TransMovement: Freedom and Constraint in Queer and Open World Games

Samantha Allen is a transgender woman, an ex-Mormon and a PhD student in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University writing a dissertation on sexual fetishism. She is also an erstwhile singer-songwriter. You can find her on the web or on Twitter.

[Author’s Note: The essay that follows was prompted by Cameron Kunzelman’s presentation on the queer games renaissance, which he delivered at the Studies in Sexualities Conference at Emory University. Thanks both to Cameron and to Aaron Goldsman and Sarah Stein who co-organized this conference with me. For the articles that Cameron mentioned in his talk, please go to this post on This Cage is Worms.]

A majestic panorama featuring an armoured woman standing at a river, looking out into a limitless pine forest with mountains and an overcast sky in the background.

Skyrim’s limitless vistas.

When Bethesda Games’ Todd Howard previewed the open world role-playing game Skyrim, he famously promised that the player would be able to traverse any visible geography. His breathless assurance of the player’s ultimate freedom has already come and gone as an internet meme: “You see that mountain? You can climb it.” This is a fairly common rhetorical frame for talking about open world games. Whether they’re raving about Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV, the open range in Red Dead Redemption, or the jungles of Far Cry 3, game reviewers effusively report that the player can “go anywhere” and “do anything” in these expansive worlds.

I want to contrast this ultimate freedom of movement with the mechanics of movement in Anna Anthropy’s much-discussed game dys4ia, which she describes as “an autobiographical game about my experiences with hormone replacement therapy.” The opening screen of the game itself presents you with a green shape whose movement can be controlled with the arrow keys. A flashing indicator at the top of the screen prompts the player to move the shape through a gap in a yellow brick wall. Simple enough. But when the player tries to move the green shape through the gap, it becomes apparent that traversing the obstacle is impossible. The green shape gets stuck in the gap and on-screen text informs us that Anna feels “weird about [her] body.”

Lim by Merritt Kopas, which Anna Anthropy describes succinctly as “a game about passing and violence” operates on a similar principle as this opening screen of dys4ia. As the player tries to move a block through various passageways, the block is hindered, even attacked by other blocks unless the player holds a key to “blend in.”

I played dys4ia a month before starting my own hormone replacement therapy and Lim only recently, after seeing Cameron Kunzelman play it at a conference at Emory. These games, perhaps unsurprisingly, hit especially close to home for me. They dramatize my own experience, yes, but they are also compelling interactive tools for educating others about some of the issues I face as a transwoman. Simply put, I can’t “go anywhere” and “do anything.” Bathrooms, airports, locker rooms are all spaces that are either difficult or impossible for me to navigate. Customer service interactions make me feel like I’m taking a final exam, trying to squeak by with a “passing” grade. By constricting the movement and agency of the player, then, dys4ia and Lim reflect my own experience while also giving others a taste of what it might be like to tromp around in my high-heeled boots. Merritt Kopas has demonstrated the educational value of dys4ia in her own classroom, noting that “the game helped them to better understand the process of transition and all of the institutional and societal barriers involved.”

 dys4ia's opening challenge. It shows an odd green shape that the player must maneuver through a gap in a yellow brick wall.

One of the opening challenges in Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia.

I’ll confess that I seem to enjoy the rampant freedom of open world games just as much as anybody. But, for cisgender gamers, the supreme motility of open world games often functions as an exaggeration of a freedom of movement that they may already enjoy in the physical spaces of non-game worlds. I should mention, of course, that cisgender gamers do face social obstacles based on other facets of their identity (race, class, sex, age, disability, etc.), and it’s for this very reason that coalition-based politics are so powerful. As Merritt Kopas notes, “not quite fitting into any one category” is not “limited to genderqueer people” and so games like dys4ia are still “going to be of value to people who will never experience those things.”

