Video-game designer Anna Anthropy describes the life of a radical, queer, transgender gamer

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Anna Anthropy demos her game "Duck Duck, Poison." (Ida C. Benedetto/Babycastles)
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Jed Lipinski

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In 2002, Anna Anthropy, the prolific transgender video-game developer, decided to quit playing video games.

At the time, she was a sophomore at Purchase College, SUNY, in New York, buried in the coursework and psychic burdens that come with double majoring in women’s studies and creative writing, with a minor in lesbian and gay studies. But she was also fed up with the big-budget games of the day, like Super Mario Galaxy and Metal Gear Solid II, which she found to be “stupid,” “patronizing” and “just dumb.”

Her period of Buddha-like renunciation ended a year later, when she discovered Game Maker, a software program that allows users to make computer games without prior computer programming experience. She used it to create her first real game, a reflex-based puzzler called “Jaywalker: The Game of Pedestrian Revenge,” the goal of which is to cause car crashes by walking blindly into intersections.

“Through Game Maker, I suddenly found all these people on the Internet making games and distributing them like zines,” she said recently, sitting beside her girlfriend at the Golden Eagle Diner in the Bronx, a few blocks from her childhood home. “So I started playing those games instead. And they opened up this crazy new world for me.”

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Since then, Anthropy, who is 29 and blogs under the name Auntie Pixelante, has created more than 70 games. These include “Keep Me Occupied,” a collaborative two-player arcade game on wheels, which Occupy protesters in Oakland rolled through the streets on January 28 as tear gas and flashbang grenades exploded around them. More recently, she appeared on NPR’s “On the Media” to discuss Dys4ia, a game drawn from her first six months of hormone replacement therapy. 

In March, she published her first book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form, through Seven Stories Press. Part memoir, part indie-game manifesto, it argues that video games have to be rescued from the “creatively bankrupt” corporate gaming industry.

Anthropy now lives in Oakland with her girlfriend, Daphny Drucilla Delight David (“That’s actually my real name”), but she returned to New York late last month to promote her book. Dressed in a black V-neck sweater and black jeans, with her black-rimmed glasses framed by a sharp black bob, she looked like the Gothic counterpart to David, a high-spirited dog trainer in a fleece cat-ear hat with multi-colored bracelets jangling on her wrists.

A few days before, Anthropy had curated a video-game exhibit for Babycastles, the D.I.Y. gaming collective, inside a warehouse in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The exhibit featured her newest game, "Duck Duck Poison," which required players to sit on a ratty Victorian couch and don oversize bras with controllers embedded in the fabric. The players directed the characters—bound-and-gagged female spies, one of whom is a vampire—by pressing their mechanized nipples.

“Things could get a little sleazy, if you wanted them to,” Anthropy said with a grin. To encourage misbehavior, she’d periodically triggered a smoke machine hidden beneath the couch, wreathing the participants in fog.

Anthropy says that she always wanted to make video games. At age six, she remembers cutting out paper dolls and jumping them through levels she’d drawn on sheets of construction paper.

“Of course, back then I didn’t know ‘video-game developer’ was a real job,” she said. “It all seemed so mystical and distant.”

The first game she played was either "Missile Command" or "Pac-Man" on Atari, she said, though her fondest gaming memories involve playing "Bubble Bobble," the game about two dinosaurs that blow bubbles together, with her mom. Like many game developers of her generation, she conducted teenage experiments with a text-based adventure game called "ZZT." Created by Tim Sweeney—now the president of Epic Games, the company behind the blockbuster "Gears of War" series—"ZZT" allowed players to easily edit its scripting language and manipulate the characters on screen.

Yet when applying to colleges years later, Anthropy still did not consider video-game developer a viable profession. Today, the Princeton Review ranks the Top 10 undergraduate and graduate game-design programs, chosen from 150 different institutions in the United States and Canada. But in 2001, only a handful of such programs existed. She enrolled in the creative writing program at SUNY Purchase instead, only to drop out during her junior year.

“I saw myself entering an endless cycle of higher education, and I just lost interest,” she said.

Still, her background sets her apart from the typical game designer—that is, a twentysomething male weaned on sci-fi and fantasy lit, with a degree in computer science or engineering. In lieu of Tolkien and George R.R. Martin, Anthropy favored the works of Audre Lorde, the Caribbean-American lesbian feminist writer and activist. She was also deeply influenced by Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, an alternative comic written and drawn by Diane DiMassa, whose main character has a transgender love interest and goes around blithely castrating various male oppressors.

“That her character was dating a trans woman was tremendous for me,” she said.

As a fiction writer, Anthropy viewed game creation less as a system of mechanical problems to solve than as a way of telling stories. The ideal video game, she writes in Zinesters, is “personal,” with a “clean, unmuddied mechanical idea that translates perfectly to a storytelling idea.”

“I wanted to make games that were actually relevant to peoples’ experience of the world,” she said, “and not just about men shooting aliens over and over.”

This idea would find expression while Anthropy was living in Plano, Tex., in 2008, after she enrolled in The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University—one of the most prestigious video-game programs in the country.

Her relationship with The Guildhall was doomed from the start. For one, Plano is not the best town for a vegan transgender game designer without a car. (“There was nothing to eat and nowhere to go,” Anthropy writes in the book.) She also missed David, whom she’d met the previous year through the gaming forum SelectButton.net.

