Tag Archives: Mainichi

A Mile in Her Shoes: Teaching Transphobia through Video Games

A photo of nine students playing games in a large computer lab: six in the background on desktop machines and three in the foreground on laptops. Text at the top reads: "Introduction to Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at ECIT."

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.

dys4ia

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.

A photograph of a student playing Anna Anthropy's game dys4ia on a laptop.

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.

Lim

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.

A photo of a row of students, taken side view, as they play games on desktop computers.

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

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.

A photo of a student seated at a desktop computer, wearing a green shirt. She is facing the camera and smiling.

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.

Concluding Thoughts

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.

Postpartum: Mainichi – How Personal Experience Became a Game

A screenshot of Mattie Brice’s Mainichi displaying an overhead view of several rooms in an adorable apartment, and a cute stylised character with dark skin and dark hair wearing a white and purple outfit.

This will be a design article on my game Mainichi, aiming to be insight to my thought process during its creation and serve as a guide for others to make games. To get the most out of this, download Mainichi here and then come back to read this! If the download is giving you problems, use my contact info and I’ll send you a copy. For extra reading, I also suggest getting a copy of anna anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, as I’ll be speaking to many of the ideas she advocates in it.

There is a movement. A movement that says “You can too.” It is growing in size, accessibility, and voice. Game design is, and always has been, for everyone, but the narrow path the industry took blocked off many peoples’ opportunity to join in on this artistic revolution. It’s assumed you must have the best graphics, know how to code, have the money to develop a game that can speak to the world.

I only know life with computers and video games in them. My father is a programmer and shared a love for technology with his children. I grew up surrounded by games and, naturally, wanted to make them. But my father never passed down the skill to code, and I never realized how important programming fit into making a game until I tried making them years later. Coding became a monster; I couldn’t get it and felt my creative energy dissipate every time I tried to learn. I entered university believing game design wasn’t for me and gave up on that dream to join the industry.

But now, I’ve come full circle. The industry badly needs to diversify and there’s still roadblocks. Publisher model game development is choked by putting profit above all else, and the monochromatic landscape of non-AAA development still values methods that require monetary investment and a previous buy-in to programming culture that many of us just don’t have. Despite this, I still had something to say, or rather, something I didn’t know how to say. I had something I needed others to play.

This is how Mainichi was born. It was an experiment in translating a personal experience into game mechanics, and also a push to prove to myself that I can make a game, even if the video game industry wouldn’t accept me. I want Mainichi to be a call to arms, a triumph of the personal. I made a game that only I could make, and I’m hoping this exercise empowers others to express a life that is uniquely theirs.

Choosing Vocal Chords

The biggest roadblock I had to overcome was choosing the program I would use to make my game. I asked for suggestions, consulted lists, and tried out many to no avail. I ran into many bumps; usually, the more free and open source something is, the more programming is integral to the making process. Though, some did come with their own scripting language that was easier to learn and a viable method for those who aren’t completely code-phobic like I am. Many of the more popular game makers are primed for certain types of games, like shooters or platformers. Looking to make something akin to an adventure game, the obtuse methods to simple get someone walking across the screen on a level plane and generating a textbox from an NPC were quick to grate my nerves.

If there was something I learned, it’s the increasing amount of tools for people to use all assume different competencies, wants, and conventions. Authoring programs are prepared for certain users, and make it easy or difficult to do particular things. This isn’t simply a practical thing to know, but political. Many programs assume you have the privilege, tastes, and wants of the hegemonic man. However, some of these tools come with communities that make it easier to subvert this assumption, and is, in particular, something I encourage others to factor in when choosing a program for themselves. Here is what I came up with for myself and the needs I perceived I needed for my game ideas:

*Programming unnecessary or extremely minimal/optional
*No to low cost
*Made it simple or easy for me to use textboxes, characters, variables, cutscenes
*Has an active enough community to provide custom content

These and other factors contributed to me picking RPG Maker VX, despite its price tag. Mostly, my personal disposition and skills overcame the cost for it after not feeling compatible with all my other options- I was familiar with the toolset already, had the skills to edit its art assets enough for my own devices, and most of my ideas would benefit from the assumption of an RPG/adventure game being made. There were narrow expectations about the kind of game I wanted to make inside those conventions, but there was room to subvert these paradigms. As an aside, RPGMVX does have a cheaper sibling, RPGMXP, that I ended up not choosing because I had the familiarity with the former. However, for those new to both and interested in using them, XP is as viable, just for different reasons. I think others can find similar, free programs and still do what I did with Mainichi, RPGMVX just happened to be right for me.

Training My Voice

It’s easy to have a story or an idea. What makes a game significant is its designed experience. Coming into this experiment, I knew that current attempts of doling out social awareness just through story devices plainly didn’t work. I had to choose methods of design to communicate the feelings of my experience to the player, because otherwise I could simply point them to an essay I’ve done. I would say Mainichi lets someone feel rather than tells them what to feel. It’s a key difference to create empathy instead of telling the player what’s right to think.