For the sake of argument, however, let’s compare my experience playing Skyrim to the experience of an upwardly-mobile, heterosexual-identified white male. This is an easy comparison for me to make because I have played Skyrim both before and after the start of my transition which means that I’ve played it both as as precisely that upwardly-mobile, heterosexual-identified white male I just spoke of and as a nearly broke, queer, (but still white) transwoman. When I played Skyrim before my transition, I enjoyed the unprecedented freedom of navigation and traversal. I had troubles in my life, certainly, but I could also rest assured that, if I were ambitious enough to leave my chair, I would be able to go almost anywhere in the physical world without fear of violence, harassment, or social illegibility. From my current standpoint, however, I feel a twinge of melancholy when I experience Skyrim‘s lack of constraint. I can climb this virtual mountain, yes, but what about my mounting medical expenses? I can enter any polygonal city, yes, but what about the women’s bathroom? The difference between before and after transitioning in Skyrim, then, is the difference between a power fantasy and an almost tragic sort of escapism, the difference between an allegorical representation of my own preexisting freedom to move and a cruel reminder of the social world’s impassable obstacles.

In her 1980 essay, “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality,”[1] feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young thinks through the style of movement typical of women in the United States. Women, in her view, do not “make full use of the body’s spatial and lateral possibilities” unlike men who are able to move freely, with long strides and swinging arms (Young 1980, 142). On the subject of women in sports, Young argues that “a space surrounds [us] in imagination which we are not free to move beyond; the space available to our movement is a constricted space” (143).  The space immediately surrounding a woman, for Young, is not a space of possibility but a space of restraint. In contrast with men who are able to interact with others confidently and with clear intentionality, women “often approach a physical engagement with things with timidity, uncertainty, and hesitancy” (143).

This constraint on movement is more than just a stylistic difference; rather, the phenomenology of movement has palpable emotional consequences. In Young’s view, this constrained form of movement contributes directly to women’s “feeling of incapacity, frustration, and self-consciousness” (144). When Anna Anthropy comments, then, that she “can’t think of a form better suited to conveying frustration than the video game,” it’s precisely because video games like dys4ia can allow the player to acutely feel movement constraints, spatial restrictions and the uncertainty, sometimes the impossibility, of success. The basic mechanics of movement are one of the most taken-for-granted but also most powerful communicative elements of video games as a medium. And as such, they’re also one of the best tools that queer game developers can use to allow others to understand our different relationship to motion and public space as queer folks.

To be clear, though,  I’m not arguing that all games should constrain player motion so that the much-stereotyped white, male, cisgender game-playing teenager can understand my experience as a transwoman. I do want to resist, however, game critics’ tendency to think of the open world, “ultimate freedom” genre as the evolutionary endpoint of video games as a medium. Different styles of movement produce different emotional effects and both should be available to us as players and as game-makers. To regard “fun” as the ultimate litmus test for the success of a video game is to sell short the emotive capacity of the medium itself. Games can return us to an innocent state of childlike play but they can also, in the words of Merritt Kopas, teach us that “being an other can be painful and horrible.”

I also want to call attention to the implicit masculinity of the open world genre, not to dismiss it entirely, but rather to point out the ways in which freedom of movement can be experienced differently by people outside the largely white, male cisgender realm of video game preview and review culture. At worst, some of these open world games can appeal to a masculinist entitlement to explore, conquer, control and colonize. Far Cry 3 reportedly makes the masculinist colonialism of exploring-cum-conquering explicit in the narrative by allowing you to play as a wealthy white vacationer who slowly overtakes enemy outposts on a fictional Pacific island. Because I don’t equate fiction with reality, I can’t hold Far Cry 3 accountable for neocolonialism. I can point out, however, that it’s a reflection of an implicit masculinism, the seductiveness of which is facilitated by the mechanics of movement in the open world genre of games. Let’s enjoy our fictional worlds and our innocent-because-virtual power fantasies. But let’s also try to be a little more nuanced and reflexive in our approach to going anywhere and doing anything.

