Playing at Empathy: Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia

Some games have characters we related to. Others ask us to relate to others.

Written by Patrick Gann / Published on January 2, 2013

In a sea of games that cater to the average player, there was one game this year that confronted gamers with topics both foreign and uncomfortable. What this game put me through was powerful, mind-changing, and worth talking about. That game is Anna Anthropy’s flash-based art/experience game Dys4ia.

Anthropy, a transgendered individual who is also a celebrated indie game dev and author, tapped into something pivotal when it comes to the interactive experience of gaming. This quote from Ben Kuchera’s Penny Arcade Report interview with Anthropy sums it up:

“A video game lets you set up goals for the player and make her fail to achieve them. A reader can’t fail a book. It’s an entirely different level of empathy.”

"“I’m a white, upper middle class straight male, and I’m a Christian. According to many of American society’s marginalized minorities, I am “part of the problem” by being in my demographic.”"
I’m a white, upper middle class straight male, and I’m a Christian. According to many of American society’s marginalized minorities, I am “part of the problem” by being in my demographic. I lack understanding. I lack empathy. And frankly, I’m the first to admit that about myself.

So when I clicked the link to play Dys4ia, a game that presents an autobiographical account of gender dysphoria and the methods of coping and/or changing (including hormone replacement therapy), there was definitely a voice in the back of my head that was shouting “this is liberal propaganda.” Yeah, I’m that guy. I think those thoughts. I don’t speak those thoughts often, but they run through my head.

By the time the 15-minute experience was over, I was closer to understanding the “T” in LGBT than ever before. And not just from a factual standpoint. I understood the feeling.

It’s one that many of us can relate to: being misunderstood, outcast, and consequently frustrated by everyone else’s inability to connect and relate. No matter how “normal” you are, we all have felt that at some point.

But gender dysphoria goes beyond that. It’s about feeling uncomfortable in your own skin, feeling on a deeper level that what’s inside doesn’t match what’s outside. The opening mini-game of an oddly-shaped block having to fit through a space that just can’t quite be navigated – and then forcing you to try in vain – immediately pushed me into the mindset experienced by transgendered people. It’s a deep-down feeling that “this doesn’t work” – or, perhaps, “I don’t work” or “I’m broken.”

The process of trying to fix that brokenness, from a medical and psychological perspective, is messy and far from perfect. Even if the social stigma – captured very well in the first part of the four-part game – wasn’t there, the logistics of it all is overwhelming.

In the second and third parts of the game Anthropy reveals, in intimate detail, what it’s like to go through the process of hormone replacement therapy. This includes the physiological changes, the side effects of the medication, the awkwardness of the initial and interim stages that tend to come with these attempts to change, and the self-doubt: not in the experience of dysphoria, but in believing that HRT is the right course of action.

So, while we can all relate to those generic feelings of being misunderstood, hardly anyone I know can speak to this specific experience. By guiding the player through short, simple mini-games that produce shock and embarrassment (navigate sensitive breasts to avoid the Mega Man 2-esque spiky balls!), the developer pushes the player far outside of their selves and their normal experiences, but in the context of familiar retro-game scenery. In another scene, a Metal Gear Solid-like duck and run experience is shown as Anthropy tries to get through a woman’s public restroom. The scene screams, louder than any words, “I’m supposed to be here, and yet I don’t belong!”

The very existence of “LGBT community” is a controversy in some churches. I acknowledge and respect the controversy. However, I also believe in understanding the suffering of others, regardless of what you make of non-heterosexual (or, blanket term “queer”) individuals: is this sin, is it disease, is it preference, is it hard-wired and natural? Working to understand how people feel, “walking a mile in their shoes,” is something I have always believed is central to the Christian life. Compassion doesn’t know boundaries.

And I certainly feel compassionate about these issues, much more than I did before playing Dys4ia. Having cringed alongside Anthropy at all the awkward and embarrassing moments, and having gotten frustrated and downright angry when unable to achieve what should be achievable goals, I’ve experienced a very, very small piece of someone else’s challenges. In that sense, I am rewarded. I have gained perspective.


About the Author:

Patrick Gann is a long-time lover of all things JRPG and game music. He resides with his wife and three children in Pennsylvania. He is mere moments away from graduating with his Master’s degree in Social Work, with intentions to bring therapeutic services to his local community. His writings can be found here on GameChurch, as well as on RPGFan, Theology Gaming, and Original Sound Version.