Ohmygod Are You Going To Be Alright? An Interview on Passion, Perseverance and Hope for the Future with Anna Anthropy
"I don't know if I believe in passion. Passion is the thing that lets us overlook how badly we're hurting."
Anna Anthropy, like many trans women who create games, is a pioneer in her field; influencing, affecting and shaping the direction and perception of indie games, paving the way for more queer and trans game developers—myself included. Anna is responsible for an impressive body of work including: space exploration platformer Redder, consensual bondage negotiator Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars, and her Frogger-style first-hand account of getting hit by a car in 2015: Ohmygod Are You Alright?
Unimpressed by an industry that rewards white cis mediocrity and leaves its greatest creators unacknowledged and undercompensated, I sat down with Anna to discuss her prolific career, her ongoing struggle to make a living off her work, and her hopes for the future.
Veve Jaffa: Despite how clearly you’ve discussed the intentions and goals of your creative work, the messages of your games continue to be co-opted and misappropriated to fit privileged people’s agendas, particularly cis academics who teach using your games and writing without compensation, insisting your games evoke empathy in their players, even going so far as to claim cis men can learn acceptance for trans women through your work.
Why do you think this decontextualization and need to control your creative narratives exist, particularly in regards to hyper-focus on your 2012 game about the feelings and challenges surrounding your transition, Dys4ia?
Anna Anthropy: I think Dys4ia is useful to the games narrative because as a “single-issue” game it’s really easily consumable—it can be the “designated trans game.” All of my games reflect my transfeminine identity and the larger complexity of my personhood, but Dys4ia is easier to hold up as a soundbite, as an example of how games actually ARE diverse after all. It’s not about Dys4ia and it’s not about me, it’s all about finding ways to refute the damage done to games’ public image in the wake of GamerGate.
Before GG it was useful to hold up as an example of games “taking on” real subjects, but I think after there was a real need to prove that diverse games exist, and this process has had nothing to do with actually supporting “diverse” developers but just in using their works to support the image of gaming.
Veve: Do you feel this mistreatment and exploitation stems from existing as a trans woman in games, or is there more at play?
Anna: I think I’ve been not “the right kind of woman” in a lot of ways, including that I’m not cisgender. What games culture wants are women as spokespeople, and there are two acceptable narratives: one is total positivity—the Jane McGonigal narrative “games are going to change the world”. The other one is the indefatigable victim. She’s endured harassment but she struggles on, because games are worth it. Some people embrace this narrative and some are shoehorned into it. What the games industry wants is women they can hold up as a sign that “it gets better.”
A Page From Anna’s Sketchbook
Veve: Does awareness of this binary impact what issues you speak about in the industry or the subject matter you take on in your work?
Anna: What you can’t do is be critical of the industry itself and the roles it plays in abusing women and other marginalized people. You can’t talk about how stuff like GamerGate is a product of the way the games industry grooms its customer base and provides no kind of support for women. You also can’t refuse to engage with something like GamerGate if you don’t want to get erased from the conversation around women in games, and trans women in games are the people who have the least support network and who are the most vulnerable to GamerGate-style harassment; they can’t often afford to do either.
I think there are definite boundaries over who’s allowed to claim victimhood. An angry, hurt, fat, non-cis-passing trans woman has a hard time being seen as worthy of sympathy. I think that’s part of why Dys4ia was such a peak for me, in terms of visibility; it allowed people an acceptable narrative where I was the victim but not of them, not of the good cis people who were doing their part and playing my little trans game.
Veve: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, both with identifying who is deemed worthy of victimhood and why cis people have such a myopic focus on Dys4ia.
Your passion and knowledge for games goes far beyond making them. You’re also an author and historian of games, exploring their history and cultural impact in your books ZZT and Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. Has the desire to write about games and games culture always coexisted with your desire to create games?
Anna: Well, the narratives about game creation that resonate with me as a creator are not the ones that are well-documented. Traditional game histories are all about big studios like Nintendo and Sega, but the games that I grew up on were ZZT games and weird shareware games; games by rogue weirdoes. Those are the games that are closest to what I’m doing, and there’s next to no history written about them. I wanted to write some of that history down.
Veve: And you do a really thorough job of it! What is your goal in documenting and discussing the history of games, especially the ones that get little attention?
Anna: I just want a history of games that isn’t so monolithic. A lot of people have made a lot of games for a lot of different reasons, and we mostly just talk about the huge commercial successes. Most game histories are written by fanboys—take something like “Masters of Doom.” That book isn’t a history, it’s just an opportunity to gush about a successful game and the dudes who made it. I want to hear the stories of games that didn’t become industry standards, of weird experiments and failures and cottage industries. Those tell us more about what making games is like.
Completed witchball contestants from Be Witching
Veve: You’re also responsible for popularizing Twine as a go-to for aspiring and established game developers alike. You even made a really handy guide on how to use it! You often emphasize the accessibility of game-making tools as a crucial feature—can you talk about what makes game development tools accessible (from your perspective) and why you think it’s important that game-making is easy-access?
