After observing an argument on Twitter about Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia, I wanted to put some ideas down. Some game critics and theorists, most famously Raph Koster, find that Dys4ia does not offer what they expect from a game. Their response to this is to say that it, or parts of it, are not a game.
I like Anna Anthropy’s work, but I also try to be clear-eyed about the fact that a lot of Dys4ia could be built in PowerPoint and isn’t a game. That’s not a value judgement. My value judgement of the piece as a work of expressive art is pretty high.
Like Raph, I also really value and respect Dys4ia. I value it for the conversations it provokes, and for its landmark place in the landscape of trans-themed game development.
I personally don’t like it as a game experience. When I played Dys4ia many months ago, it did not give me what I wanted. I wanted to see a transgender story expressed in a form that I enjoy engaging with. I wanted familiar mechanics with an uncommon setting and story. Its hosting on Newgrounds, the number digit in the title, and the networks through which I became aware of the game all set me up with that expectation.
What I got was another form entirely. What I got was something that has very little in common with conventionally reproduced game mechanics and formats. For me, this was a disappointment. That was my basic, selfish, emotional reaction. I don’t consider that disappointment to even resemble a considered critical response. Dys4ia was not what I wanted it to be, but the job of game developers is not to feed me stuff I want all the time.
I learned later on that the game isn’t at its best when played by me. I heard that it is being used in educational contexts as a way of communicating about transitioning experientially. It is not necessarily for gamers. With an audience of non-gamers, those conventions and expectations are irrelevant and would be counterproductive. It is enormously positive that the player does not have to learn how to play like a gamer before engaging with the work. It is immediately and completely accessible. That is important for its educational value and it is a big part of the reason I value and respect the game so much.
Wherever we are on the spectrum, a big part of our negotiation with society about how it perceives our gender ends up being about boxes, boundaries and typologies. If your identity is non-conforming, then quite often it involves people suddenly and with startling frankness telling you where they believe you belong. That’s what it means to be a minority – people naturally slip into a power position that allows them to tell you what you are.
Dys4ia gets treated in the same way, with regard to its status as a game. Similarly, I think it’s possible that people only get to tell Anna Anthropy what her work is because they take on a powerful position against her. But in the same way that my gender identity is not about someone else’s perception of where I fit in, Dys4ia‘s status as a game or not is not about my experience playing it.
Tadhg Kelly shared in the twitter conversation his response to the charge that to judge something as not a game is to judge it negatively. In it, he suggests that instead, by clearly defining what a game is, developers might better understand what games can be. The implication is that it’s not derision that’s at work here: it’s science. On twitter, he said this is ‘not a patriarchal white man thing’
I don’t agree. I think that the exercise of defining something as ‘not a game’ comes from a position of power.
The problem with deciding from your own perspective that, universally, Dys4ia is not a game, is that it denies the validity of less vocal positions on that definition. I’m not even necessarily talking about any kind of oppressed identity, just any other cultural contexts that don’t turn up in the games industry discourse. Like games as TV show formats. Imagine taking similar pacing and mechanics to Dys4ia and using them on a game show. In fact, that’s pretty much what a lot of game shows are; a series of short interactive exercises. Compare Dys4ia to The Cube.
The game show example isn’t just frivolous. For the player who encounters Dys4ia as an educational tool, game shows could be a more relevant part of the semantic domain than RPGs and FPSes. For that intended user, it very likely is a game and fits all of their expectations of what a game should be.
By deciding that your frame of reference is the relevant one for defining Dys4ia, you’re taking an authoritarian position. This isn’t Tadhg Kelly’s intention; for him, it’s not about power but about a collaborative creative project in the games industry as a whole. But the activity of defining is part of what humanities people might call ‘a discursive power play that is often dominated by hegemonic positions.’
Words aren’t ever successfully defined by authoritarian voices. What actually happens on the ground is that people just use those words following how they are used by the culture around them. People use the words in connection with other words, and each connection contributes to the broader semantic field of those words.
You can’t change that reality by arbitrarily declaring a definition, but the power of your voice determines the influence of the connections you draw. Voices with less power will struggle to have the same impact on the semantic field, even if they are themselves the subjects of those words.
That’s not to say that there is no level on which you can come to an understanding of a word’s meaning without taking a position of power. Take as just one example a technique I learned at uni for trying to avoid letting my privilege dominate my analysis. Ethnologists have ways of analysing the use of words to understand their meaning in a foreign cultural context, such as domain analysis. Years ago, I made a comic application of domain analysis to Lady Gaga’s first album.
If I wanted to know what ‘game’ means, I would use a technique like domain analysis to understand its meaning in a target context. For example, if Lady Gaga’s first album was a text from the culture in question, this is what I would learn about ‘game’:
GAME, particularly a LOVE GAME, is something that both Lady Gaga and Cupid want to play. ‘You’ are ‘in the GAME.’ The GAME is an initial stage in the story of ‘us,’ along with a boy, a girl and a ‘huh.’
HUH is also something that you can put your hand on, and this co-occurs with smiling.
Which in no way resembles Raph Koster, Tadhg Kelly or Anna Anthropy’s understanding of the word. Nor does it resemble *my* understanding of the word, even though it’s a description that I wrote. That’s the important point – I don’t get to decide what a word means.
I wonder what we would learn about games if we studied them this way, but with less frivolous source material?