Becoming a Gateway: Or What Anna Anthropy Twines Together

I will say here, off the bat, that there are some video game and article links below that can be construed as Not Safe For Work. Player’s discretion is advised, though enthusiasm is also encouraged. I am also hoping that I can communicate and do justice to these ideas and some of my own creative license as best I can.

I’m not sure how I first met Anna Anthropy. Actually, that is not entirely true. I do remember first being introduced to her when I discovered Rise of the Video Game Zinesters: though how I came across that book to begin with is a memory now lost to time.

I did plan to buy that book eventually, but then life got in the way. One day, after a series of insane events, I found myself brought to the 2012 CanZine Toronto Event by some friends who thought I needed to see it: and I did. What I didn’t know, or what didn’t really bridge the cognitive dissonance in my head was that Anna Anthropy was there with her partner Daphny David and that they were selling the very book that I had been so interested in.

I’m going to admit that I felt sad, but I was still getting used to that endless process of being social again that I tend to find myself in and by the time I realized that they had been there, it was too late. So I bought the book for myself later instead.

There are many very good reviews that detail what the contents of the book were about: how it worked, how it possibly didn’t, and all of those various details. But there were a few things that stuck out at me. The main message that I got from Rise of the Video Game Zinesters was that Anna Anthropy wants there to be more accessible technology and means for anyone to create a video game. My younger self, the boy that really wanted to make games, would have totally agreed with this concept: even if he didn’t have the knowledge at the time to understand many of the other details surrounding it.

Essentially, Anna Anthropy wants there to be a means for a game-making technology or software–a manifestation of communication and language–that is easily accessible for anyone to use for the purpose of, well, making games and creating ideas. Or taking names and kicking ass: whichever definition you prefer. Of course, there is more than that. The idea is that by having different people of different backgrounds, social classes, career-paths, sexual and gender orientations, queerness, life practices, and a wide gamut of humanity that does not necessarily understand coding you can vary up the content and the gaming experience of a game without an industry-ruled homogeneity: where plots and stereotypes are recycled to keep a sure profit.

It is a very seductive idea. Anthropy compares this “much needed” product and the mindset behind it to the creation of the printing press in Renaissance Europe: thus freeing the production of literary articles from the Catholic Church’s scribes and making them accessible to everyone. The fact that the printing press allowed for religious texts to be made with vernacular language–the words of the everyday layperson–instead of a Latin known only to nobles, priests, and scholars is probably an analogy not lost on Anthropy when she brought up the image to begin with when you consider that she looks at games as a language that all men, women, humans, and other sentient beings should be able to relate and have access to.

She also briefly looks at the history of game-making itself and equates video game development with the earliest forms of games: with symbolic piece and board games, carnival games, arcades, all the way to modern board games and more miniaturized computer games. In addition, Anthropy makes a very compelling case as to how video games were and are in the providence of an elite minority: that it was male computer programmer students and the academy that developed code and the games that came from it. Yet it is also clear that there are changes that are–and have been–in the works to that regard.

I’ll tell right off, as some other reviewers of Anna Anthropy’s work have mentioned, I don’t always agree with what she says but she makes some very intriguing observations. There is one point in particular that sticks out at me. Anthropy writes that a single game creator in sole control of their project can make a much more focused and more personal form of art–a game–than a large team of staff members can. I don’t know if I am articulating that thought as thoroughly as I should, but that is what I got from that. What I find really interesting is that Will Eisner, in his book Comics and Sequential Art, also makes a very similar statement with regards to the development of the comics medium and storytelling within it. These are two different mediums, both of which had to fight to gain recognition as a legitimate medium, yet it is really fascinating how two of their advocates come to similar conclusions.

Eisner did mention, however, that there was nothing wrong with a collaboration between two or more artists on a work. Indeed, in his book Graphic Storytelling he goes into a lot more detail with regards to that. And even Anna Anthropy, in her book, mentions that she is writing the book not merely for game creators but for anyone: writer or scholar that is fascinated with her topic. It should also be noted that Anna Anthropy has collaborated with a few other artists in her own works: such as the fun and frustrating Lesbian Spider-Queens From Mars, the very personal and visceral Dys4ia, and the thought provoking puzzle game Triad. While much of this collaboration has been in the form of graphics and sound, even programming for the latter game, it is still a form of collaboration: though obviously not an industry-mandated one. Rather, these are the product of an agreement between artists that respect one another and actually work together to make something cohesive while still keeping the personal element of Anthropy’s own vision.