Anna: Game-making tools need to be accessible to non-programmers because otherwise only programmers would make games. And programmers come from many different walks of life but mostly from the walks of life who can afford engineering degrees and who can survive a culture that’s really hostile to non-men and non-white folks and so tend to be dominated by only a pretty privileged perspective. Games are pretty boring, if those are the only people making them.
As for what makes a tool accessible, I think it’s a combination of things. It needs to not look like programming, but it also needs to be constrained. Twine is all about typing, something many people already know how to do. ZZT’s great trick is that although you could actually do really complicated stuff with its scripting language, you could only ever use the single set of characters in 16 different colors. Warioware D.I.Y. let you only make games that were a few seconds long. There’s a technical hurdle AND there’s a creativity hurdle—either you don’t know what to make or you try and make something too big—and the best accessible tools address both.
Veve: Speaking of project scale, I want to talk about your methodology in that regard. You’re super prolific and keep this really consistent pace to your work: basically you’re always making or posting something new, and in such a wide range of styles and subject matter. How do you shape ideas into something that can be achieved in a reasonable amount of time?
Anna: I got really good at scoping small because I just don’t ever have the money or stability to sit and work on something for a while. It would be nice to be able to focus on one thing and not have to worry, but instead I’ve got to keep moving and keep getting paid, so I keep the scale of my projects to something I can do in a week max. I think it’s a lot better to produce a ton of different messy stuff than to spend ten years whittling one thing to perfection.
Veve: Speaking of perfection, you’re re-releasing one of my favourite games, REDDER. Can you share about that process and why you made the decision?
Anna: THE DECISION! Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars and Dys4ia have already both made the transition from web games to desktop games. REDDER‘s been on the back burner because it feels more than any of those other games like the work of a different person, like the kind of thing I would never ever make today.
REDDER is neat because for a while I was developing it as a pretty traditional indie platform game. You explore one of those continuous videogame worlds and collect arbitrary tokens. It didn’t really have a story, it was just a bunch of pieces assembled into Videogame Form. I was kind of getting bored with it. Then I hit upon what the story could be, and it was a perfect fit for a game about just arbitrarily collecting things. I feel like the reason REDDER succeeds is because it is fully these two very different things at the same time, both a Real Videogame and the kind of arty bullshit I like, and both layers are completely sincere.
I’ve been thinking about re-releasing it for a really long time, but it was this amazing saxophone cover of amon26’s theme for the game that made me finally start doing it. I listened to it like twenty times in a week. It’s clearly a game of mine that a lot of people have love for, but I’m kind of also excited for people who only know me through my more recent work to discover it for the first time.
Still from Anna Anthropy’s REDDER
Veve: As a game creator whose talent isn’t relegated solely to the digital realm, can you talk about what drew you to making tabletop games and the connection between your digital and analog works?
Anna: I was always interested in making multiplayer games because to me dynamics between real actual people are way more interesting than dynamics between systems. Making local multiplayer games is such a battle, though—interactions between players are probably the hardest thing to code, and I started noticing that if I had a bunch of friends over I would reach for a card or board game way quicker than I would attempt to set up some local multiplayer digital game. So it made a lot of sense to me to just start designing for tabletops.
Veve: A recent fave of mine is your tabletop game, Be Witching, particularly because it’s a game I wish had been around when I was a kid. What inspired you to make it?
Anna: It’s a tabletop game where players design amazing outfits for a witch fashion ball and then compete for awards and the title of witchqueen of the ball. It’s inspired by paper doll play and digital dollmaker games, and is about imagining magical femme identities. I also wish I had Be Witching as a kid, obviously.
“Passion is the greatest weakness of anyone in games or tech. It is the thing that will be used against you, time and time again. Passion is the reason a poison like crunch time is still allowed to exist – a thing that is literally killing and destroying game developers. If you’re really passionate about games, you’ll do what you have to. Passion is why people in tech voluntarily invent new ways for corporations to mistreat them. Now, thanks to Soylent(TM), we don’t even have to feed our employees! We wouldn’t want to interrupt your passion for coding with something like food and a momentary break from the endless labor you volunteer for, again and again.
I’m calling for an end to passion.”
– What’s If It’s Killing You?
Veve: In reference to What If It’s Killing You? your written piece on the “martyrdom expected of women in tech,” you call for an end to passion. But I have to ask: Is it your passion that keeps you going now?
Anna: It’s so hard to care about games anymore, sometimes I feel like I’ve bled myself dry. I’m not actually sure what keeps me going right now, apart from a need to make rent every month. But that’s not passion, that’s survival. I’m not sure if games is a passion for me anymore—I’ve started looking into other gigs. I don’t know if I believe in passion. Passion is the thing that lets us overlook how badly we’re hurting.
My vision for 2016 is to hurt less and earn more.