In 2012, Chicago-based indie designer Anna Anthropy released dys4ia. When the player starts the game, an introductory title card reads, “This is an autobiographical game about my experiences with hormone replacement therapy. My experience isn’t anyone’s [sic] else’s and is not meant to be representative of every trans person” (Anthropy, 2012). This was before celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner brought trans issues into the general public discourse in the United States, and the game was celebrated for its educational and advocacy value (Faye, 2021; D’Anastasio, 2015).
Anthropy was displeased by this response. Her game had been given a new label — “empathy game” — and she didn’t want it (2015). From her perspective, it was impossible for a 10-minute game to truly cultivate empathy, and she was unhappy to see people “using a game like dys4ia as a substitute for truly educating themselves on issues surrounding trans women’s lives and how to support them” (Priestman, 2015).
In a 2015 gallery show, Anthropy debuted “Empathy Game” an installation in which participants were given a pedometer and a pair of her own heeled boots that had nearly fallen apart (Alexander, 2015; D’Anastasio, 2015). The instructions were simple — after hearing people talk about how dys4ia allowed them to “walk a mile in her shoes,” Anthropy was now challenging them to literally walk a mile in her shoes.
Over the past ten years, many scholars have debated the question of video games’ ability to cultivate empathy) Bonnie Ruberg, a queer media studies scholar, writes that “empathy” is used to represent countless psychological concepts and prosocial values (2020, p2).
In this article, I will equate caring, allyship, and respect with empathy. This falls in line with Tobi Smethurst and Stef Craps’ more technical definitions of cognitive and parallel emotional empathy in their analysis of The Walking Dead video game (2015, p275). Additionally, it associates “empathy” with the traits that have the greatest social-justice impact. As Ruberg writes, “More valuable than a video game that allows players to [identify] with someone else is a game that requires players to respect the people with whom they cannot identify” (2020, p15).
In that case, does dys4ia provoke empathy? Is there a high likelihood that players will care more about trans people, respect them and their identities more, and work to become better allies after playing it?
No — and that’s exactly why majority culture liked this game so much.