My students playing games at Emory’s Center for Interactive Teaching.
I had tried to teach my students in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies 100 about transphobia before. When I unwittingly assigned them a classic feminist essay that contained some transphobic language (including an uncritical quotation of Janice Raymond, the use of “him/her” rather than “her” to refer to a transgender woman, and an argument that transgender people fail to subvert gender boundaries), I was furious.
Using my conventionally feminine high-heeled boots (sorry transphobic feminists!) for emphasis, I stamped around the front of the classroom and loudly complained that the author’s arguments were not only conceptually unsound but also completely insensitive to the experiences of violence and marginalization that transgender people face everyday.
But, in the middle of this display of rage, I was worried that my remarks would be reduced to just that: a display, a spectacle that my students could observe but not one that would require their active engagement. As I fumed, my students could just sit back and think to themselves, “Look at her go!” Once it was over, I worried that I had taught them nothing except that transphobic people made me mad.
So, when we came to our dedicated unit on transgender, I made a last-minute change in the syllabus and took my students to Emory’s Center for Interactive Teaching (ECIT) so that they could play Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia, Merritt Kopas’ Lim and Mattie Brice’s Mainichi—three accessible games that allow players to experience various facets of transgender experience, or at least a specific subset of transgender experience.
In sharing my students’ responses with you, I hope to contribute to an ongoing affirmation of the utility of games as educational tools (see, for example, this article by Merritt Kopas). My students had meaningful experiences with these games; the lessons they learned from playing dys4ia, Lim and Mainichi went beyond what I could teach them in a lecture format alone. The interactivity of the video game medium, I would argue, played a significant role in adding this depth to our lesson on transphobia. As my student Caitlin put it, “[the games] gave me a unique perspective that I don’t think I could have achieved any other way.” The interactive format of the class also required me to shift the way I thought about my role as an educator when teaching with games.
I’ll share my students’ reactions to dys4ia, Lim and Mainichi in turn, highlighting both common themes and exceptional insights. If you haven’t played these three games, I recommend that you do so before reading the rest of this post.
My students learned the most about the specific difficulties of a male-to-female gender transition from their experience with dys4ia. Both Rhea and David described it as “informative” while others, like Matt and Laura, described it as an “illustration” of a personal struggle. Beyond simply absorbing this new information, however, my students were also stunned by the complexity of a transition. Jonathan wrote that it was a “long and complicated” process. Mina discovered that “transition” was indeed a suitable label for it because it was not “a sudden, instant happening.” Carl and Caitlin found the game to be “eye opening” in this respect and Bryan found it to be “unbelievable.” Caitlin reported that she identified with Anna as she went through the difficult process of transitioning: “I felt that I was really in the woman’s shoes while playing through the game.”
My students, generally speaking, did not feel like dys4ia was as “interactive” as the other two games but that sense was offset by a heightened attention to the game’s aesthetic choices. Laura noted how “colorful” dys4ia was while Rebekah and Liz enjoyed the “pixelated, colorful stages” and the “retro style graphics.” Ivan, in particular, produced an astonishing reading of the visual choices Anna Anthropy makes in the representation of bodies:
“ … the human body manifests in abstract, disjointed ways, a visualization that captures the psychic and physical segmentation transgender bodies often undergo. Indeed, transgender people are forced to contemplate individual body parts in isolation and sometimes to reject or alter these parts in pursuit of a sense of ‘wholeness.’”
Wow. And I thought I was the teacher.
Ivan reaches the end of dys4ia.
Students also took note of Liz Ryerson’s soundtrack for dys4ia and its symmetry with the subject matter. Rebekah felt that the music created a sense of “lingering confusion and tension.” And Ivan wrote this dazzling interpretation of the crowd noise in the game’s soundtrack:
“The murmuring voices that follow you through the game never crystallize into clear, distinct messages. The content of the conversations that surround you seem inaccessible and perhaps hostile, and the corresponding sense of unease is palpable.”
If the word “dysphoria” describes a sense of unease, discomfort and confusion—and if that sensation is often experienced as an unresolved and sometimes threatening tension—then Ryerson’s soundtrack, with its distinct mixture of quizzical notes and conversational hubbub, was a particularly effective medium through which my students felt something akin to dysphoria.
My students almost unanimously described Lim as “frustrating.” As Mina summarily observed: “… it was one of the most annoying games I have ever played.” The frustration of being attacked by the blocks in Lim affected at least one student on a physical level. Liz reported that the experience was “super stressful” and “caused me to grind my teeth.” Carl was “freaked out” and “scared” by the sudden attack of the aggressive squares.
Commenting on the group’s frustration as a whole, Ivan located some sort of catharsis in the mass playing of Lim. Recalling that, when we all played the game together, the room was “filled with exasperated sighs and cries,” Ivan argued that the “din in the room … seemed to verbalize what is usually a secret, inner dialogue within transgender individuals.”
It was fascinating for me to observe a room full of students playing Lim simultaneously. After a few minutes, several students asked me, “Is this a game you can win?” Matt, in particular, was determined to get to the end of the maze only to get knocked out repeatedly.
But each student had different experiences with Lim that I could observe from a distance. Some, like Mina, “gave up” early on when squares blocked their progression. Others, like Rhea, tried to play through the game multiple times to try out different strategies. But even when Rhea tried to stay “on the outskirts” of the course, she “found the other blocks going out of their way” to confront her. About half of my students, like Matt, got kicked out of the maze at some point. But, in Sarah M.’s case, “the blocks continued to follow my block when it was on the outside.” In addition, several students encountered another flashing square in the maze that caused their screen to go black.
Matt (front) was determined to reach the end of Lim.