“Someone had started a thread on the subject of BDSM,” Anthropy recalled, referring to the form of consensual sexual role-play in which both women are well versed. “In the process of dispelling a few myths, we also cruised each other really hard.”

Moreover, Anthropy’s theories of game design clashed with those of her teachers, one of whose claims to fame was having directed "Splinter Cell: Las Vegas II." Things came to a head in her second semester, when she refused to include messages in a modification of the game "Oblivion" that told players when they’d achieved their goal. “I didn’t think the player was an idiot,” she explained. She was expelled as a result, and spent the next two months stranded in Plano while arranging for the return of her stuff to New York.

And yet Anthropy’s exile in the Texas desert, cut off from her girlfriend and miles from the nearest chicken seitan sandwich, proved especially conducive to video-game creation. Her first semester, she channeled her despair into "Mighty Jill Off," a semi-autobiographical game based on the Nintendo classic Mighty Bomb Jack, but centered around a “submissive masochist” who climbs a tower to prove herself to her queen.

The game reflected her longstanding interest in the resemblance between video games and BDSM. “[G]ames about challenge are about the relationship between the player and the designer,” she writes in Zinesters, “the former trying to prove her capacity and will to the latter, the latter trying to continuously challenge the former while maintaining her trust.”

In the lonely weeks after leaving Guildhall, Anthropy designed "Calamity Annie," whose protagonist is a “brash young dyke cowboy” in the Old West. In her attempts to clean up the one-street town, Annie encounters a sensitive young city woman named Valentine. If all goes well, they ride into the sunset together at the end.

“I make games about what’s going on in my life,” Anthropy said, looking at David beside her, “and she’s a huge part of my life.”

“I’m her muse, I guess,” David said, laughing shyly.

With "Dys4ia," however, Anthropy took her confessional impulse to a new level. In the game, which lasts less than 10 minutes and uses simple Atari-style graphics, the player proceeds through four levels (Gender Bullshit, Medical Bullshit, Hormonal Bullshit, and It Gets Better?) that reflect the challenges of deciding to undergo estrogen replacement.

“I feel like spy whenever I use the women’s bathroom,” reads a strip of text near the start. In the second level, the protagonist locates a medical clinic, where a doctor demands that she reduce her blood pressure before treating her. In the third level, she begins taking estradiol, and finds herself crying at everything her girlfriend says.

But things brighten near the end. The final screen shows a steadily rising sun with the words: “It’s a small thing but I feel like I’ve taken the first step toward something TREMENDOUS.” The bare-bones design, combined with the unself-conscious directness of the story, gives the game an unexpected emotional power.

In a potentially controversial move, Anthropy released Dys4ia through Newgrounds.com, a popular website that hosts over 170,000 Flash movies and games. The site’s slogan is: “Everything, By Everyone,” though Anthropy said that the majority of users visit “to play games about clubbing baby seals.”

“I wanted to appeal to transgender people, but also to confront the nerds with this Other that they’d never otherwise encounter,” she said.

The day of its release, Dys4ia was played 50,000 times. She expected hostile reactions, but received instead an outpouring of support.

“The comments are like, ‘I can really relate to your story’ and ‘You taught me a lot,’” said David.

Anthropy said she received emails from people who had hesitated to go on hormones, but were encouraged to take action after playing her game. “Some moments in the game perfectly reflect some of my experiences,” wrote a blogger named TransGamerSociologist.

Despite her fallout with The Guildhall, the academic gaming community has come to embrace her work. On March 29, she spoke about her book at New York University’s Gaming Center. Charles Pratt, a researcher there, said, “Anna has a gift for portraying what might be disturbing or otherwise uncomfortable subjects in a way that’s inviting and even light-hearted.”

Jeanne Thornton, an indie game enthusiast and former editor at Seven Stories Press, who pitched Anthropy the idea for “Zinesters” two years ago, said that part of her strength comes from her willingness to deal with subjects that are off-limits to the commercial gaming industry.

“’The Legend of Zelda’ was inspired by its creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s experience exploring caves as a kid in Japan,” she said. “If Miyamoto had tried to make a game about growing up gay, Nintendo never would have let him make it.”

Which is not to say that Anthropy is above working for commercial distributors to help pay the rent. In 2011, she designed a game called "Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars" for Adult Swim’s game website, raking in a year’s salary for a few months’ work. But the arrangement had its drawbacks: she had to fight to keep the word “lesbian” in the title, she said, and found the site’s censorship rules bizarre.

“They told me I could keep all the characters topless, as long as I removed their nipples,” she said.

“Oh my,” said our waitress, as she nervously refilled Anthropy’s coffee cup.

Zinesters sprang from a desire to both explain the value of games and give people permission to make their own, no matter how mediocre. Ultimately, Anthropy writes, “I want a world where everyone is capable of sitting down and making a game by herself.”

Meanwhile, she’s trying to change the way people play them. At the warehouse show in Bushwick, Joe Salina, an artist and member of Babycastles, said that Anthropy encouraged players to “screw with” each other while playing "Duck Duck Poison."

“She was like, ‘You can press other peoples’ nipples if you want. It’s not as if you have to play by the rules.’”

All photos Ida C. Benedetto/Babycastles