by Jean Cochrane
Last year, the game designer Anna Anthropy was invited to exhibit her most famous game, Dys4ia, as part of a gallery show. It wasn’t the first time she’d been sent that kind of invite; Dys4ia has gotten a lot of press and more than a few gallery requests. The game is a quasi-memoir of Anthropy’s transition, and it’s positively gorgeous. Elegant, witty, and aesthetically pleasing, Dys4ia allows you to play as Anthropy (as well as a weird cast of abstract shapes and body parts) as she navigates a whole host of gender obstacles: doctor’s offices, bathrooms, body growth, emotional growth, pain, and pleasure. It’s the kind of game you can imagine someone wanting to show in a gallery.
But by the time that particular gallery request had come in, Anthropy was sick to death of talking about Dys4ia. She wrote later that she “hated” it: she hated that it was her only piece of work anyone wanted to talk about as much as she hated that it was her best-selling game. “I would delete the game if I could afford to,” she claimed. (Having studied the trans memoir genre pretty extensively and found that it’s often the only way for trans women to publish for a mainstream audience, I’m sympathetic to Anthropy.)
So instead of sending Dys4ia to the gallery, Anthropy made a new game to exhibit: a pair of her old boots, next to a chalkboard where visitors could report how far they had “walked in her shoes.” She called it Empathy Game.
The core point of Empathy Game, according to Anthropy, is “the farce of using a game as a substitute for education, as a way to claim allyship” (and, implicitly, that people should stop reading Dys4ia that way). “It seems like the people with the greatest investment in the ’empathy game’ label,” she writes, “are the ones with the most privilege and the least amount of willingness to improve themselves.”
I still don’t know where I stand on Empathy Game. As conceptual art, I think it’s great. It succeeds at what it aims to do. But I have a hard time reconciling its deeply “cynical” message (her words). Is it really just an exercise in privilege and self-congratulation to believe that games can teach diverse experiences? Should we give up on the idea of games fostering empathy altogether? Or might games actually be able to teach you what it’s like to be trans – or depressed?
These questions strike me as crucial for the work we’re wrestling with this week. Depression Quest, Player 2, and howling dogs are all, on some level, trying to teach you empathy. Depression Quest puts it most explicitly: “we want to illustrate as clearly as possible what depression is like,” its designers write in the introduction, “so that it may be better understood by people without depression.” Depression Quest labels itself as an empathy game.
There’s an echo of an empathetic goal in howling dogs, too, although Porpentine is not terribly attached to stable interpretations of her work. It was designed for “plural readings” and “multiple interpretations,” she says, but it was also designed specifically with depressed people in mind:
[My interpretation] makes more sense to those who have lived in that tiny room, with no financial recourse, on the edge of starvation, as refugees in their own country, in increasingly deteriorating circumstances, as you become less and less capable of caring about yourself. And what is the only thing you can afford? Terrible food and some kind of glowing screen, and when you look away from the screen, you’re still in the same place. It isn’t purely about that, ugh, god forbid I be so vulgar as to make something that represents something else, but it is from that. And it is for those people. (source)
The tension that Porpentine seems to feel, between wanting to speak for a specific experience and wanting to open up a work to many interpretations, comes through in Player 2, as well: it’s a work designed for “interpersonal conflict,” a work that wants to teach its player how to deal with that conflict, but it tries hard to remain as general as possible. The player has to name their villain, their conflict, and some of their reactions; the game then slots those names into its template.
Moving between these three works, I still feel agnostic to Empathy Game‘s point. I seem to oscillate between poles. I take a stab at Player 2 and I find myself agreeing with Anthropy, feeling frustrated at the text’s thin, pre-formatted response to strife, its assumption that all conflict and all healing can be captured by a loosely-responsive template. But then I immerse myself in howling dogs and I feel like Anthropy is wrong all over again – games can be good at teaching empathy, they can be complicated and emotional, they are “the most intimate art because the player must remain touching at all times.” Who’s right? Perhaps it’s a question that these three works alone can’t answer, one that will have to unfold over the next few weeks.