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