Tag Archives: transgender

Please Stop: The Trans Joke at the Spike Video Game Awards

A stylized logo that says VGX.

[TW: Discussion of transphobic joke, real-life experiences of transphobia.]

Like many graduate students, I was still finishing up last week’s work at 6 PM on a Saturday. I put on Spike TV’s annual Video Game Awards (re-branded this year as VGX) to have some background noise while I put the finishing touches on a paper.

I expected the usual: some Michael Bay-esque graphics packages, some puerile pandering to their core demographic of adolescent boys, some Mountain Dew, some Doritos, some trailers. I can stomach that, even laugh at it. Less than five minutes into the program, however, co-host Joel McHale jokingly put the rumors to rest that Wario had “undergone sex reassignment surgery.”

If you’re reading this, you might know that a joke like that is politically ill-advised. It violates the comedic wisdom that one should punch up rather than punch down. It not only repeats the exoticizing focus on transgender people’s genitals, it also casts transgender identity itself as something scandalous and laughable.

What you might not know is what it feels like to hear a joke like this, what it’s like to be triggered. To that end, let me tell you a story about a period of my life that I don’t often discuss. Seven years ago (prior to my transition), I was still in a place where I could only present female occasionally. I hadn’t yet had the earth-shattering realization that I needed to transition but I still needed space to explore crucial aspects of my identity. I was fortunate enough to be dating someone who supported me in that endeavor.

We were in New York one night while I was presenting female. The night was warm, the sky was clear; we decided to be tacky tourists and go to the top of the Empire State Building. In line, some boys approached us and tried to talk to us. At the time—without the benefits and, indeed, the privileges of experience and hormones that I have now—my appearance did not hold up under close scrutiny and they “read” me, they recognized that I was not cisgender.

They laughed and laughed and laughed. They howled. They followed us all the way through the line and into the elevator where the laughter continued in our faces. My very existence was hilarious to them. The fact that there was a human underneath the sloppy eye makeup and the tattered dress either did not occur to them or, worse, it didn’t matter to them. I realized for the first time that night that, were I to transition, I would be a living, walking joke. It’s experiences like this that keep people from transitioning for years.

I am lucky to have had just one experience this emotionally brutal and I’m immensely privileged to have been safeguarded from the acts of physical violence that predominantly effect transgender women of color. Over the course of my transition, the smirks of passersby have faded, misgenderings have all but stopped, and that howling laughter has faded into that long-ago New York night.

When I hear a trans joke in a venue as public as a nationally broadcast television show, I’m instantly back in that elevator. I’m no longer the confident woman that I’ve become over the last couple of years; I’m a scared little girl cowering in the corner, reeling from the ridicule, wondering if they’ll follow me all the way home.

Spike, do you realize what you do to people outside your target demographic when they try to engage with your work? If you realized, would you still do it? Do I want to know the answer to that question?

I could write you an angry polemic about video game culture right now. I could undertake educational efforts to help video game commentators understand transgender identity. I’ve done that. I keep doing it and nothing happens. Nothing changes. There’s always another gaffe, another joke, another game.

So tonight, Geoff Keighley, producers, journalists, if this note manages to make it to your desk, all I’m asking is that you stop. Please stop. Please stop.

Update: Immediately after this article went live, Joel McHale introduced a reader comment by saying, “He, she or he-she says…”

Bunk Bed #1: Everlove

Welcome to the first ever Border House Bunk Bed, a feature in which Zoya and I respond to a game’s treatment of gender and sexuality with two short essays. Each half of Bunk Bed is written in isolation; we are forbidden from reading each other’s work until the feature is done. Bunk Bed is meant to capture the unedited, honest (and sometimes divergent) feelings of two queer games critics. Readers are invited to try the featured game and share their own responses in the comments section. 
 
Welcome to Border House Bunk Bed!

Welcome to Border House Bunk Bed!

The Game:

Everlove: Rose (Silicon Sisters Interactive, iOS, $3.99 USD) is a romance game by women-run Canadian games studio Silicon Sisters. The studio is committed to improving the representation of women in games, and recently ran a game jam for projects with female protagonists. This medieval fantasy adventure combines branching dialogue with hidden object and jigsaw puzzles. Everlove also allows the player to romance four different men (albeit one at a time). Beyond the flirtation, another story unfolds, a story about magic, control and resistance to power.

