A Game Level Where You Can't Pass

  This fall, I had the opportunity to teach a PhD seminar on media theory and history focused around issues of medium specificity and intermediality as part of USC's iMAP Program. Here's how the Cinema School describes that innovative degree program:

Created in 2007, the interdivisional program in Media Arts & Practice (iMAP) situates technology and creative production alongside the historical and theoretical contexts of critical media studies. This practice-oriented Ph.D. program provides students with both practical experience and theoretical knowledge as they work to define new modes of research and production in the 21st century.

Media Arts & Practice was inspired by recent developments in media and technology that have altered the landscape of media production, analysis, distribution and display. Our goal is to support a new generation of scholar-practitioners who are able to combine historical and theoretical knowledge with creative and critical design skills. Students who complete a Ph.D. in Media Arts & Practice will be uniquely prepared to shape the future of media and scholarship, and to actively engage in the emerging cultural, technological and political dynamics of a global media ecology.

Media Arts & Practice integrates the strengths of each program within the School of Cinematic Arts (production, critical studies, writing, interactive media, and animation & digital arts) by offering students the opportunity to substantially design their own course of study. The core iMAP curriculum consists of three foundational courses in design, media and theory, plus a professionalization seminar devoted to exploring emerging movements in media technology, theory and practice. Students have unprecedented freedom to define and pursue their own specialization by drawing on the course offerings and world-renowned faculty across the School of Cinematic Arts and utilizing the resources of the school's state-of-the-art digital production facilities.

You can imagine how much fun it is to introduce a comparative media studies perspective to this diverse, creative, and intellectually engaged group of students, and helping them to think more deeply about how theoretical and historical perspectives might further inform their own expressive practice as media artists and designers.

What follows is one of several essays produced for the class which deal with cutting edge developments in the Independent Games world. In this case, Micha Cárdenas discusses two recent games which seek to explore transgender identities and experiences.

A Game Level Where You Can’t Pass Micha Cárdenas

When one plays a video game on a computer, does the game maker’s identity matter? Or does the player’s identity matter, in terms of game play? How does one understand the identity of a game theorist in relation to their writing? Recent independently produced games by transgender women game designers Merrit Kopas and Anna Anthropy open up a series of questions about the nature of computer gaming. How much does the metatext for a game shape our experience of it? How do players identify with characters whose gender they do not identify with, or understand at all? How can the rules of oppressive social structures like the binary gender system become part of game play? To consider these questions, I will rely on theories from game studies scholars as well as looking at comparative game examples.

Lim is a game created by Merritt Kopas that is playable on web browsers that support HTML5. I found this game because I am facebook friends with Kopas. She posted this on Facebook and on Tumblr ‘I made a game called Lim. A friend describes it as being about “the tension and violence and dread and suffocation of passing.” Play it online here.’ The kind of passing being referred to here is passing as a desired gender, as in the case of a transgender woman, and the ensuing degrees of violence from verbal to physical which ensue when one fails to pass as male or female.

My experience of the game was certainly shaped by the metatext in this case. As it is an extremely simple graphical game where the player’s avatar is a colored cube and other colored cubes attack you if your color is different, there are many possible readings of the game. On the game creator’s website, the link to play the game is preceded with this quote from Erving Goffman: “there seems to be no agent more effective than another person in bringing a world for oneself alive, or, by a glance, a gesture, or a remark, shriveling up the reality in which one is lodged.” As such, it is stated from the onset to be concerned with social identity and it’s difficulties, but is only situated as a game about transgender experience by virtue of its creator’s identity.

This opens up a host of questions, such as how much a game, or any work of art, should be evaluated based on the identity of its creator? Further, given the knowledge that the game depicts the violence of the everyday experience of transgender people, how do cisgender (non-transgender) players experience the game? Richard Schechner’s response to Markku Eskelinen is useful here, when he asks “What we don't know about the ‘real life’ of computer games are the social circumstances that surrounds, and to a large degree guides, their playing. That is, what ‘other’ stories are the players enacting?” While in many cases these subversive readings allow transgender players to see themselves in cisgender characters, in the case of Lim we can understand multiple readings of complex social interactions to arise from the very simplicity of the aesthetic and the ability of players to identify with incredibly simple objects if they have the ability to control them in a game context.

