Hello friends! We hope this magic, magic air has touched your skin at some point today. We sat down last week with someone who’s just as magic as this day (if not more): Anna Anthropy. Who, you ask, could be THAT amazing? In her words:
“I’m Anna Anthropy, I make games. I’m a game designer, author, archivist — I maintain annarchive.com, which is an archive of like games, cultural materials — and I write books as well, I do a lot of stuff.”*
At the atmosqueer, we think a lot about the power of play, and how the social spaces that congeal around games make room for building up alternative worlds. Anna is really, really good at crafting these spaces. Read on for her thoughts on the tokenization/exploitation of trans women gamemakers, digital vs non-digital games, and how she first became interested in this world.
*if you want to support all the stuff she does, check out her main blog/funding site here and look through (buy (if you can)) her games here. our current favorite is bewitching, a tabletop game about ~witch fashion balls~!
(illustration by Solomon Fletcher)
Eleonora Edreva: So can you talk about your experience as a femme gamemaker? And how does your femininity impact the games you make, and the way that your work has been perceived and also like your interactions with others in the gaming community?
Anna Anthropy: Well, so a lot of my work draws on feminine play traditions that I think are largely devalued in a lot of games discourse. So my project “Sorry Not Sorry Games” is sort of all about reclaiming things like paper dolls and journaling and paper fortune tellers and all that stuff, sort of drawing on those traditions to make new pen and paper games — because of my trans-feminine identity, that sort of stuff is really important and valuable to me. I didn’t always have access to those kinds of play when I was a kid, so finding a place for them in the work that I’m doing now has been really, really important. Existing in games as a transwoman has been — well, I was about to say an interesting experience, but it’s really been kind of boring, pretty predictable. People ask me about Dys4ia (my game about my transition) a lot, people ask me to show it a lot, and I turn them down a lot. I mean, my experience of being a transwoman in games is kind of an experience of tokenization; to an extent, most of the people in games who are making money off of transwomens’ work are not the transwomen themselves. I think it’s mostly cis-people who are drawing on the work, the extremely experimental avant-garde work that transwomen have been doing in games, and finding ways and channels for monetization that a lot of the poor transwomen who created those works don’t really have access to. So yeah, it’s just all a story of exploitation, I guess.
I think that play has become something of a ‘hot topic’ in academia nowadays, and I was wondering what your experiences with that have been. Have you gotten attention from academics?
Attention from academics is mostly mixed. While there are schools like U of Chicago that fly me out and actually pay me and actually act like we’re part of an exchange, I think there are a lot of cis-academics who have taken my work, taught my work, and sort of been kind of appropriative of my work? I think there’s an idea among a lot of people who teach games in academia that by using my work in their classrooms, they’re somehow supporting me, they’re somehow supporting the idea of my work by exposing it to a larger academic audience or something. And that’s not really the case, in fact it’s more the reverse: I’m producing this work that they are then teaching, that they are then writing articles about. I’m producing work that supports their career, rather than vice-versa, which is one of the reasons that led to me finally pulling Dys4ia off of the internet and charging money for it — I figured that if all of these cis-academics are going to be really smug about the fact that they’ve taught a game about transwomen in their class, they should at least be materially supporting the existence of a transwoman. I also have a $200 exhibition fee for Dys4ia because I don’t like anyone to exhibit it. This morning someone paid $200 to exhibit it, and I think they’re the first person who’s paid the $200 fee. I’m pretty excited about it.
So has Dys4ia been your most popular game?
Ugh, it’s been my game that’s gotten the most press, which has been really tokenizing, as you can imagine. I kind of hate talking about it, but whatever. I think that it comes from this place in which Dys4ia — works by marginalized people in general — is mostly seen in terms of what it can do for privileged people. I think a lot of Dys4ia’s “success” — this is a game that didn’t make me money for something like three years, until I finally started charging for it, but that people consider a success — is built around cis-people seeing it as basically an “after-school special” about “what it’s really like to be a trans-woman.” There’s this element of grit and voyeurism and also the desire to perform allyship, the idea that playing the game is some sort of shortcut to being an ally, to understanding the transwoman experience. So I think that Dys4ia has been so widely talked about more due to its usefulness to a certain kind of people than it because of anything else of what it was actually made for. I made it for other transwomen, to sort of say what my experience of hormone-replacement therapy was for other transwomen who are considering it. And a lot of transwomen have told me that it helped with that, which is great, but I don’t think that has anything to do with its “success” — I think it’s just that a lot of people are only interested in marginalized artists to the extent that they feel like they can profit off of them, whether that’s economic profit or profit in terms of what they feel like is their character.