Students produced rich interpretations of these diverse outcomes. Matt interpreted being ejected from the maze as “feeling like you don’t belong in society.” Commenting on the way in which some squares continued to chase her even after being ejected from the maze, Sarah M. wrote that this “represent[s] how people can ‘police’ the behavior of others and ensure that those who deviate from the norm are not allowed back into the main groups of society.”
But my students produced the most interesting interpretations of the “meet-another-flashing-square-before-black screen” outcome. Jonathan interpreted the black screen as “the end of life.” Others interpreted it more cheerfully as a sense of relief upon meeting a kindred spirit. Sydney was flexible in her interpretation, noting that this outcome:
“ … can be interpreted as a win (finding the person who understands you best / finding your mate / finding an outlet to be oneself) or a loss (getting stuck and losing yourself in the imitation of all other people and never truly winning the game of life.”
My students seemed to be in agreement, however, that this plurality of interpretations was a result of the game’s abstract aesthetic style, at least relative to the more authored experiences of dys4ia and Mainichi. Cody and Jonathan both commented on the “abstract” quality of the game while Laura, David, Bryan and Caitlin noted that it could be read as a pliable “metaphor.” During class discussion, students told me that there was something about the sparseness of Lim that allowed them to project their own experiences into the game. As Laura put it, Lim works “with nothing but blocks, colors, sounds, and a maze.”
On this same note, Camila speculated that Lim could “be molded to fit other things that people are oppressed by,” specifying that “having a disability could have fit in perfectly with the same metaphors.” Sarah M. and Rebekah also commented on the universality of the game’s message. Sarah M. wrote that the game shows how anyone outside of social norms “can be bullied and eventually ostracized from society because they are different.” And Rebekah observed that “people can relate to this game because they all, at some point, felt put down based on their own individual characteristics.”
Mainichi is a game in which the quotidian details of any given day become focal points of stress and anxiety. It was this everydayness of Mainichi that impressed my students the most. Carl wrote that the game showed the “everyday realities of living as a trans* person.” And Rebekah, who noticed that the game’s title means everyday in Japanese, commented on the way in which “small actions such as … paying with cash instead of card” could have a drastic impact on the player character’s daily interactions with others.
Several students identified with the player character in Mainichi as they navigated her through her everyday experiences. But if the division between sympathy and empathy is marked by whether or not a person has experienced another person’s struggle, then Mainichi, by virtue of its interactivity, blurred that division, or at least invited a variety of responses on either side of it. Indeed, my student’s responses to Mainichi ranged from sympathy for the character to an almost physical embodiment of her emotional state.
Liz plays through Mainichi.
Some students expressed sympathy for the character in Mainichi. Sarah H. expressed amazement and dismay at “the extent to which transgender people must plan for the varying situations that may occur.” David wrote that Mainichi “gave you a sense of how even just going down the street … can be a difficult experience.” And Laura, along these same lines, realized that “life was harder and a lot more depressing for my character when others noticed that she was transgender.”
Still others, in an empathetic vein, placed themselves in the character’s shoes. Susan observed that the game “made me think how I would feel if people were whispering around me.” And one student, citing her own experiences with street harassment, said that playing Mainichi was “similar to many experiences I have had going out at night.”
In her reflections on Mainichi, Rebekah revealed how the interactivity of the medium helped to foster an empathetic identification with the player character: “By being able to decide things for the character, it helped build a connection [with her].” Echoing Rebekah, Jonathan wrote that Mainichi “really provided an interactive experience by letting you control your character.”
This interactivity, I would argue, is what allowed Camila to form such a close and affecting bond with the player character in Mainichi. She wrote: “I think the fact that I was the person who was being slandered for being transgender was very striking. I can feel bad for someone all day long, but to feel it in my own flesh was heart-breaking.” When the man at the cafe spoke with her at the end of the game, Camila ignored it because she couldn’t “handle any more rejection.” She concluded: “I just wanted to forget everything about gender, sex and attractions.”
But, for at least one student, the degree of interactivity in Mainichi played against her expectations for the genre. Ruby wrote: “Unlike [other] RPG games that I had played … I did not feel proactive at all when playing the game; sometimes I had the feeling that the main character tried to live her life unnoticed.” She observed that the game made her feel “passive,” as if she had no control over how the day unfolded. For Ruby, then, the expected degree of interactivity seemed to make her experience of passivity even more poignant by contrast.
I’m content to let my students’ responses to the games speak for themselves as evidence of the effectiveness of this exercise. I would like, however, to comment firsthand on my experience as an educator using games in the classroom for the first time. Using games to teach is, simply put, a profoundly different pedagogical experience.
When I give my students a lecture on a reading, I am in charge of the room. This power dynamic isn’t a completely arbitrary imposition; rather, it’s necessitated by the discrepancy between our levels of disciplinary knowledge: I’ve been working in feminist and queer theory for the last six years and my students haven’t. When I lecture on a reading, then, I have a responsibility to provide a summary of an author’s argument as well as a historical context for that argument. Students can fuel the discussion (when they’re in a talkative mood!) but, at a minimum, I need to be able to provide them with some basic tools for digesting what they’ve read. This isn’t a responsibility I can shrug off entirely; we can’t play games everyday!
But our class at Emory’s Center for Interactive Teaching allowed me to take a step back and let my students do some unguided, exploratory and experiential learning on their own. I circulated the classroom to answer some basic questions but, otherwise, I simply surveyed the room and listened to the cacophony of blocks hitting each other in Lim. Now that I have read their wonderfully idiosyncratic and insightful responses, I know that there were twenty unique experiences happening concurrently in that room and that it was best not to interfere. It can be terrifying to give up control—to let your little monsters run loose—but I’m so glad I did.