The Limits of Disempowerment

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Ian here—

For years, I didn’t know what to do with Anna Anthropy’s Realistic Female First-Person Shooter (2012).

It is, shall we say, a “minor Anthropy.” It’s not one of the games that she includes on her itch.io storefront. If you want to play it, you have to head over here. (It is, unfortunately, Windows-only, although Mac users should feel free to look at this video of the game in action on YouTube).

But despite its somewhat tossed-off status, it is a game I was serious considering including in my article on fumblecore games. There was just one problem: it seemed completely incompatible with my argument. So I swept it under the rug, but kept it in my memory, blinking in the back of my brain, challenging me, keeping me honest.

I think I’ve finally figured out what I want to say about it now, and it’s mostly thanks to the students in my “Frames, Claims, and Videogames” class. I didn’t even teach Realistic Female First-Person Shooter in that class. Instead, my thoughts began crystalizing as students reacted of Alyson Macdonald’s Twine game Female Experience Simulator (2013), one of the most contentious games we played in the course.


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Female Experience Simulator provoked some of the liveliest in-class discussion of the course, and several students wrote about it for their final papers. (By that point, thankfully, they had shed the habit of calling it Female Stimulator, a mistake that several of them made in their initial discussion board posts on the game.) There was a sharp division on the lessons the game taught.

Most of the women in the class acknowledged that there was some benefit to be had by men playing this game, and getting some sort of first-person account of what it’s like to suffer street harassment. They appreciated that Macdonald had put together this chronicle of an experience that men are most likely not familiar with.

But they also found it an exaggeration, and one that might be downright dangerous. Street harassment is pervasive, they agreed, and it can happen in any circumstance. But they also insisted that it didn’t happen every single time they left their apartments. This sort of hyperbole, the feeling was, might be counter-productive, as it gives ammunition to men who are itching for excuses to refuse to believe women’s testimony.

But beyond this, the women in my class wondered what sort of message this game was supposed to send to women who played it. Those most skeptical of the game put forward that its effectiveness as a chronicle of the objectification of women was counteracted that the game itself demeaned women. Upon encountering sexual harassment, you do not bravely stand up for yourself and carry on with your professional and personal life. Instead, you crumple like a tissue. Every time you are catcalled, the game lets you know that you “feel so embarrassed that you have to go home and cry to your cat.” This struck some of my students as downright slanderous—and potentially dangerous. One of my students even took offense at the insinuation that all women are cat people. “I don’t even like cats,” she said. “I’m a dog person. So it’s doubly offensive that the game is infantilizing me in this way.”

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Although this student is of course objectively wrong in her preference for dogs over cats, there’s a very cogent criticism that she, and the other women in my class voicing this opinion, had latched onto. Namely, that political games of the past decade and a half tend to over-emphasize disempowerment.

This is an illustrious tradition. Way back in 2001, Gonzalo Frasca realized that the logic of arcade-era games such as Space Invaders (Taito, 1978) or Missile Command (Atari, 1980) was an especially good fit for games about humanitarian crises. There is never any happy ending to arcade games. Players survive as long as they can, chasing an elusive and arbitrary high score, but failure is an eventuality. Sooner or later, you will slip up. The aliens will overtake Earth. The missile defense system will fail in the face of a nuclear onslaught. The point of these games is not to “win,” but to stave off the inevitable as long as possible. For Frasca, this made a good analog for the plight of Afghani civilians during the US invasion of Afghanistan. Surviving is difficult. When the US empire doesn’t care about you, life becomes cheap. The result: his game Kabul Kaboom (access it here; and troubleshoot here if you’re having issues playing it in-browser). “Remember kids,” the game’s introductory text taunts, “you can’t win this game, just lose.”

From here on in, it seemed that the primary task of serious games was to find ways to translate the plight of others in terms of mechanical vocabulary of difficulty and frustration. For Darfur Is Dying (Susana Ruiz et al, 2006), this meant transforming the water-gathering of Darfuri refugees into a stealth game.