One of dys4ia's final screens. A pink butterfly flies toward the sun with text reading, "It's a small thing but I feel like I've taken the first steps towards something

Anna Anthropy’s measured expression of hope.

dys4ia concludes with the player controlling a butterfly as it floats up toward the sun. Anthropy writes: “It’s a small thing but I feel like I’ve taken the first steps towards something tremendous.” I, too, feel like I’m at the start of something momentously difficult and wonderful. When I climb a mountain in Skyrim and look out over the frozen tundra, I’m imagining all sorts of future days: a day when my hair reaches my shoulders, a day when I have more than $300 in my checking account, a day when my identification cards match my identity. What days do you see from the top of Todd Howard’s mountains?

[1]    Young, Iris Marion. 1980. “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality.” Human Studies 3(2): 137-156.

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10 Responses to TransMovement: Freedom and Constraint in Queer and Open World Games

  1. Katie says:

    I feel like there are so many things I want to express about how this article made me feel, but they’re so many emotions your writing evoked that I’m still working on sorting them out.

    I supposed, the most poignant response I had to this article was that “it’s not just me”. My entire life I have struggled with social anxiety, and felt that space around me in which it was “ok” to move, and have unconsciously compressed myself as small as possible whenever in public and almost obsessively controlled my movements. Though it was not the main point of your article, I feel as though it was the most important to me to learn that I am not alone in this feeling. It something that others like myself, or even entirely different from me must also struggle with on a daily basis.

    The second is that sadly, video games have always been a form of escapism for me, because while I was too socially awkward, too afraid, too depressive and anxious to do the things that I would like to do, I could always do them through video games. I didn’t have to worry that I wasn’t good enough to heal in dungeons like I had to worry I wasn’t good enough to lead a school project. I didn’t have to stuggle speaking with someone in comprehensive sentences when chatting with my guildmates. For the majority of my life I had no close friends because of my social anxiety and panic disorder, and with video games I could let myself become my character, and experience friendships through that. Thinking of how lonely this must sound makes me sad, but it was not all bad.

    Some of the most meaningful relationships I’ve ever had have been built through video games. I was able to get to know others and let others get to know me, because I had no crippling fear of rejection in the virtual world.

    I can empathize with those like you Samantha, who are going through this transition. The obstacles that you are facing are mental, physical and societal. These obstacles have stood in your way trying to prevent you from becomming the person you want to be. Thus it is with my mental illnesses, I too face mental, physical and societal obstacles from becoming the person I want to be. And like you, because of my mental illness, I can understand the heartbreaking sense of feeling like you don’t belong in your own body, like a puzzle piece of your being is just slightly, or hugely, out of place.

    Thank you, for writing such wonderful articles, and I wish you the greatest luck on your journey and I believe that whatever obstacles rise to meet you, that you will overcome them with ease.

    • Samantha says:

      Katie, thank you so much for your incredibly thoughtful and touching comment. By quoting Merritt Kopas’ idea that all sorts of people who don’t feel like they quite fit in could relate to dys4ia, I was hoping that something like this could happen — that we could trace the common themes that run through our different, difficult experiences.

      There are a lot of ways in which we can feel like the space around us, both literally and metaphorically, is a constricted one and I’m sorry to hear that factors into your experience social anxiety. It’s hard, I know, to observe people who are able to move effortlessly and converse freely with everyone around them. I know I wish I could shout across a room at a friend without outing myself!

      I also want to encourage you to not think about video game escapism as something that’s “sad.” I know that we all need meaningful human interaction and I’m not saying that you need to content yourself with games and forget the world, but games can be a vital way to keep afloat when things are hard. There’s no shame in that. I hope things feel better for you soon.

      It means so much to me to read a generous, heartfelt comment like yours. In my proper scholarly work, it’s not always clear to me why what I’m writing matters or who it matters to. It’s so nice to write something for TBH and see that someone has been moved, that someone has related in some way, and that someone wrote something beautiful in turn.

      Thanks so much. I look forward to hearing your future stories of overcoming obstacles!

      • Matt says:

        I also want to encourage you to not think about video game escapism as something that’s “sad.”

        Thank you for the reminder. It’s easy to get sidetracked, to get defined by people who could do a lot better learning what things mean before defining them, to be put on the defensive all over again and forgetting much that was good, by slipping back into thinking that all there is is that which was originally to be escaped from.

