The Happy Medium

I was shown a trap and I willingly sprung it

Anna Anthropy (also known as Auntie Pixelante) is a dyke, a domme, and a game designer. I won’t waste any time extolling the importance and the understated ballsiness of her games and ideas, but I will say that this has been one of the most enlightening interviews I have conducted so far.

THM: Are there examples of mainstream games that effectively communicated queer themes, intentionally or unintentionally?

Anthropy: The videogames industry is hit-driven. Budgets have gotten so big that the only way to make a profit on a game is for it to be as widely purchased as possible, and that means it must be marketed to the widest audience possible. Queerness exists here only as a marketing tactic. Though queer characters may appear, it’s only as a novelty: these people don’t love how I love, lust how I lust, or look like the people for whom I lust and love.

What are some examples of this novelty queerness in mainstream games?

I guess the classic example is Eidos’s Fear Effect 2. The game’s two women protagonists fuck, not because they love women or have any kind of chemistry between them, but to sell the fantasy of peeping on woman-woman sex to the game’s intended [heterosexual] male audience. One of the first things the player does is watch them strip through a secret camera.

My desire to make games was partly driven by my frustration with the lack of dyke characters or dyke desire in games, but that’s also partly just a side effect. If I make a game, what else will the characters be but queer and perverts?

Do you think independent games, as an alternative to hetero-dominated mainstream games, are by virtue a queer medium?

Where queer games come from is hobbyist game developers—people outside of the industry who craft games out of the desire to make themselves heard, to contribute. I’ve used the term “videogame zinesters” before to describe these people, and there’s going to be a lot more of them. As [game development] tools like Game Maker, Construct, and Inform make it easier for people without a background in coding and computer graphics to create games—making a game becomes closer to writing a story—we’ll hear more voices, more personal stories, more queerness.

How much responsibility does the audience have for the state of video games, especially their relation to a queer audience?

The audience is becoming the author. The industry only offers queers the role of consumer, but the medium itself is calling more and more people to become creators. We’ll be playing queer games when queer people write them.

Do you think the queer community is alienated from game culture?

I think lots of people are alienated from what we call “game culture”. Publishers are only interested in marketing to that small group of people who already buy and play games. The culture that this engenders is one of exclusivity: the vocabulary and humor of game culture are self-congratulatory, existing not to foster communication but to establish who is inside and outside of the circle.

The videogame medium is being held hostage by a small group of people, or it would be if big games publishers really were the gatekeepers to the medium they want to be perceived as. The increasing accessibility of game authorship means that games are becoming culture—created and communicated in the same ways as all other culture—instead of “game culture.”

Some designers talk about the gameplay communicating the message, as opposed to contextual elements communicating the message. Can gameplay alone communicate queer ideas? If your games were stripped of their context, would they still exist as queer games?

The design of Mighty Jill Off is informed by my experience of kink. Playing a hard game is a kind of masochism and designing the game a kind of sadism. A game can be intimidating, scary, difficult, but the player takes satisfaction in performing the game’s demands, even if it takes many attempts. The player struggles but ultimately succeeds. There’s a scene early in Mighty Jill Off where the player jumps up a tall shaft, and the screen scrolls up to reveal a wall of spikes in front of her. But the height of the player’s jump brings her right up to the spikes without touching them.

Design is sadism. As a designer and as a domme, I want the person who submits to me to suffer and to struggle but ultimately to endure: I challenge her while simultaneously guiding her through that challenge. The rules of the game and the level design carry that idea. The story of a rubber-suited dyke trying to please her cruel queen just to supply a context.

So, yes, I believe a queer design sensibility exists. Or rather, queer design sensibilities exist, because an author’s design is informed by her own experience. And what is queerness other than a diversity of experiences?

Were video games linked, from the beginning, to your own sexual orientation or experiences? Did you always relate to video game design as an S&M experience?

A videogame is a space constructed out of communication, and communication is the realm in which flirtation and seduction happen, where desire and love are both expressed and explored. It’s a space for role-playing and for exploring fantasy. Of course it has an erotic nature.

And there’s the complicity of the player, that the audience is a participant in the telling of the story. When I was little—and this is an experience I share with my submissive—I would read choose-your-own-adventure books with a special interest in the “bad” endings where my character would get caught and subjected to terrible fates.

There’s something about the second person, but not just that: it’s the fact that my decisions created the encounter. So what if the decisions were contrived in such a manner as to lead me to the author’s intended outcome? The fact that it’s me, the player—or reader—who guides the narrative to its conclusion carries a great weight; it’s a kind of complicity that’s mostly unique to this medium.

I was shown a trap and I willingly sprung it. That’s informed consent. Game design is the construction of voluntary traps.

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