Top Bunk: Zoya

I have never been a woman in love, but I spent many years of my life roleplaying as one. Even before I used the word “transgender,” I knew I could never be a woman on the inside, but I felt that I had to learn to act as one. Nobody would ever love me otherwise, I thought.

I remember the first time we kissed. I remember it as the first time in years that I actually had enough friends to have a proper birthday party. It was working. I was finally lovable. When I broke up with him years later, I learned that he didn’t kiss me because I was lovable. He kissed me because I was vulnerable. I was easy to manipulate. I wasn’t going to say no.

I was nervous about playing romance game Everlove. Other romance games that I have encountered have taken me back to that dark place in my life when, in trying to be a good girl, I lost control of my own boundaries. Romance games are so often about trying to please other people.

Rose, the protagonist of Everlove.

Rose, the protagonist of Everlove.

The protagonist, Rose, is undergoing past life regression therapy, which feels functionally similar to time travel. She wakes up in the body of a past life version of herself in medieval Europe. Immediately, one of the dialogue options you can choose for her is “I’m not sure about this… being in someone else’s body and taking control of it.”

This concern for consent is carried through fairly consistently. When Rose gets the opportunity for a tryst with the man you have chosen to pursue, you can decide to refuse his advances. The same applies when he proposes marriage. It seems obvious now that choosing to pursue a man isn’t the same as wanting to sleep with him, but I was brought up to think that it is wrong to disappoint a man after you’ve “led him on.” Everlove imagines Rose’s motivations more complexly than that.

Rose’s dreams are haunted by a frightening creature called The Beast. It is hinted that The Beast may really be about social control, but Rose has decided to try and work out what in herself is causing these terrible dreams.

Rose is discovering who she is through her relationships with men from her past life. Acting in a way that is true to how you want to play the character is always rewarded with personality points. In addition to Rose’s own self-discovery, the men she is pursuing are attracted to some traits more than others, each one having different preferences. Although Rose has to reach a minimum level of compatibility with at least one man in order to complete the game, beyond that she doesn’t have to change herself to please any of them. Every romance can end in failure and still be the right outcome for Rose as an individual.

The swarthy woodsman Garrett.

The swarthy woodsman Garrett.

Everlove is at its strongest when romancing swarthy woodsman Garrett. I loved the witty banter between him and Rose. When she stood up for herself, he admired her all the more. I trusted him with her, because he seemed secure in himself. The weaker personalities in the game reminded me too much of the fragile ego of that boyfriend who so needed me to be a perfect girl so that he could feel like the perfect man. Because I trusted Garrett, I trusted Rose, and because I trusted Rose, I trusted myself a little bit more. Roleplaying as her gave me some space to forgive myself for the mistakes I’ve made in the past.

In the end, Rose has to find a way to release the hold The Beast has on her, or else she is destined to become The Beast too. Escaping its influence won’t be easy, but I hope that she and I can get there together.

Bottom Bunk: Samantha

The experience of having a man hit on me would be funny if it didn’t make me feel so uncomfortable. As a queer woman and a transgender sex radical, I am so far outside of a straight man’s erotic economy that a successful bedding isn’t even a remote possibility. It’s like watching an octopus try to have sex with a hummingbird: I’m not sure what he’s hoping to accomplish but it’s not going to happen.

Getting hit on is an incessant reminder that so many men instantly perceive women as objects to be valued, owned and exchanged. It’s like they’re all wearing little RoboCop visors and, as soon as they register a woman’s face, their programming kicks in. Prime directive number one? “Sleep with her.”

For me, Everlove is a horror game about the discomfort of being a queer woman in a heteronormative world. The men of Everlove are relentless in their advances; no matter how often I rebuff them, they always come back for more. In the absence of an “I’m so gay and even if I weren’t you wouldn’t stand a chance!” dialogue option, I have to settle for the next most hostile response: “You try anything and you’ll be so ridiculously sorry!”

But Everlove translates my resistance into romance. When I utter the above warning to a befurred mountain man named Garrett, for example, a little heart pops up to let me know that my self-defensive threats have piqued his interest. He likes my “will,” it seems. He finds it endearing. The game encourages me to play up the “traits” that appeal to my desired mate. I shudder to think of Everlove in the hands of young girls, the game implicitly instructing them that saying “no” is just another way of saying “yes.”

