August 20, 2014

Trans Women & The New Hypertext

Posted on 08. Jul, 2014 by in Features, Opinion

1.

Encyclopedia Fuckme and The Case of the Vanishing Entree was one of the first Twine games I ever played. It’s a relatively simple game: the player takes on the role of the titular character and, by making a series of choices throughout the narrative, attempts to avoid becoming her ravenous date’s dinner. It’s funny, smart, hot — everything you probably don’t think of when you think about about videogames.

I grew up on games and choose-your-own-adventure stories, but I’d never played something like this before. It had never occurred to me that ‘BDSM lesbian cannibal pulp’ was a viable genre for a videogame.

That was back in 2012. Since then, a massive shift has occurred in digital games. To people not involved in these communities it’s hard to see, but videogames are being made by more people, appearing in more forms, and describing wider ranges of experience than ever before. And it turns out that a lot of this change has been spearheaded by trans women like anna anthropy, the author of Encyclopedia Fuckme and numerous other works about relationships, gender, and bodies.

I’ve found myself enmeshed in games culture, too. But I’m not satisfied keeping this work within the confines of these communities. We’re at a moment in which trans authors are claiming new space for ourselves, finding new ways of writing our experiences and lives outside of the historically acceptable space of the memoir. I see games by trans authors as fitting into this broader movement, and I want to tell you why if you care about trans literature, you need to be paying attention to the work that trans people — and especially trans women — are doing in digital games.

2.

Our cultural images of video games tend to position them as big-budget productions created by massive studios, typically catering to the tastes of straight teenage boys. But over the past few years, games have become more of an accessible medium for individual authors.

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, new tools allowing individuals to author their own games, even authors without technical backgrounds, began to spring up online. And I want to point to the publication of anna anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters in 2012 as a kind of critical moment.

It’s a book about making human games, about taking them back from a soulless, corporate culture and using them to tell a myriad range of personal stories. Perhaps most importantly to us here today, the book and anthropy’s other work have heavily promoted the tool Twine, which existed for years prior but only gained serious traction in 2012 and beyond.

Twine is a tool for creating hypertexts, choose-your-own adventure stories, and all kinds of interactive fiction and games. Its key features are that it requires no programming skills to use, outputs to HTML files which can be easily shared online, and is free. And unlike traditional parser-based text games, which require that the player fumble her way through a list of verbs in order to advance, Twine is totally hyperlink-based, producing works made up of a number of passages, each resembling a single webpage. Which means that if you can navigate a website, you can play a Twine game.

Between the emboldening effect of anthropy’s and other people’s work and the communities that began building up around Twine and other free tools, more and more people began making games in forms and about topics that mainstream commercial games have never dreamed of. And these games and authors have faced numerous struggles for legitimacy in games communities. In 2012 and early 2013, a flood of arguments between games scholars, critics, and authors broke loose about whether hypertext works were really games at all. Unsurprisingly, these ‘nontraditional’, contested narrative-focused works were being produced overwhelmingly by nontraditional authors, and especially by trans women, who were sometimes perceived as intruders into the historically very exclusionary space of games.

By 2013, alternative work in games exploring topics like bodies, gender, sex, love, and relationships had become so visible so quickly that the notion of a ‘queer games scene’had come into common usage. The term, like nearly any externally-given label for an artistic movement, was imprecise and artificial. What it did capture was the sense that games were increasingly being used to tell important stories by authors who’d been denied voices elsewhere. What it didn’t capture is that nearly all of the artists held to comprise it: anna anthropy, Mattie Brice, Porpentine, myself and others are not all queer-identified, but we are all trans women. So in a sense, much of the most exciting work in games over the past couple of years has been done by trans women. Which is kind of a big deal!

The impact of the proliferation of games by trans women is hard to measure. Certainly none of us have become rich, and the work we’re doing isn’t necessarily obvious to broader publics who still know games primarily as first-person manshooters and match-three puzzles. But I easily can point to a half-dozen highly visible and respected trans women, most of whom do not come from technical backgrounds, doing lauded work in games. If you asked a lot of people involved in games scenes to name important figures in games today, I’m sure at least some of those names would be trans women. And it’s hard for me to think of another artistic community where that’s the case.

3.

Major shifts have been brewing in video games and trans women are at the forefront of them. And these shifts have happened concurrently with shifts in cultural trans narratives and literature.

The visibility and work of trans women like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, the publication of books like Imogen Binnie’s Nevada and Casey Plett’s A Safe Girl to Love and the proliferation of nontraditional trans women’s communities online to me signals a loosening of the norms of transness. It’s increasingly taken for granted that you can be trans and be queer, that you can be trans and vocal about it, that you can be trans and not have known since you were a little kid. I don’t want to mischaracterize things here, because trans women’s bodies and lives are still overwhelmingly governed by material, structural oppressions. But also, there has been some real, significant change in community narratives around gender and transness, and that matters.

