- Tabled for Discussion:A Conversation with Game Designer Michael De Anda
At a conference room in a downtown Albuquerque hotel, I am watching a table of students and scholars play a game. The players furrow their brows and chew on their lips, they make choices out loud in the kind of in-game drawl that marks so many board games—phrases start with “I think” and each word is stretched to twice its normal length. Although they are engaged in the easy camaraderie of the game, the players also have an intensity of purpose. There are cards on the table. Cards held in hands. One player, a young man, giggles lightly as he slides on a bracelet. I notice other players are already wearing accessories in similar styles. A ring, a bracelet, a satin glove. A feather boa is the most audacious. After a few minutes, the players are interrupted. A panel is starting, and they need to clear the table. They are visibly disappointed, scrambling to play one more card and continuing to discuss the game even as it is packed away.
Aside from the setting, and, perhaps, the visible presence of the feather boa and other accessories, the players of this game look and act like the players of any game. They are having fun and enjoying each other’s company even as they compete, and they are sufficiently immersed in the game’s unfolding that they are disappointed to be called away. What is different, or at least different enough to be interesting, is the game in which the tableful of conference attendees has been so engrossed. TRANS-gression (see Figure 1) is a card game in which players take on the roles of budding drag queens cultivating their own jobs and communities. Although playful in concept, TRANS-gression is a serious game and forces players [End Page 151] to think through the difficulties and challenges faced by real people whose gender identities and expressions fall outside the normative. As the players work to find sources of professional and personal success within the game’s simulation of drag culture, they are also confronted with loss—of jobs, for example, and of friends and family members.
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TRANS-gression is the work of game designer Michael De Anda, who developed the game as a means of facilitating conversations about gender identity. The game is part of a growing movement among independent game designers who use game design to spark difficult conversations about important social issues and address these kinds of complex issues through the lens of games. For example, in Liam Burke’s Dog Eat Dog (2013), players describe and then enact the invasion and colonization of a fictionalized island of their own design. Billed as “a game of colonialism and its consequences,” Dog Eat Dog forces players to address the disturbing violence of colonization.1 Depression Quest (2013), an interactive fiction game produced by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Isaac Schankler, asks players to negotiate the daily life of a person living with clinical depression. The game Papers, Please (2013) by Lucas Pope models the emotional and intellectual toll of processing immigration paperwork. Frequently called “empathy games,” these games ask players to consider the plight of people unlike them. They offer experiential knowledge, not of the fantastical voyages and power fantasies frequently—and delightfully—provided by many games, but instead they might model the daily difficulties lived out by people grappling with call-center jobs (as in I Get This Call Every Day), or relay the trauma of growing up with an alcoholic parent (as in Papo & Yo), or educate players about street harassment (as in Female Experience Simulator and Hey Baby).
Although some empathy games are overtly educational, others are more meditative or conceptual in their approach. Dog Eat Dog, for example, does not [End Page 152] simply relay the facts or history of colonialism, but instead asks players to consider the psychological and emotional trauma of colonization through a pen-and-paper role playing game (RPG) in which the players themselves are...