There is one character in Everlove, however, that manages to pique my interest: my best friend Fendrel. She’s strong and stubborn with a brooding energy behind her eyes. But there is a sweetness in her loyalty that tempers her otherwise hard-nosed demeanor. And, like me, Fendrel seems to inhabit a space outside of the world of men and royals. We share a similar social station, a common lot in life.

Corey and Samantha.

Corey and Samantha.

Fendrel reminds me a lot of my own partner, actually. Corey and I are a study in contrasts. My California girl skips like a stone across her deep pool of New York cool. Her dark, wavy hair makes my fluffy blondeness pop. But we are also held together by a fundamental sameness. We are both women, both queer, both soft in the right places. My eroticism is located in this interplay between sameness and difference, not in the heterosexual mystification of difference itself.

One late night in Bloomington, Indiana, Corey and I stopped for a slice at Rockits on the way home. As we sprinkled some crushed red pepper on our greasy pizza, a man came up to us and told us that we should each be out with individual, male partners. We’re depriving the world of women by spending our night with each other instead, he explained. He would make a great Everlove character.

Suffice it to say that I tried my hardest to be with Fendrel. I repudiated all four of my male suitors and said the sweetest possible things to Fendrel. Corey thought I was cute. Fendrel would too, right? But an early turn in the plot took Fendrel away for a time, leaving me stranded with four overeager medieval men.

My experience with Everlove—mercifully—came to an early end. My therapist-cum-aunt informed me that I was “not very compatible with any of the men of Heart’s Home”—quelle surprise!—and that I would have to “revisit previous conversations to generate additional compatibility points” with at least one of my suitors. Some games have a gear check; Everlove has a heterosexuality check.

I exited my conversation with my therapist and looked again at the overworld map. Sure enough, there were four paths with men’s names by them but no path for Fendrel. I closed the game and I haven’t opened it since. Four roads diverged in a yellow wood and I turned around and drove away in my U-Haul.

The heterosexual gate.

The heterosexual gate.

Grand Theft Discourse: Comment Culture and Petty Hatred

GameSpot's logo; each letter of the word "GameSpot" is circumscribed by a circle with a red border, while the 'O" is surrounded by a starburst.

“Still harping on the same subject, you will exclaim—How can I avoid it, when most of the struggle of an eventful life has been occasioned by the oppressed state of my sex: we reason deeply, when we forcibly feel.

— Mary Wollstonecraft, emphasis mine.

When contemplating the locks behind which lay the internet id’s sewage, it always helps to remember what often causes them to swing open and let slip the furious, malodorous torrent of utterly degraded commentary: women who speak their minds.

Adding to the litany of women caught by the deluge of threats and bigotry, GameSpot editor and critic Carolyn Petit has been attacked by online commenters because she gave Grand Theft Auto V a near perfect review. A 9/10 was her verdict; however, some particularly and lamentably vocal fans wanted her to bless the game with a 10/10. Yes: for want of a lone point she has been called everything from a “bitch” to a “tranny” to “a shitty trap” to demanding that GameSpot “never, ever, let a woman review games like this!” to a “mentally ill freak”—the term “self-mutilating” came up far too many times to count.

Some of the more “reasonable” commentary bemoaned such extremes but, of course, sought to reassure us that not all gamers are like this and that, after all, these people are mere individuals (hovering somewhere between the ages of twelve and fifteen) who are solely responsible for their own vulgarity.

To this, I ask what I have always asked: How many individuals does it take before it becomes a social problem?

Time and again we see these cresting tidal waves of hateful spew, in which we can only see the screaming oblivion to which these people would consign democratic discourse. The comments Ms. Petit received display a singular lack of humanity that we must take upon ourselves to heal. To look at the hatred directed at women who speak their minds is to see the wracking death of discourse and, indeed, the source-code of patriarchy itself. Ms. Petit’s crime was to mention— offhandedly, no less, in an eight minute review that was mostly focused on non-political issues—the fact that GTA V relegates its women characters to outmoded and dehumanising archetypes. For this, she was put in the YouTube stocks.

