Tag Archives: Samantha Allen

Five out of Ten Issue #4 Out Now

The cover of Five out of Ten

The cover of Five out of Ten

If you haven’t heard of Five out of Ten, it’s a magazine of independent video game criticism edited by Alan Williamson with a unique profit model. Apart from overhead costs, each contributor to the magazine splits the profits from their issue. Alan also has a proven track record of publishing minority voices in games criticism including Kris Ligman, Lana Polansky and former Border House contributor Denis Farr.

I have two articles in their fourth issue (entitled “Storytellers”) which was just released! Both articles would be of interest to The Border House readers. The first, “Going Stealth: Hitman: Blood Money and Gender Passing” compares my experiences with “passing” to the mechanics of stealth games. The second, “Worlds Apart” reads the parallel dimensions of Silent Hill as a metaphor for queer experience.

Apart from my work, this issue features excellent articles by Ed Smith, Oscar Strik, Julian Williams and Alan Williamson. They write on a diverse array of games including Link’s Awakening, Dear EstherL.A. NoireBioshock and Nier.

If you buy the magazine (for £5.00 or for the “early bird” discount of £3.50), you’ll be directly supporting my work in games criticism and I would really appreciate it. Of course, I’ll be continuing to produce free content for The Border House but I worked hard on my Five out of Ten articles and I’d love to share them with you. You can buy the magazine HERE.

 

Sexism in Video Games Panel at ETSUcon

From left to right: Jenn, Samantha and Kat at the Sexism in Video Games panel.

From left to right: Jenn, Samantha and Kat at the Sexism in Video Games panel.

During the last weekend of April, I had the privilege of traveling to East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, TN to be on the “Sexism in Video Games” panel at their inaugural ETSUcon. The panel consisted of Kat Haché, Jennifer Culp of Gamervescent, TBH contributor Samantha Allen (that’s me!) and Cameron Kunzelman. The topic of our panel was the continued and pervasive sexism of video gaming culture.

[You can listen to the entire panel on YouTube.]

A trigger warning: from 34:42 – 36:27, we discuss David Gaider’s blog post about a female Dragon Age writer who pointed out that a male writer on the team had written a rape scene without realizing it. The discussion is not explicit but I don’t want the introduction of the topic to surprise anyone.

Kat, Jenn, Cameron and I fielded questions on a variety of topics ranging from the infamous Dead Island: Riptide statue to the representation of women in video games to the inclusion of women in video game development studios. We were fortunate to have a lively, participatory audience that filled up the whole room.

The turnout for ETSUcon itself (around 900 attendees) also far exceeded the organizers’ expectations. Thanks to Kat for working so hard to put our panel together, to Justin Mitchell for moderating, to Haein Lee for the photos (the rest of which are posted here), to Chad Barrett for the audio recording and to Frederic Poag for chairing the Con itself.

Feel free to discuss the panel in our comments section. We had a limited amount of time for our panel and we’d love to hear how The Border House readers might have answered some of the questions we received.

Game of the Day: Misogyny Island by Samantha Allen, Fred McCoy, and Kat Haché

Today’s game, written by Fred McCoy, Kat Haché, and TBH contributor Samantha Allen, is a satirical reality show (hosted by who else but Daniel Tosh) where you compete with other contestants for the title of Uber Misogynist. It’s hilarious in a sad, recognizable sort of way. Please note there are slurs aplenty, though they are censored.

If you have made or played an IF or indie game you would like to see featured on The Border House, send it to us at editors (at) borderhouseblog (dot) com. You can see our past featured games at this tag.

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.