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In the reading that I assigned for students alongside Darfur Is Dying and Female Experience Simulator (I taught them both in the same week), Ian Bogost praises the game as being on the leading edge of games that “invite us to step into the smaller, more uncomfortable shoes of the downtrodden rather than the larger, more well-heeled shoes of the powerful.”[i] Here, we see a trend emerging: videogames are usually used to deliver power fantasies. Why not flip the script, and explore disempowerment, instead? Why not use the vocabulary of videogames against itself, dangling out a seemingly achievable goal for players, and then saying, “Yeah, that thing you want to do in this game? Turns out you can’t do it.” The message is clear: “Life for these people is like your life, only harder.”

As this logic of disempowerment entrenches itself in the serious games sphere, we transition from things such as Kabul Kaboom and Darfur Is Dying to things like Freedom Bridge (Jordan Magnuson, 2010). Magnuson’s game presents just one, seemingly simple goal: move your little black square from the left of the screen to the right, and cross the “Freedom Bridge” from North Korea to South Korea. Except it is impossible: you get shot every time.

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By Freedom Bridge, we have arrived at a rigid sort of counter-logic. The idea is that mainstream games value freedom, interactivity, and achievable goals. These are the necessary components of a power fantasy. In order to subvert these expectations of the medium, politically-minded games should invert each and every one of these aspects: they should deny player freedom, emphasize their lack of interactivity, and include goals that cruelly cannot be achieved. They should become, in effect, disempowerment fantasies. With its simple, abstracted visuals, short length, and severe message, Magnuson’s Freedom Bridge is close to the Platonic ideal of the disempowerment fantasy game, and in the years since it has become something of a template in the personal games and advocacy games space.

I made my students play all of the above-mentioned games, but it was Female Experience Simulator that really got them thinking of the diminishing returns of this disempowerment strategy. Unlike games about being a refugee or civilian during wartime, this game represented something that actually affected a hefty percentage of them regularly. And its insistence on disempowerment rubbed them the wrong way. They didn’t want a game that only spit out sad stories. They didn’t want a pity-generator. Although many of them championed the empathetic potentials of games like Darfur Is Dying, when it came to Female Experience Simulator they suddenly began voicing objections to “empathy machines.” In other games, it may have been a powerfully unexpected twist for games to explore helplessness and weakness. But they had no patience for the attitude of Female Experience Simulator. They wanted something that didn’t portray them, in their own lives, as helpless.

They didn’t want pity. They wanted action.

And this brings us back around to Realistic Female First-Person Shooter.

“She would have to move very slowly, dragging the gun around”

Realistic Female First-Person Shooter is a parody game. Anthropy designed the game around the suggestions of “xtc,” a commenter on the Men’s Rights Activist board Men Going Their Own Way. There, xtc wrote of the possibility that there might be women playable characters in military first-person shooters:

It would be hilarious to portray the female characters realistically. If you chose the female character in your FPS she would have to move very slowly, dragging the gun around. You could build in some extra shake to the crosshairs to represent hopeless accuracy. Every time you needed to reload your gun, instead of just pressing a button, you’d have to find a male character and go through some flirting dialogue options to persuade him to do it for you. One out of every four missions the game would tell you that you were sitting out this one due to ‘women’s issues’.

Anthropy adopted this moronic comment as a design document, carefully implementing each of xtc’s suggestions. In Realistic Female First-Person Shooter, your movement is infuriatingly slow, and your aim unconscionably unsteady. You have to flirt with another soldier to reload, and the game’s second mission is sat out due to “heavy flow.”

When I was writing my fumblecore article, I kept looking toward Realistic Female First-Person Shooter and conjuring up a list of check-boxes in my head. The game was, quite assuredly, a comedy. Furthermore, it was a comedy based on masochistic frustration. In the moments when the players are required to move, that movement is achieved by a hideously inefficient control scheme (namely, furiously tapping the “W” key on one’s keyboard, and furiously clicking one’s left mouse button). Certainly, several of the microgenre’s defining traits were there.

But there was one area where the game flummoxed me. Riffing off of words by Ashton Raze, I proposed in the conclusion of my article that fumblecore games “could act as a gateway to public discussion among gamers about the conundrums visibly disabled people often face,” that they have “the potential to marshal mechanics in service of empathy, to use humor in service of broadening the types of lives represented by the medium.”[ii] (Yes, I used the dreaded “e” word.)

