Is dys4ia a Game About the Transgender Experience or Is It a Work of Art?


Anna Anthropy is sick of talking about her game dys4ia. Ever since she released the interactive narrative based on her experiences as a trans woman undergoing hormone replacement therapy in March 2012, it’s been in the spotlight — as of today, there are new comments about it on Reddit, and there was a thread (now deleted) last week on 4chan. This relentless traffic and conversation is in large part due to the fact that it’s become the center of a debate about the definition of a “game.”

dys4ia is an autobiographical interactive hypertext that borrows from charmingly retro Wario-World aesthetics. Through simple mechanics and a mix of graphics and text, the player joins Anthropy on a journey that begins in frustration and ends on a note of hope — along the way dealing with transphophic “feminists” and ill-fitting clothes. When Anthropy released dys4ia on Newgrounds, a site that primarily hosts games and flash-based animations, it was met with fairly positive reactions, rather than the bigoted trolls some people might have anticipated. “Newgrounds is not exactly a bastion of understanding of LGBT issues,” notes game designer and educator Nick Fortugno.

It’s easy to assume that the attention dys4ia has attracted might have to do with the media spotlight on trans stories, from Janet Mock and her bestselling memoir to Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera flawlessly reframing the conversation on Katie Couric’s talk show. (The newest edition of the DSM-5 also appeared since Anthropy released the game; in this version, “gender identity disorder” is replaced by “gender dysphoria.” This subtle change means that trans identity in itself is no longer classified as a pathology, although the distress that can, but does not necessarily, come along with it is still diagnosable.) But the debate around dys4ia in the gaming community has not been about its trans content — for the most part. (You can find message board comments expressing the wish that people would keep “politics” out of games.) The debate has been primarily about whether dys4ia, and other simple interactive hypertext experiments like it, are “games” or not. But even though the debate isn’t about their content per se, it’s no accident that this discussion is focused on a sub-genre defined by simple mechanics and queer content.

“The phrase ‘queer games’ was thrown around a lot in late 2012 and early 2013. Like most of these kinds of groupings, it’s an artificial and kind of shaky term, but the games most often named as part of it are well-known: dys4ia, Mainichi, Howling Dogs, and so forth,” explained designer Merritt Kopas last week at a workshop she hosted at the NYU Game Center titled “Interrupting Play: Queer Games and Futurity.”

dys4ia and a lot of the games loosely grouped with it were all made on Twine, a programming language for making hypertext games that was created in 2009 by Chris Klimas and intended for writers looking to experiment with literature. Skeptics argue that these creations are too simplistic and linear to be considered “games.” Others, like Christopher Franklin, a gaming and interactive blogger, don’t see it as productive to define a game based on complicated mechanics or whether you can win or lose. “As someone who wants to see games become as vibrant and fulfilling in every facet of the human experience as they can be, I’m extraordinarily hesitant to put of those fences if I don’t need to,” he writes. Of course, his essay mentions dys4ia.

“dys4ia keeps coming up because it kicked this debate off,” explains Fortugno. “And Anna keeps coming up because she makes really good work. She is a good poster child for this conversation.”

This January, Fortugno presented dys4ia at a talk he gave at Sundance’s New Frontier Story Lab. “At the lab, I wanted to show ways that interactivity could be used to create emotional impact,” he explained. “I think it’s the most powerful translation of the experience of gender reassignment in any medium — ever. It doesn’t matter what we call it.” He is not the only fan. Last year, dys4ia was nominated for two awards — one for narrative and unconventional game development — by the Independent Games Festival.

To define a game based on how complicated it is is to determine who can and can’t be a game designer. Anthropy has long been a champion of accessibility. Her book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, is a manifesto that calls for everyone to make games, even if they aren’t very good.

Kopas is ready to move past representation. In her talk last week, she challenged her audience to work toward a new queer mechanics of game play. She started a conversation about how games can be built in a way that emphasize uncertainty, fluidity, and multi-directionality. “Many recognizable genres of digital games come with so much mechanical baggage,” she explained, “that we either need to be prepared to do a lot of unpacking or else to jettison genre and start from a more basic level of mechanics.”

To start thinking about bending your thinking, Kopas suggests a lists of games to check out: Ultimate Flirt-Off – Diego Garcia SABBAT — ohnoproblems Slave of God — increpare Pale Machine — Ben Esposito & bo-en Queers in Love at the End of the World — anna anthropy Thirty Flights of Loving — Brendon Chung Reset — Lydia Neon The Floor Is Jelly — Ian Snyder Soundself — Robin Arnott Dream Fishing — Sophie Houlden