Like, last month I was at the Writing Trans Genres Conference in Winnipeg. Just the fact that that was a thing, that we had a whole conference of people discussing trans people’s literature and sharing their work, is a big deal. And it made me realize that there are a lot of parallels between trans people’s literature and trans games: in both cases trans authors are both rejecting traditional literary forms and appropriating them, using them to tell new kinds of stories. Importantly, both trans literature and trans games represent a breaking out of the genre of memoir, to which trans people have been mostly confined by traditional publishing. This is a big deal because memoir is fundamentally outsider-oriented: it’s about explaining how weird and gross and sexy it is to be a trans person to a cisgender audience. But more and more trans authors are forming our own publishers, or using the internet to get around gatekeepers entirely and release interactive works directly to our communities.

4.

So what are trans women writing games about? For a start: being in the boy scouts, muffing, the apocalypse, cyperpunk kink, negotiating hookups, awkward first dates, the adventures of friendly cats, lesbian pulp sci-fi, cowgirl breakups, gay planets, depression, magical girls, dealing with trauma, police brutality, vampires, being tied up and left alone while your domme goes off to read her email, and Satanic rituals.

Trans women’s games span subject, genre and form, ranging from e-poetry about banal conversations to immersive, interactive cyberpunk fiction. And I want to talk about a few examples specifically to give you a bit of a sense of what’s happening.

SABBAT is a game by a trans woman who goes by ohnoproblems online, about conducting some fucked up satanic rituals and changing your body into something monstrous and powerful. The game is written in a playful, conversational tone, describing the horrific changes wrought on the player’s body, their battles with evangelical teens, abortive attempts to have sex with a goth witch, and their eventual bloody overthrow of patriarchal capitalism in cheery, engaging prose. It’s definitely a power fantasy, which has basically become the form par excellence of modern videogames. But I’d argue that it’s an extremely atypical one, a fantasy of escape for those with antagonistic relationships towards their body – those who can feel something stranger moving within them, waiting to be called out into the world by just the right ritual.

It’s about moving from a situation of powerlessness to power, about taking extraordinary steps to change yourself and the world you live in. To me it’s totally a trans narrative, but in a way that isn’t necessarily obvious to non-trans audiences. As a game about demons and communism and getting high it appealed to a pretty wide range of people, but it also felt like it had this secret story running through it just for me, like I was in on a joke that other people weren’t. And as a trans woman, how often does that happen?

Reset is a game by Lydia Neon that basically asks what BDSM would be like in a world where most people had computers implanted in their brains. What’s the most intimate, vulnerable, exciting thing you could do in a world like that? Neon’s answer is: you give control of your brain to your domme.The really interesting thing about Reset for me, what makes it stand out as a work of hypertext, is the way the game immerses the player in the role of the character. Neon uses the second person ‘you’, but also color changes, garbled text, and language modifications to simulate the experience of having your brain computer reset and recalibrated. The game plays with the distinction between player and character in some really compelling ways that wouldn’t be possible in the same way in a more static form.

Conversations With My Mother

Still from ‘Conversations With My Mother’

Finally, Conversations With My Mother is a game I made about a year ago. The basic idea is that you play as my mom, and you’re writing me an email. So you go through these basic conversation structures and just choose different topics and words to build this letter. And then when it’s done you get these links, which are to real tweets I made months prior when those topics had actually come up in conversation with my mom. So in a sense it’s kind of memoir-like, but I was sort of trying to play with the form a little by bringing the player in and inviting them to make decisions and then surprise them with the consequences. I’m really interested in the way that hypertext so easily allows for this kind of thing, linking to external materials in a way that feels very different from citing something in print.

5.

Each of these works plays with interactivity in a different way, makes use of the medium to tell a story that wouldn’t be the same in a static form.

And insofar as many trans artists working in these media don’t have technical backgrounds, the work involves a certain amount of grappling, of wrestling with structures and limitations that we don’t always fully understand. To speak for myself, I don’t experience making games as an expression of mastery over a system of code, as a trained programmer might. Instead, it feels like a dialogue or sometimes like a shouting match. I have an idea of what I want to manifest, but getting there requires constant negotiation with an alien structure. This process mirrors the way many trans people talk about our bodies and experiences: wrestling with material conditions to produce something we can work with.

So at the risk of oversimplifying, I want to make kind of a bold claim: hypertext and digital games are totally trans genres. If you’re interested in new currents in trans literature, you need to start following work being done by trans authors in games.

 

Top Image: Encyclopedia Fuckme and The Case of the Vanishing Entree 

Merritt Kopas is a multimedia artist & game designer interested in play as a utopian project that contains a critique of the present and the seeds of potential futures.

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