This was my attempt to slot fumblecore somewhere in the much-ballyhooed punching up/punching down spectrum. It gave me a nice conclusion to my article, but it also painted me into a corner when it came to Realistic Female First-Person Shooter.

Because Realistic Female First-Person Shooter isn’t interested in genuinely expressing disempowerment. It’s not using the vocabulary of difficulty and frustration to give its players a sincere insight into the world as navigated by someone with reduced mobility. It’s operating at a higher, more smart-ass level. It is punching down at an imagined form of being-in-the-world, one that is helpless and disempowered, but doesn’t actually exist. And, in making fun of the imagined disability that is womanhood, it is ultimately making fun of the people who hold these conceptions.

It sounds easy enough when I lay it out that way, but the fact of the matter is that this was very confusing for awhile. Because Realistic Female First-Person Shooter was a game that was almost inconceivably ahead of its time.

Realistic Female First-Person Shooter was released on February 26, 2012 (it was made as part of the Pirate Kart V game jam). This preceded the release of Anthropy’s Dys4ia by two weeks. Let that sink in for a minute: Realistic Female First-Person Shooter was released before Dys4ia. This means it was also released before John Scalzi described the straight white male identity as the “lowest difficulty setting there is” (May 2012). It was before players held their breath down the constrained corridors of LIM (merritt kopas, August 2012). Before the tedious and disheartening eternal return of Mainichi (Mattie Brice, November 2012). Before the Twine-based exploration of the constraints of hypermobility in Mom Is Home (Marras Vedenoja, circa January 2013). Before Samantha Allen characterized in-game movement as one the “most powerful communicative elements of video games as a medium,” and as “one of the best tools that queer game developers can use to allow others to understand our different relationship to motion and public space.” Before Zoë Quinn grayed out the options for players in Depression Quest (February 2013). Before we ventured into the terror of the darkness while inhabiting a black male body in walking home (spinach, June 2013).

And, of course, it was released before Female Experience Simulator (July 2013).

By all rights, Realistic Female First-Person Shooter does not seem like it should have come out before all of those things. Because it is, at base, a critique of the vocabulary of disempowerment that the aforementioned games employ (universally, to varying extents), and the aforementioned works of criticism champion (implicitly, or explicitly).

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Although I first played it years ago, I feel as if I’m only beginning to fully appreciate Realistic Female First-Person Shooter for what it is now. I couldn’t fully appreciate it until I read Mattie Brice, in June 2016, criticizing game audiences for only “caring about what marginalized creators are doing if it involves them talking about their pain and trauma.” I couldn’t fully appreciate it until I read Robert Yang, in April 2017, writing “The basic problem with empathy machines is what if we don’t want your fucking empathy?” I couldn’t fully appreciate it until I facilitated my students’ impassioned critiques of Female Experience Simulator.

Realistic Female First-Person Shooter really only makes sense if, like Brice and Yang (and Anthropy herself, now), you are already fed up with the empathy thing already—especially if “empathy” means games that rotely employ disempowerment as a way to allow non-marginalized players to feel good about themselves for feeling bad about the right things. The game is a rowdy ribbing of the disempowerment genre, one that somehow managed to come out before some of the genre’s most celebrated entries (including Anthropy’s own!!!). Truly, I have never seen a more prescient critique. It is downright uncanny.

Representations of impaired bodily mobility in games are still something that interests me. (I mean, just look at this blog: my last two posts both dealt with it, in some respect.) This doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t recognize the problems of the “empathy game” frame, and the basic contours of the disempowerment strategy. Writing is a tricky thing. The world is always changing, with new critiques becoming available. Our our personal frames must change with them. I might not know the end point on some of my ideas about games and their interfaces, but I’m happy that my students were able to help me finally crystalize my understanding of Anthropy’s distinct breed of impossibly-well foresighted satire.

[i]. Bogost, Ian. “Empathy.” In How to Do Things with Videogames (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012). Pg 19.

[ii]. Jones, Ian Bryce. “Do the Locomotion: Obstinate Avatars, Dehiscent Performances, and the Rise of the Comedic Video Game.” The Velvet Light Trap No. 77 (March 2016). Pg 96.

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