Dys4ia as a Prosthetic memory of TRANSition

By Kelsey Christensen

“Dys4ia,” is an online flash game that, in Anna Anthropy, the creator’s, words is “A journal game about the six months of my life when I made the decision to begin hormone replacement therapy.” First released on Newgrounds in 2012, you can now buy the game and support the artist here or play the game for free here. The game now has a sequel about surviving a car crash, “Ohmygod Are You Alright?” which she calls a “game about walking in my shoes.” The games are similar in style and interaction, such that I think one can say they are both about walking in the creator’s shoes.

The game is navigated using the up, down, left, and right arrow keys on one’s keyboard. The user navigates through four different levels–successively, ”gender bullshit,” “medical bullshit,” “hormonal bullshit,” and “it gets better?”

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The term “game” is used a bit loosely here, because the interaction is more of a navigation. There are no wins or losses: some mini-games are patently unwinnable (like trying to fit a strange character into a space into which it cannot fit, or a game in which shaving results in cutting the subject’s lip regardless of how the user plays), or you play until you lose, but this loss does not restart the game, it merely transports you to the next mini-game (attempting to dodge feminist’s claims that the subject is “not a woman,” which invariably results in a failure to dodge the comment). 

Some of the mini-games are premised upon tedium, like a game in which the user must dispense a certain number of blood pressure medication before they can move on, or the user must look for a clinic that provides hormonal replacement therapy.

Conversely, the mini games in the final level (“It gets better?”) are patently unlosable. The user now invariably overcomes obstacles that one could not in former mini-games–the user can now deflect the comments of transphobic feminists with a shield, the user is now called “ma’am” by a passersby, and the user can successfully don women’s clothing.

The fixity of the interactions prove to be didactic. The nature of the mini games in “gender bullshit,” as patently unwinnable, reveal the constant, nagging trauma of gender dysphoria, feeling as if one’s body does not match one’s gender. The user’s inability to win the mini-games mirror the author’s inability to shave or wear women’s clothing without feeling humiliated. The games in “hormonal bullshit” and “medical bullshit” inspire in the user the same sense of slow pace and tedium felt by the author in undergoing hormone replacement therapy, which can be an arduous process rife with finding a doctor that won’t administer a psychiatric examination, getting one’s blood pressure down before being able to take estrogen, and the immense cost of estrogen even with insurance. The final level’s winnable-ness inspire optimism in the viewer, not unlike the “It Gets Better” campaign, the level of the same name seems to encourage trans audiences to persevere through the humiliation and complications of transition.

While an interaction’s success is often determined by the level at which a user’s feedback is integrated (Bucy, 375) or the degree to which user’s can contribute content in their interactions (Cohen,  335), it is the helplessness of the user to affect the outcome that underscores “Dys4ia’s” project so lucidly, capturing the feelings of inconsequentiality and helplessness that one undergoing transition might feel. It is the degree to which the game inhibits rather than provokes reaction that inspires the adoption of a prosthetic memory, rather than, as it is typically devised, through “[media’s] power to shape consciousness [through] its sensuous and tactile mode of address; the sense experiences it generates in its spectators ‘become as vivid as realities’” (Landsberg, 29). Landsberg, here, theorizes film’s ability–in its ability to connote a naturalistic, immersive, and vivid mode of representation–to place viewers in scenarios they can not technically enter, engendering a prosthetic memory of those scenarios. This process, he argues, elides racial, ethnic, and biological difference, allowing audiences entry to a collective memory they did not, not could not, technically experience (Landsberg, 26 and 33).

Landsberg premises this argument partially, in addition to cinema’s ability to evoke vivid realities, on Baudrillard’s idea of “hyperreality,” the inability to distinguish between real and simulacra (Landsberg, 32). While Baudrillard sought to problematize conditions of the postmodern world, Landsberg appropriates his argument to substantiate precisely one’s ability to identify with a simulacrum of something one did not technically experience, though for Landsberg this relies on tactics quite different from Anna Anthropy’s style in “Dys4ia,” which rupture naturalism with undetailed, cartoonish, 8-bit representations of transition. While “Dys4ia” does not seem to match the case studies Lansberg conceives of as engendering prosthetic memory–”Dys4ia” is not a film, it elides referential naturalism, and it is not particularly seamless or immersive–it’s modes of interaction, instead, generate a prosthetic memory of transition. While the audience won’t remember sensations provoked by the image, or traditional processes of identification which ally viewers with subjects in films, one will remember the frustration provoked by the limited interaction, the cyclical, tedious, or unwinnable nature of many of the mini-games. This experience of frustration and helplessness, instead, becomes our prosthetic memory of transition.

Word Count: 878

Works Cited:

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and simulation. University of Michigan press, 1994.

Bucy, Erik P. “Interactivity in society: Locating an elusive concept.” The information society 20.5 (2004): 373-383.

Cohen, Hart. “Database Documentary: From Authorship to Authoring in Remediated/Remixed Documentary.” Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research 4.2 (2012): 327-346.

Landsberg, Alison. Prosthetic memory: The transformation of American remembrance in the age of mass culture. Columbia University Press, 2004.