘real’ woman. But being out as trans has a lot of rewards beyond not having to be a sex object for sheltered nerds: a lot of trans and queer people tell me that my work connects with them, that it makes them a little bit more safe, less unwelcome, in a culture of Anthony Flacks.
You quote Bob Flanagan at length in your book discussing ‘derivative’ art. Is Flanagan an inspirational figure for you?
Yes! He was a kinky artist whose identity and kink informed every aspect of his work. And I like to believe that everything I create comes from my identity as a queer, kinky, transgender woman. I want everything I make to point back at me—I want videogames to tell us about their authors, as much as Bob Flanagan’s pooping, jizzing, barfing scale model of himself does. You can’t really blame me if I pay attention to brilliant submissive people—I collared one.
I just finished reading Easton and Hardy’s The Bottoming Book, in which they stress throughout that a successful BDSM scene is an essentially collaborative effort between the dominant and submissive participants. Can video game makers learn anything about game design from BDSM practices? Can kinksters learn anything about a well-played scene from game design?
I make videogames and I top girls—I find that these things have a lot of common territory. Making a difficult game like Mighty Jill Off, for example, requires challenging the player in a way that keeps her trying to prove her ability to meet my expectations, but without violating her trust and causing her to quit the game in frustration. That means respecting her limits, and keeping track of what I’ve trained and prepared her to deal with. It goes the other way, too. The second world of Sonic the Hedgehog has a scene where the player is chased by a moving wall of lava, and has to climb and dodge obstacles to stay ahead of it. But the lava actually moves really slowly—most players will never notice, because the threat is enough. One night, wrestling with one of my girls—at the time—she ended up suspended in the air over the side of the bed, begging me not to drop her. She would have fallen like a foot, and the floor was cushioned with dirty clothes. But the threat of being dropped was enough to get her scared and hot. She ended up dangled over the side of the bed a few times that night.
Do you have any other side-scroller-inspired tips for the budding top?
You know how in some side-scrolling games it can feel really satisfying just to move around on a platform? Maybe hop around a little? Well, in my experience I’ve found that girls make really good platforms. I recommend holding onto something to help keep your balance, and also to control the amount of weight you’re putting on her. If you have to talk to her, little crawly words like ‘bug’ are particularly objectifying here—basically anything squishable.
Do you want to follow up Dys4ia with another game about your life? Another game about queer lives?
Well, what the hell else am I going to make them about? All of my games, regardless of level of abstraction, are informed by my life and identity. The other day I made a game about having to put on my make-up in the dark—there was a black-out on Friday while I was putting on my foundation. It was a really sticky situation until I remembered the other room has windows and a mirror.
What do you want to be doing in five years? What would you like the world of video games to look like in five years?
I’ll be making games for the rest of my life. It’s my sincere hope, though, that I won’t need to—that someday videogames won’t need someone like me, an angry queer ambassador shouting from the margins—because I want a world of videogames in which anyone can make and speak and be heard without being silenced. It’s hard to imagine that happening five years from now, or ten, or twenty, when a woman like Anita Sarkeesian can get hundreds of YouTube comments threatening her with rape for daring to criticize the way women are presented in videogames, or when a gaming website as popular as Penny Arcade can sell shirts making fun of rape survivors. But someday, someday, someday—if I have to work toward it til my dying breath.
ANNA ANTHROPY’S WORK IS PART OF SUPER TETRICIDE WITH LIVE PERFORMANCES BY KID INFINITY, EVILWEZIL AND MEGA CRUSH OPENS SAT., JUNE 23, AT HOMEROOM, 3121 BEVERLY BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 7 PM / FREE BEFORE 9 PM / $5 AFTER / ALL AGES. HOMEROOM101.ORG. VISIT ANNA ANTHROPY AT AUNTIEPIXELANTE.COM.