Now, to get beyond the book and go a bit into Anna Anthropy’s games. I like them. I like the concept behind them: of taking a video game form and using it to communicate a personal experience. There is something really beautiful about that. I know that Anthropy may not be the only person who does this–and I suspect she hopes she isn’t in the only one either–but she is the one that really introduced this to me on more than a cursory level. I think she is one of those who reinforced for me that the games of my youth–that inspired me as a creator–are more than just frivolity or an inferior art-form. Some have said the same thing about comics, about film, and–back in the day–even theatre and other forms of painting and art.

Some people have been giving Anthropy flak about her games: about how they all tend to follow a very similar pattern or themes of lesbianism, BDSM, and transgender issues. The thing is, well there are two things. The first is that all of the above things are not mainstream in video games: at least not from someone who has all of those elements in their own life. The second is the age-old adage: write about what you know. And Anna Anthropy knows about all of this. She writes about and makes what she knows. Her viewpoint is just as valid as anyone else’s and it is more than okay for her to make games about what interests her: because there are others out there who will relate to it.

The fact that she uses similar themes in her work, and I would say never quite in the same way with regards to game play mechanics, is irrelevant to me: because the industry does the same thing for the most part with many mainstream themes and even the best creators make what they know.

I think what I admire about Anna Anthropy and others like her is that although I can’t always agree with them, they do something that is remarkable. Sometimes the people in charge of publishing or video game industries and coding are called “the gatekeepers.” And what Anthropy and others are doing is they are becoming gateways: gateways and fiery Bodhisattvas into alternate perspectives and the potential for the creation and expression of new game experiences.

This is something that I deeply respect and it is a thing that greatly motivates me now. There is one thing I have mentioned before in this Blog: that I am looking into Twine game-making because of Anthropy’s mention and use of it. Twine is a software that lets you create a “choose your own adventure” style text game without a knowledge of coding, or with enough video tutorials to get into it. I want to do the same thing that she and others are doing now. I want to make a game that can communicate my own–albeit different-experiences: ones I’m not sure even Anthropy will always agree with. I want to have the ability to put someone else into my own shoes: as it were. Or use my experience to make something else entirely and let people make their own choices.

So Anna Anthropy won with regards to me: because she has influenced me to make a game. But I think what is also remarkable is how she even affects her reviewers and critics. Take Jenn Frank’s Rise of the Existential Crisis: How One Woman Nearly Never Finished a Book Review, or Cara Ellison’s Choose Your Own Anna Anthropy Interview.

Frank’s article adopts Anna Anthropy’s writing style from Rise of the Video Game Zinesters: emulating Anthropy’s own combination of history and criticism and inter-dispersing it with her own personal experiences in a seemingly scattered narrative but ultimately bridging the gap between the reviewer and the creator of personal expression while Cara Ellison actually makes a Choose Your Own Adventure Game using Twine–Twine–in order to bring her interaction with Anthropy across. Just looking at the styles and mediums used by these two women is utterly fascinating: Frank does not necessarily agree with Anthropy’s statement that everyone should make a game–though she wishes on some level that she had–while Ellison flat out makes a game to express her interaction and her influence from Anthropy’s philosophy in a very demonstrative manner.

I will also say right now that this article was a long time coming. I just didn’t have the words then. But if Ellison’s Twine article further influenced me to make my own game (and I didn’t even realize she was using Twine to do it at the time, another example of my cognitive dissonance), Frank’s article actually encouraged me to write this. And I have been influenced by Anthropy in other ways as well: you will probably see relatively soon outside of this article.

But if I had to sum up everything I have written here, I will say this: that in terms of video-game storytelling, its potential as a medium, and her own potential influence on its future, Anna Anthropy is immensely important.

P.S. My favourite Anna Anthropy Twine game is this one: Hunt for the Gay Planet. There is a story behind its creation that she can explain far better than I, but what really inspires me is the story of a person who tries to find other people like her and goes on a long well-written intergalactic journey. This piece inspired me so much that I bought the Choose Your Own Adventure book from Anthropy’s own site: which is coincidentally on my Blogroll as well.

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