For giving the game a 9/10 instead of a 10/10, it bears repeating. Continue reading

Amber Scott’s Sword of Burning Gold: Inclusion in an Incursion

A decidedly dramatic painting of a crimson demon, wielding a titanic sword slashing at a baying white dragon; in the midst of the carnage, some adventurers-- two women and a man-- fall through the rubble of the building the falling dragon shattered, tumbling into an abyss below

This sure beats the heck out of WoW’s Level 1. (Art by Wayne Reynolds).

What is staggering about much that passes under the banner of “fantasy” is how decidedly narrow its escapist vision tends to be. In both fantasy and sci-fi, far from transcending the fetters of real world limitations, we see our own world with its myriad failings reinscribed in uncritical verbatim form with only a smattering of chrome, Medieval grit, or magic to poorly disguise the copy. Dungeons & Dragons, long the towering mainstay of fantasy roleplay whose name is synonymous with its genre,  has at times been either a magnificent carnival of fantasy or a pitiless mire of the same tired clichés about gender, race, and sexuality that bedevil so much of nerd culture. This schismatic approach to its material is, I believe, a psychic scar left by the culture wars of the 1980s when D&D was accused of various and sundry evils; all ranging from reefer madness with dice to charges of blood drinking Satanism. The game remains gunshy about introducing content that might be deemed something less than family-friendly. Even its excellent Book of Exalted Deeds compendium—a supplement geared towards elaborating the concepts of virtue and divinity in D&D—came with a “Mature Content” warning sticker. The offending content was, well, a boob, along with a frank discussion of torture (and why it was morally unjustifiable).

This flinching instinct on the part of D&D’s inheritors, Hasbro-owned Wizards of the Coast, has kept LGBT characters far away from public acknowledgement in the game’s content. “Family friendly,” that delightful euphemism for wilful ignorance of and prejudice against sexual minorities, has become the catchphrase of the granddaddy of RPGs.

While my love for D&D was immense and filled with innumerable fond memories, many immortalised on a shelf groaning under the weight of 2e and 3.5e books, I lamented the fact that such a fantastic genre should be hamstrung by senseless timidity. It was not just the issue of LGBT inclusion, of course; the writing had ossified, the taken for granted dimensions of the setting had become set in stone, routinized and underdeveloped. Flashes of brilliant creativity were smothered in the gloom of playing it safe as the controversial Fourth Edition went to press.

Enter Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder. For years I’d ignored it blithely, thinking it was a low rent, grittier D&D that had nothing new to offer, save a nostalgic continuation of the 3.5e ruleset. How wrong I was. The long, in-depth second look it deserved from me was occasioned by a friend’s breathless Facebook post about a trans woman character being introduced in the game’s latest adventure module.  A lesbian trans woman, married to a half-Orc Paladin of a Lawful Good goddess. My attention was well and truly piqued. Continue reading

Finding My Voice in Games: Speaking, Singing, Streaming

The gestures a character can perform in Dark Souls.

The gestures a character can perform in Dark Souls.

First, I snort like a horse a few times. Then I sound out all the vowels in turn, sliding my pitch up and down, up and down. I think of my voice as a river running through me from my lungs to my throat to my lips and I know that I have to change its course.

I dam my voice at my throat and try to make it run through my forehead instead. Then, locking in my pitch as high as I can muster, I read a few pages of a book aloud. I imagine a helium balloon over my head, insistently pulling my intonation upward at the end of each word, each sentence.

And there it is.

For a few minutes, I can sound like me, like Samantha, like how I always imagine myself sounding. I can slough off the dreary baritone I’ve been stuck with since puberty and speak instead in a soft alto that lilts playfully through every phrase. It feels sublime. But it exhausts me.

Like many transgender women, I started taking hormones after puberty had irreversibly thickened my larynx. Apart from a risky surgical procedure, the only way for me to produce a conventionally feminine speaking voice is through practice.

I have just started to do rigorous vocal exercises like the one described above. They’re not going well so far. I can produce a “believable” female voice but I feel like I’m impersonating someone. It’s so hard to get used to the idea that this can be my voice now, that no one has to know how I spoke before my transition.

Singing is even harder for me. If I want to sing at high volume, I need to access characteristically male features of my voice. As much as I love belting out “A Whole New World,” karaoke is off limits unless I’m in a queer-friendly space. When I sing, I can hear disturbingly powerful echoes of the person I once was. It’s uncomfortably dysphoric or, more simply put, it makes me feel weird about my gender.