        This sort of brings up another concern I had while reading your original post. On the one hand, we want more games starring non-affluentablebodiedhetciswhitemales, or at least games that don’t star one just because the devs didn’t think about it. On the other, we need more games that don’t assume instant escape to freedom as unmarked norm without further consideration, typically in the form of the player having to deal with limitations they would not otherwise want or like.

        What sort of message is sent if there’s a large contingent that fulfills both (unprivileged, limited protag), and most of the rest fulfills neither (privileged, unlimited protag)?

        And how could a developer help prevent a problem that can only become a problem if done on a mass scale at which point it’s already too late?

        • A Viescas says:

          What sort of message is sent if there’s a large contingent that fulfills both (unprivileged, limited protag), and most of the rest fulfills neither (privileged, unlimited protag)?

          That’s a really good point. I was just thinking about this with regards to movies and books after seeing this article:

          I think you’ve nailed it in that the real problem is devs/writers/producers trying to tackle two issues at once, and ending up shoving minorities to a second-class state unthinkingly.

          One thing that might help is less “ambition” among creators. Tackle one issue at a time, and really explore it before moving onto the next one. Or maybe make two works at the same time.

          The other thing that helps is awareness of where the movement is. When trans individuals have to struggle to get any representation that even remotely resembles their experiences, depressing and limited stories are fine, because they promote empathy and provide an outlet for commiseration.

          By the time you’ve started a movement and everyone’s started to do the same thing… it’s probably time to move on.

          • Matt says:

            Thanks for the link! Reminds me of when I (cis het male, brought up in a very homophobic environment in childhood and early adolescence, now trying to make up for past sins) recently took that implicit association test and got an overwhelmingly anti-gay result. (In contrast a friend who was against gay marriage for religious reasons, but never grew up with the sort of bullshit I did, scored substantially neutral.) At first I thought it had to do with the residue of our respective upbringings; later it occurred to me that one or two of the word associations had actually triggered a memory of Brokeback Mountain (spoiler: the protags did not marry each other and live happily ever after) and a few of the most anguished scenes of that formed the background noise of my state of mind as I was doing the test.

            Now if I were to ask if the test result was caused by one or the other, the likely true answer would probably be “yes”, but I think there’s definitely something to be said for priming.

            (I wonder how this would have gone had I been thinking about a different story where two het lovers were doomed because of the girl – and only the girl – being under some horrible repressive stuff that forbade their union…)

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  3. M. Fewko says:

    Fantastic article! Thank you so much for introducing me to this game. I’ve always valued the inventiveness of indie games.

  4. Marie-A says:

    First of all, thanks for writing this great article!

    It is really peculiar how transition can both be a great liberation and, expecially for MtF transgender in some ways, a switch from “priviledged” to “unpriviledged”, which reveals to the person (to me anyways) a completely other side of the reality that could only be vaguely grasped prior to the change from “we see you as a man” to “we se you as a woman”, let alone the “we see you as ehhhhhh…” or “my brains bugged trying to label you”.

    It is a very paradoxical feeling to me, because as much trouble as I have to convince myself to go to a gym (which wasn’t a problem to me before transition, 3 years ago) and having some issues of “what is appropriate for a woman in this specific situation/should I care?”, I still feel more empowered than ever. I mean, I feel “closer” to the heroes of my favorite games (Skyrim included), as I lived through a journey so strange and difficult very few will ever have the slightest idea of it, unless maybe… we make a game about it ;).

    Taking the necesary action and making difficult choices became something very real, as opposed to something speculative. As a person and a game designer, I now feel more entiteled than average to define what is courage, what is freedom and what it can require to find your true self. I often had the reflexion that I am the one who should design stealth games lol, having a first hand experience of it.

    • Samantha says:

      Marie, I’ve been thinking a lot about stealth games, actually! That’s what I’m working on next.

      And I agree with you about the paradox of feeling more liberated than ever but also constrained in some pretty forceful ways. I’m just happy I don’t have to take on the project of resolving my gender identity again. It’s nice to have the decision to transition be in the past.

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