Empathy Game


I hate dys4ia. I hate that this early work about hormone replacement therapy has eclipsed everything I've done since in terms of press, of exposure, and of money. Recently a trans teen emailed me to say that by putting dys4ia behind a paywall (as I finally did almost a year ago), I'm depriving trans youths of an important resource. The truth is that dys4ia accounts for a significant portion of my income. It sells better and more consistently than anything else I've ever made, save some of my books. I would delete the game if I could afford to.

A while ago someone emailed me asking if he could exhibit dys4ia as part of a gallery show. This is a pretty common occurance. In fact, I recently instituted an exhibition fee of $200 to stop people from sending me these emails. But before that happened, this dude emailed me asking if he could include dys4ia in an annual videogame show, the theme of which, this year, was "empathy, looking at how games and simulations can make us empathize with others by letting us walk a mile in their shoes. I think your game connects well with that theme."

I took to Facebook, posting about how I should send him an old pair of my shoes, beat up and falling apart, so his visitors could literally walk a mile in my shoes. I could attach a pedometer to them: Players would score one point per literal mile they walked. My friends convinced me to actually do it: I emailed the dude back, and proposed the installation piece. He was thrilled. He wanted to do it.

We talked back and forth, and I developed the piece a little, adding a chalkboard to keep score. It was important that it was a simple, non-digital, unprotected chalkboard. The possibility of false reporting was essential: The temptation of cheating to claim a higher score in a game about appropriating ally-hood, about a hollow notion of empathy. I hit upon the idea of seeding the scoreboard with scores of zero, to suggest that as an option that could be claimed. Unfortunately, I discovered that the exhibition we were developing the piece for was sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Culture, and I was not comfortable participating in such a setting while the occupation of Palestine is ongoing. So I withdrew the piece.

But my friends at Babycastles in New York were excited to show it. Babycastles Presents Anna Anthropy Presents the Road to Empathy debuted Saturday, June 20th at the Babycastles gallery in Manhattan. It ran alongside some other pieces I had developed for the show, including Walking Simulator, a continuous procedurally-generated internal monologue about navigating the world in a trans body that was projected onto the wall. Sonya Belakhlef decorated the floor with a beautiful and confusing path for players to walk as they attempted to complete a mile in my ragged old boots.

Empathy Game is about the farce of using a game as a substitute for education, as a way to claim allyship. You could spend hours pacing in a pair of beaten-up size thirteen heels to gain a point or two - a few people did! - and still know nothing about the experience of being a trans woman, about how to be an ally to them. Being an ally takes work, it requires you to examine your own behavior, it is an ongoing process with no end point. That people are eager to use games as a shortcut to that, and way to feel like they've done the work and excuse themselves from further educating themselves, angers and disgusts me. You don't know what it's like to be me.

And yet, it seems like the people with the greatest investment in the "empathy game" label are the ones with the most privilege and the least amount of willingness to improve themselves. A writer from the Wall Street Journal who interviewed me for an article about "empathy games" asked me about my genitals. His editor, whom I contacted, told me, "We take this as a lesson learned for the future, on how to interact with people more appropriately." Nothing was learned.

You could say that Empathy Game is a deeply cynical piece that suggests that art (or at least games) are incapable of communicating meaningful information and experiences. In fact, the opposite is true. I respect games too much to see them relegated to a way for the privileged to opt out of their responsibilities, to allow them to become the trendy new format for afterschool specials. My work is a window to the expansive, multifacated and self-contradicting artist that I am, not just to my genitals.

anna anthropy, 2015

To discuss the possibility of exhibiting Empathy Game and/or Walking Simulator, contact collectfruit at gmail dot com. The aftermath of the Road to Empathy show is chronicled in my latest game, Ohmygod Are You Alright?

Photo by Emi Spicer.