But when Cameron Kunzelman asked me to record a new version of my song “Transcontinental Alpaca” for the game Alpaca Run, I jumped at the chance; I loved to write music but I had not recorded any new songs since 2009, well before the start of my transition.

Ingrid, the transcontinental alpaca and star of Alpaca Run.

Ingrid, the transcontinental alpaca and star of Alpaca Run.

I had missed singing so much, I realized. I listened to my old music and heard prescient hints of changes to come. Through my music, I had been feeling my gender identity out in the dark, finding circumlocutory language to describe a precise but shadowy feeling. In one song, I complain to the addressee: “Don’t tell me to be the man. I’m not. / And neither are you. / So where does that leave us?” In another, I preemptively mourn an impossible future: “I could have made it if I were a man / but I didn’t have a plan for this.”

“Transcontinental Alpaca,” by comparison, was lighter fare indeed. I first recorded the song in 2007 and, at the time, it was a heartfelt song about a boy and his alpaca travelling across the country and an anthem for Ingrid, my beloved alpaca stuffed animal.

When I returned to the song at Cameron’s behest in 2013, I had to ask myself what had changed. Was the narrator of the song still male even though my own gender had changed? The lyrics of “Transcontinental Alpaca” provided no clues; the only pronouns in the song are “I” for the narrator and “she” for Ingrid. Was my relationship to this fictional alpaca gendered in 2007 in ways that had gone completely unexamined at the time? Were Ingrid and I sisters now when once she had been my maternal protector? I even pondered the “trans-” prefix in the chorus (“She’s the transcontinental alpaca…”), a single syllable that sounds so different to me now than it did in 2007.

I tried to push past my puzzling questions but, as I immersed myself in the recording process, my confusion only deepened. How should I sing this song? Should I impersonate the person I had been in 2007 or should I try to sing differently? How comfortable was I leaning into the humor of the falsetto break before the chorus, that peculiarly gendered humor of a “male voice” suddenly sounding “womanly” as it launches itself into a higher register?

The questions piled up, as did my reservations about attaching my voice to the project. This would be most people’s initial experience with my voice and it would not, to my mind, leave them with a convincingly feminine first impression. I didn’t want the audience to hear that voice; I wanted them to hear the lilting alto of my fantasies.

I’d like to say that I came up with an amazing theory as to how my transition had changed the song. I’d like to say that I subtly altered the recording process to reflect the personal shifts that had taken place over the past year. I didn’t. I just sang. I lost myself in the mechanics of the process and shoved the theory aside. I got a good take. I sent it to Cameron. I shelved my trepidation.

When Alpaca Run first came out, most of the people who played it knew who I was. But, as it spread beyond my own queer-affirmative circles, my fears about my voice were quickly justified. One YouTuber, upon seeing the credits of the game, concluded that someone named Samantha Allen could not possibly be the singer of “Transcontinental Alpaca.” I wrote a clarification in the comments and he was understanding. But I wondered how many of Alpaca Run’s thousands of players envision a male narrator as soon as the soundtrack kicks in.

I played Alpaca Run again yesterday for the first time in weeks with a longtime friend looking over my shoulder.

“I don’t like that song,” she said. “It doesn’t sound like you anymore.”

And indeed, in that moment, the song struck me as a strange relic, out of time and out of place. Who was this person singing? Did I sound like myself? How could I not? I am me, after all. And yet, how alienating it was to hear it through her ears. How strange it was that this curious song about an alpaca’s journey across the USA was now a portal through time to a version of myself that I had left by the wayside.

What I’ve discovered through my transition and especially through the process of singing for Alpaca Run is that voice remains of the most powerful perceptual cues that people use to understand each other. Transgender folk wisdom has it that it takes about four female cues to overshadow one male cue. As hormones reshape my body, as my hair grows out, as I hone my makeup skills, more and more female cues are lining up for me. But my voice—my pesky, stubborn voice—can bring them all crashing down in an instant. My voice shapes how people approach me; it changes whether they think of me as a woman or as a “third category.”