From a game studies approach, the question of a player’s identity in relation to a character has been considered largely in terms of race and binary gender configurations. While Henry Jenkins writes in the section “Play as Performance” that “we don’t speak of controlling a cursor on the screen when we describe the experience of playing a game; we act as if we had unmediated access to the fictional space,” such claims at immediacy seem to elide the possible alienation some gamers feel based on the disjunction between their identities and the available avatars. In From Barbie to Mortal Combat, Jenkins and Cassell write “historically, gender was an unexploited category in video game design, with male designers developing games based on their own tastes and cultural assumptions… Yet, as feminist critics note, as long as masculinity remains the invisible norm, the default set within a patriarchal culture, unselfconscious efforts are likely to simply perpetuate male dominance.” While it would be an easy step to transpose this claim to cisgender game designers perpetuating the dominance of the gender binary, as most games today still only depict primarily male and female characters, perhaps more interesting possibilities arise when one goes beyond simple claims for more representation of transgender people in games. What Lim demonstrates is a set of fundamental game mechanics that emerge from a life experience that exceeds gender binaries.

One striking characteristic of Lim is its sparse set of instructions. The only text on the actual page for the game is the following: “arrow keys move, z to blend in | note: contains flashing lights and shaking effects. Made with Construct 2 — the HTML5 game creator” Given these instructions, the player is left to determine the game mechanics on their own. In a review of Lim, Porpentine writes “Lim’s mechanics are the message…. you have to struggle and mash the keys and slide along the walls just to scrape into the next room and when it’s over you feel like you never want to do that again so you’re going to be really careful about passing in the future, it’s just not worth—ohhhhhh.”

One of the most effective moments in Lim is its moments of total breakdown. Players have complained that at times the game becomes unplayable, one’s avatar gets blocked from proceeding, from passing as it were, and at other times the aggressive game enemies may knock one’s avatar completely out of the bounds of the game world. To me, these are the most revealing moments, because in reality, at times transgender people are not able to pass into spaces they want to enter, or are trapped in spaces they want to escape, or are murdered because of their gender expression. These moments in the game play are particularly revealing.

Another game designed by a transgender woman is Dys4ia by Anna Anthropy and it similarly uses game mechanics to convey parts of its message. The game can be played online, like Lim, and is an autobiographical game about the six-month period in which she decided to start hormone therapy. Again, this transgender game maker has chosen to make the game mechanics a reflection of the difficulties of their experience as a transgender person. By doing so, they create a medium specific experience in which players of the game can experience some small degree of the feelings involved, instead of merely seeing or reading a representation of them.

In Dys4ia, there are 4 levels, “Gender Bullshit, Medical Bullshit, Hormone Bullshit, Is Gets Better?”. Each of these levels is composed of a number of mini games. Each mini game has its own rules, controls and directionality. In effect, a mirror of the experience of transgender people navigating the complex world of hormone therapy is created because the player has to figure out an entirely new set of rules in each of these mini games. As players read the text associated with each mini game, such as “shaving is humiliating” or “now to find a good clinic” or “my breasts are too sensitive to touch”, they are introduced to a new game mechanic and they have to figure out the new rules quickly. In my own experience, as a transgender woman, this is very similar to the experience of hormone therapy, where each new obstacle: psychiatric therapy, doctor visits, personal relationship issues, must be deciphered and figured out, like a game, yet each game has its own unique set of rules and mechanics.