(game found here)
So you make games of a lot of different mediums, and I read an interview with you on your website that said that you don’t like the idea distinguishing between different formats of games, and the boundaries between them, and you’re interested in exploring those boundaries and the spaces between them. So can you talk a little about that, and I think specifically about how you view the space between a digital format game and I guess it would maybe be an “analog” or a print game?
I guess you’re talking about the interview that I did with myself, which is one of my best interviews, frankly.
Yeah I thought it was so great!
Yeah, I pretty much did it because I was frustrated with people asking me about Dys4ia all the time and nothing else. Yeah no, I think there are a lot of interesting ways in which the digital can interact with the non-digital. One of my projects was a digital game that was sort of a ‘Carmen Sandiego’ style game, which if you ever had one as a kid, [you’ll know] they come with a real abridged encyclopedia of information relevant to the game — like “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” will have information about different places in the world where you might end up having to chase Carmen Sandiego to. So I built a game that was like that, where the game itself was digital, like a text-adventure style game, but which had accompanying source material in the form of what first envisioned and eventually ended up printing and distributing as a zine, containing information about fictitious worlds that the player chases the criminal to in that game. I’ve sort of drifted away from working on digital games to a large extent, but I think there’s a lot of opportunities to think about how you frame them, how you stage the digital games and how the player actually physically interacts with them. Another game that I did was “Keep Me Occupied” for Occupy Oakland, which actually was built for and marched in a protest — we built a mobile arcade cabinet for it, that people played while pushing it physically through the streets. And it was sort of a fifty player cooperative game, sort of about the contributions that every individual makes to a movement, even if they’re not positioning themselves as the heroes, like at the forefront. So this cabinet ended up being a thing where a group of people were marching through the streets scouting ahead to see where the cops were, and just the experience of play I think extends outside of just the digital constraints of the game and encompasses a lot of the experience that happens outside of the computer, and so the design I’m interested in is sort of trying to explore and think about that space and…operate in it…? It’s just, digital games are boring. Digital games bore me. And the more of the game that can be external to that, I think the better.
I also made — and now I just feel like I’m just listing things that I’ve made — another game called chicanery a while ago, which is basically a game with four buttons, and whoever is still holding onto their button at the end is the winner. But the game explicitly does not care what you do to make other players let go of their buttons and so it’s a digital game that takes place entirely outside of the digital constraints of the game. The entire game is in how you physically interact with the people you’re playing with. Also, I can’t recommend anyone play the game, for safety reasons.
(game found here)
What got you interested in games and what has kept you interested? I know you produce a massive amount of work so what is the thing that drives you to keep producing your work?
How I got my start in games was through this shareware gamemaking tool called ZZT, which I recently wrote a book about, where I interview a lot of people who sort of came up through this community. Which was a community that it turns out was really transwomen-centric, in that a lot of the people who built a lot of the tools and a lot of the community that shaped a lot of people who are now working in the game industry’s early experiences in this community were transwomen. I kinda just got out of giving a talk on this, but for me what’s really interesting about creating using extremely limited gamemaking tools like ZZT, which was the tool I had access to as a kid, was that it was more about approximation than it was really about replicating things exactly, about systems, it was more about creating something recognizable, it was more about sort of almost collaborative storytelling with your audience, where your audience’s sympathetic imagination is important to actually understanding and reconstructing the thing that you’re trying to create. For me, that’s still what’s most interesting, most intriguing to me, about games and play is not about creating, not about packaging experiences for other people, so much as it’s the collaboration between the creator and the audience.
thx for reading! play some of anna’s games (preferably with us) and we’ll see you soon.