It shouldn’t be this way, I know. We should be able to accept a variety of voices coming out of a variety of bodies. Some people choose to thwart conventionally gendered notions of voice and I honor that choice but, in my personal case, I do want to blend sometimes. For me, shifting other people’s perception is worth the labor of vocal training. And so, haltingly, I continue my exercises. First, I snort like a horse…

A couple of weeks ago, I started streaming Dark Souls on Twitch.tv. The stream began as a way for my sagely older brother to guide me through a first playthrough of this notoriously difficult game but others started to tune in as well. Some found my stream through my Twitter and, as such, probably know that I’m transgender. But other chat participants seem blissfully unaware of who I am beyond my bio photo.

In a short time, Twitch has become an escape for me, the one corner of gaming culture in which I can just relax and play a game without wearing my trans hat. When I’m harassed on Twitter during a video game controversy, people intentionally misgender me but, in my little Twitch oasis, chat participants use appropriate pronouns at all times. They have no reason not to. They’re so innocent.

I communicate with the chat through hurried text messages and through the ever comical Dark Souls gesture system. But I want to talk. I want to crack a joke. I want to scream when I run into a trap and cheer when I finally defeat a boss.

Voice has become an increasingly important facet of gaming culture: from podcasts to “Let’s Play” videos to Twitch streams. I want to join the conversation, too.

But I’m scared. I still have so much work to do on my voice. Every time I stream Dark Souls, I look down at the red light on my headset by the words “Mic Mute.” And I wonder what will happen if I turn it green.

micmute

Save Points

by Riley MacLeod

Riley MacLeod is a trans writer and activist based in Brooklyn, NY. He is an editor at Topside Press and co-editor of “The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard,” which won the 2012 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction.

Trigger warning for discussions of suicide.

Everything bad seems to happen to me when playing Spec Ops: The Line.

The last essay I wrote for this site was about playing Spec Ops during Hurricane Sandy and the surreal feeling of playing a disaster game during a corporeal disaster. Over the winter I read Brendan Keogh’s Killing is Harmless and re-downloaded Spec Ops, intending to dig up some of the intricacies he points out, but I never got around to it. Last week, tired of the vapid sexism of Splinter Cell: Conviction, picked up during a Steam sale, I went back to Captain Walker’s ruined Dubai. It was nice, in a weird way. I’d forgotten how beautiful and harsh the environments were, and new headphones wrapped me in the rich sound design, the gritty footsteps and rattling gear of my doomed Delta squad, the solid crunch of bodies hitting glass. I found some new things–the tree that dies when you turn around, the ghost of a dead woman in the windows of a skyscraper, the ending you get when you fight your way through to the very last man. Done with a playthrough, I found myself achievement hunting, which I was dubious about in my essay, and I investigated what I was doing as I played late into the night. I realized that I didn’t want to leave Walker, Adams, and Lugo alone in that fucked-up place, stuck with their demons and their failures. I felt bad for them and what I was urging them to do with a gentle digital hand on their backs. I couldn’t change what happened to them, but I could at least try to guide them, keep them for too long in the corridors and ledges between combat arenas, staring shiftily at each other before they had to learn what atrocity I knew was coming next.
Continue reading

In Medias Res

Six months in.

Six months in.

[Author's note: This is a follow-up to my first post on The Border House. There are many ways to transition and not all of them involve hormones.  While I want to share my journey, I don't want my transition to be read as an archetype for others.]

Transitioning legally, hormonally and socially is like playing a classic Japanese role-playing game. At the start, you “gain experience” and “level up” at an exhilarating pace. Last August, I came out to my friends: Level 2! Last October, I came out at work: Level 3!

In November, I reached the bottom of the dungeon (the endocrinology department at the Emory University Hospital), beat the big boss (my long-awaited doctor’s appointment) and obtained some sweet loot: a prescription for spironolactone (a testosterone-blocker) and estradiol (a form of estrogen). This single victory merited a massive experience boost: Level 3 to Level 7 all at once!

As time wore on, however, these monumental moments spread further and further apart. This February, I legally changed my name: Level 8, I suppose. I got an F on my passport last month: Level 8 and a half? I changed the name on my car title. Hooray? How exciting…

It feels like I’m grinding now. About six months into hormone replacement therapy (HRT), physical progress is frustratingly incremental. Everyday, twice a day, I pop that same pair of pills. Everyday, I brush my hair out to see how long it’s gotten, tugging my bangs down over the tip of my nose. Everyday, I examine my body in the mirror hoping that I will be surprised by what I see.

Continue reading

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.

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.