Dys4ia provides a useful example for game studies. The simplicity of Dys4ia’s mini games mirrors the statement by Eskelinen that “the main thing is that any element can be turned into a game element, and a single element is enough to constitute a game if it allows manipulation, and this fact alone allows combinations not witnessed in narratives or drama.” Many of the mini games in Dys4ia are extremely simple, such as a figure dodging the harsh words of anti-trans “feminists” which fly across the screen horizontally by moving up and down, a mechanic similar to classic games like Pong or Galaga, but in this case associated with the drama of the personal struggles of a transgender woman. The online indie game format allows Anna Anthropy to create a very simple aesthetic expression of her experience, similar to Galaga in its degree of complexity, yet differentiating from Galaga in her choice of colors and iconography.

The questions raised by games made by transgender game designers can be informed by game design theories written by the artist Eddo Stern. Stern describes a process he uses in game design as phenomenological game design that takes into consideration the embodied experience of players. In a lecture given in the cinema school at USC, Stern asked how game design can be changed by a consideration of the player’s embodied experience, for example, asking how role playing games may be different if players actually had to be charismatic in order to have a high charisma score for their character, or how a player’s sense of direction may be incorporated into the abilities of an in game character, or how games may be designed for deaf or blind players. With these considerations in mind, he has designed a game called Dark Game, centered around the struggle of two players to either bring light to a world or bring a world into darkness. He describes the game as a sensory deprivation game, and one image of the game shows a player with a hood over their head obstructing their vision, and the player can only feel the contours of the world through the haptic feedback in the PS3 controller. Stern has worked with differently abled people such as blind or deaf people in the play testing of this game, and the interface of the game clearly reflects this, including for example the character creation system contains a menu which is both visually presented and has every word spoken aloud. Dark Game, as an example of phenomenological game design, provides a comparison to the games Lim and Dys4ia by introducing the differences in game play between transgender players and cisgender players.

When I, as a transgender woman who has had many experiences similar to those described by Anthropy, played Dys4ia, I was literally brought to tears by the emotional connection I felt in the game. In contrast, watching a queer identified cisgender friend of mine play the game, she was simultaneously interested in the content and confused by it, adding an additional layer on top of the challenge of learning the controls. In particular, the mini games that dealt with Anthropy’s personal relations with their girlfriend were the ones that were both most emotionally compelling to me and confusing to my friend who played the game in front of me. The analysis in this paper was in fact aided by my experience observing this friend of mine play the game and our subsequent conversation in which they were able to make useful observations about the game mechanics that had escaped me in my emotional response to the game. These differing experiences point to the importance of a consideration of complex gender and sexual identifications of players and designers of games as there is much possibility for enriched experiences in games aimed at specific publics rather than targeted for an assumed mass public. Further, this short example additionally lends support to the importance of consideration of other social characteristics of players and designers in game design, including race, ability, economic class, immigration status, body size and more. Each of these characteristics offers a rich set of theoretical history from which game designers and game studies scholars can draw to add meaning and affective impact to their work.

While both Lim and Dys4ia appear to be incredibly simple games with low resolution two dimensional graphics and simple game mechanics, their social context allows for a deep richness of play, design and theorization. Games produced by transgender game designers about transgender experiences open up a space for a consideration of the intersections of game studies, gender studies, phenomenology, narratology and disability studies. Further, these fields can be combined with writing from feminist cinema scholars who look at reception and subversive readings or critical race scholars who consider the intertwined construction of race and technology to give further support to these theories. The study I have undertaken here is only a sketch that gestures to the possibilites of studying these games and their implications.

Micha Cárdenas is an artist/theorist who works in social practice, wearable electronics and intersectional analysis. They are a PhD student in Media Arts and Practice (iMAP) at University of Southern California and a member of Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0. Micha’s project Local Autonomy Networks was selected for the 2012 ZERO1 Biennial in San Jose and was the subject of their keynote performance at the 2012 Allied Media Conference. Micha’s book The Transreal: Political Aesthetics of Crossing Realities, published by Atropos Press in 2012, discusses art that uses augmented, mixed and alternate reality, and the intersection of those strategies with the politics of gender, in a transnational context. Micha holds an MFA from University of California, San Diego, an MA in Communication from the European Graduate School and a BS in Computer Science from Florida International University. They blog at transreal.org and tweet at@michacardenas.