If this experiment is judged successful, I think it will be because of my philosophy of being hyper-personal, or like what my colleague Jenn Frank says is “alarmingly specific.” This applied not only to the topic but the design as well; I wanted to draw upon my ideas about sociology, postmodern art, ludonarrative resonance, and diversity politics in video games and have them influence the way the player interacted with the rules. I wanted this game to be dripping with the intersection of all of my influences, and create a new way of looking at design as a byproduct. I think for a personal piece like this to work, you have to speak to the world in general through a very specialized perspective.

How to design a game for social good is a fraught question. It’s difficult to position the player in a way that doesn’t have them exploit the minority and unknowingly replicate the problematic ideologies the game set out to defeat. This is why I stressed reactivity of the system and eliminated min/maxing of any sort. When you look at the system as a metaphor for society, the suffering that happens to the character doesn’t become something the player enables but joins ranks against.

There is something to be said about being too referential in a game, but I decided to be extremely so. I made the character after my likeness and named them after myself, I have a Japanese title, there’s a Dragon Age II cameo, etc. However, everything does have a personal link to add to the aesthetic and ‘meaning’ of the piece. Since the game is essentially interacting with a system, it could be replicated with numbers and without any sort of cultural representation. So it felt right to imbue as much of the game with my personal easter eggs because the game won’t make complete sense without the meta-awareness of how it fits in. And really, all games that try to mean something have to do that as well.

Speaking

I also recognized there would be audiences for my game, but no ‘perfect player.’ There is no one person that can absorb everything this game is meant to do. I’m not even the perfect player for my game. Rather, I knew that it would be released to the world and many people of different relationships to games would play it, including those who don’t game at all. So my game doesn’t have a target audience like many other games, and I didn’t have a genre in mind when making the game. However, I was aware of the different expectations people would bring to my game.

A lot of this game is speaking to the game development community. It is a community that finds making a game about minority issues near-impossible, so I ended up making one in about a week. There are also different paths for it to be analyzed, genealogy-wise, and one could see Mainichi as an offspring of Dys4ia and Passage. From Dys4ia I am intentionally making my game political through the personal, merely repeating the idea in a different format to diversify how we see, define, and interface with games. Another game in this lineage would be Merritt Kopas’ LIM, which also relies on mechanics replicating emotional experiences. I also see Mainichi as a critique to Passage in this regard; just because this isn’t AAA development doesn’t mean the types of games coming out of the indie scene aren’t dominated by heterosexual white men’s narratives. I want the community to know that some people don’t have the luxury of mulling over something as long term and general as the passage of life towards death or saving the world. Some of us have to worry for our physical safety every day we leave the house, some of us will live and die unequal citizens in a system that doesn’t care; the street scene in Mainichi hopes to be referential to the design of Passage for the community of developers that care about that sort of design canon.

Because of the look and that it is in fact made with an RPG Maker, I knew some players would be bringing the baggage that comes along with RPGs. I also have quite a lot to say about RPGs, how I think they are evolving, and my answer to ‘what is an RPG.’ So I specifically highlighted certain conventions, like choice, time management, NPCs, cause/effect, multiple paths to the end goal. I then proceeded to flip the expectations players would have with elements; the choices you make aren’t epic or demarcated by a clear morality, the player is taught to avoid as much interaction as possible, and the player will be depressed looking for the ‘good’ ending. Mainly, I find RPGs abstract things so we can interact with them, an exercise in turning something qualitative into a system. The player gains empathy through my attempt of abstracting how people gender me, and allowed the player to experiment in the system to realize the experiences I’ve been through.

Outside of the highbrow stuff, I wanted to communicate an experience that I couldn’t do with words alone. Ultimately, this could be a project in telling my best friend why I was often depressed despite the good intentions of my support group. Similarly, I wanted players with cisgender privilege to also empathize with one aspect of having a queer gender or presentation. It can also serve as a tool for a trans* person to share with their friends if they have the same trouble explaining like I did.

You Can Too

A huge reason I made Mainichi was to say that, yes, anyone can make a game of critical merit. You don’t have to be a programmer, you don’t need a whole bunch of disposable income, be on a triple digit design team, or a part of the indie in-crowd. The important thing is to know game design is something everyone has the capacity to work on, and the implementation into a program is the hard part.

This is important to note because video games aren’t the only types of games there are: I am currently working on a card game that will allow players to simulate and interrogate the dynamics of a first date or sex. In addition, as The Border House has already shown, there are also non-traditional formats of digital games that beg to be used and experimented with, like Twine and Ren’py. What I think a lot of the non-AAA developers forgot was that one leaves the publisher model behind in order to do something different. I’ve seen many failed projects because so many want to make the next Final Fantasy with RPG Maker and don’t see the dissonance in politics concerning that. Instead, take part in diversifying not only the characters and stories we see in games, but how we fundamentally interact with them as a whole.