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Moral Combat

After enduring a vicious harassment campaign designed to chase women out of the video game industry, local female developers are trying to take back the art form from commercialization.



During the last weekend in August, Anna Anthropy was sitting before a crowd at the annual San Francisco Zine Fest, second-guessing what she had come to say. The local video game creator had been invited to participate in a panel discussion called "Race, Gender, and the Future of Zines," along with two other Oakland-based writers. Anthropy is the author of the 2012 book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How freaks, normals, amateurs, dreamers, dropouts, queers, housewives, and people like you are taking back an art form, and she was prepared to give a spiel that she has delivered countless times in the past. It echoes the basic argument of her book and a belief that has driven her entire career: that video games can be empowering and exciting for marginalized people like herself, even if they wouldn't consider themselves "gamers." But this time, she felt wrong about following through.

In Videogame Zinesters, Anthropy argues that we should start making video games that embody the same underlying ethos as zines. They should be homemade, self-published, personal, direct transmissions of creative expression from designer to player. Not only is this type of independent authorship empowering, she writes, it often yields non-commercial products that are far more artistically innovative than anything created by a massive, corporate team. She also discusses the various tools by which anyone can begin making games without having to learn how to code.

Anthropy, a transwoman, made a similar argument on stage that day, and then arrived at the point in her talk at which she usually encourages everyone to start making their own games. She looked around the room and saw a crowd full of women, queer people, and people of color, and she realized she couldn't finish. In the past month, online harassment against women who create or write about video games had grown extremely severe. So for the first time, she felt she couldn't justify encouraging members of minority groups to become involved in games when she knew that also meant encouraging them to make themselves potential targets for vicious online abuse. "That was a really sad moment for me," she recalled in an interview.

Anthropy is not only an author, but also a respected game developer in the world of indie and self-published video games. In 2012, she released a Flash game called Dys4ia, which reflects her experiences undergoing hormone replacement therapy. The game functions a lot like a journal, chronicling her frustrations throughout the process, including finding a doctor who believed her and coping with painfully sensitive nipples. There is no objective to the game, and no player skill or strategy required. Rather, each segment functions as a visual, interactive metaphor through which the player experiences emotions akin to what Anthropy was feeling at that time. In one segment, which includes the text, "I feel weirder about my body than I ever have," the player is prompted to fit a Tetris-like piece through a hole in a wall that is simply the wrong shape, evoking a sense of inevitable failure that can't be described through words.

Dys4ia is not Anthropy's favorite of her creations, but it catapulted her to popularity because it's different than any game most people encounter. It represents the experience of a marginalized individual in a poetic way, and feels more like an artistic expression, defying what most people would think of as a game altogether. An increasing number of these games are being self-published online, highlighting the potential of the medium to become an intimate art form rather than just a commercial product.

But as these self-publishing game designers have begun gaining recognition, carving out space in the commercial gaming industry for a more diverse representation of experience, they have been met by a fierce backlash from the male-dominated "gamer" community. In August, a female game developer named Zoe Quinn became the target of an extensive online harassment campaign that not only forced her to flee her home in fear, but also ignited a war against women in the gaming industry. Hiding behind the shield of anonymity, hordes of gamers attempted to ruin the careers of many prominent female video game figures using brutal online tactics, including defamation and threats of violence. It became known as the "Gamergate" controversy.

Indeed, the blowback against female gamers has been so strong that Anthropy and other women throughout the video game world are now hoping to separate themselves entirely from the industry. But for Anthropy, switching careers is no easy challenge. Now thirty years old, she has built her entire life around making games.

As a kid, Anthropy would have ideas for games but didn't know how she could make them come to life. When she was 24, she decided to go to school for game design, so she moved to Plano, Texas to attend the Guildhall School at Southern Methodist University. After just two semesters she was kicked out because she butted heads with professors who thought her games were too experimental. The video game industry wants people who will work overtime on a team to bring a game to market, but Anthropy was interested in following through on her own concepts and ideas. It became clear to her that the industry wouldn't be the right fit.

As Anthropy later pointed out in Videogame Zinesters (and as many new media academics have also noted), when computers were first plugged into the walls of college campuses and laboratories, only engineers had the access, leisure time, and technical education to make games on them. Those engineers were primarily white middle-class men, and they developed games that reflected their fantasies and experiences, thereby attracting more people just like them. The gamer community, both professional and player, was thus dominated by young men, and as the industry grew, the makeup of its members remained largely the same.

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