How gaming nostalgia can open up conversations about trans rights

For a generation which has observed a digital rush in technology, we’re oddly fascinated with revisiting history. The ‘nostalgia economy’ is booming as corporations look to capitalise on melancholy at the current state of the world, and also bring their latest technological developments to old games and make easy money out of their ‘new’ products. Reboots and remasters were a dominant theme of 2018, but despite their ubiquity, we never really appreciated the depth of examining classical games decades down the line. At best, we get graphics manipulations and upgrades allowing us to view older games with slick images. But what if we reversed the process? What if the mechanics, interface and gameplay stayed firmly in the past but we used that old technology to explore stories that until recently, haven’t gotten much public attention?

Zoyander Street, a researcher and creator of digital media and games, is trying to look at video games in a different way – and get audiences involved. By using the old framework of classic games, Zoyander is then channelling poignant stories through the games to see if the audience reaction differs.

When speaking to Zoyander it becomes clear just how passionate, and infinitely knowledgeable he is about video games, but also how he shrugs off the typical narratives about gaming. He scoffs at the idea that because games are interactive that they can automatically transcend other mediums for story-telling, and he wants a closer examination of just how games can affect people. Perhaps the most important element of Zoyander’s research is that it is challenging us from being complacent in our assumptions about video games.

Zoyander’s next display will feature in Rotherham, where visitors will be able to play videogames that aim to connect people with their childhoods to see whether that can help open up conversations about the narratives in the games. Zoyander built the games, and even the controllers himself, and is hoping to engage people who aren’t necessarily gamers – although that has presented its own challenges. 

“When showing these games to a non-gaming audience, a lot of people don’t know how to use game controllers,” Zoyander says. “I use the simplest controller and that’s enough to confuse people. So, I’m looking to simplify them as much as possible.”

Zoyander has worked hard to ensure that each piece of the gaming process can help bring in the audience and tap into feelings of nostalgia to then examine the reactions people have.

“I’m making games that evoke nostalgia for the 1980s,” says Zoyander. “What I like is that it immediately puts people in a childlike state which helps people listen to perspectives which they might normally react against. If you make people remember their childhood it makes them a bit more open, a bit more okay with vulnerability and a bit more okay with being wrong.”

It’s easy to see why Zoyander needs participants to be ready to be open. Zoyander’s research focuses specifically on trans identities, and part of his process of developing the games was conducting interviews with trans people in Japan. However, gaming culture is notoriously toxic. Diverse people and stories often receive abuse from the gaming community. Even by non-gamers, transmisia is still common. In the UK, there have been weekly stories in the media for more than a year pushing back against trans rights. Aå forum which was once dedicated to helping new mothers connect, Mumsnet, has become a hate forum against trans rights. It is therefore an incredibly difficult subject to broach with people, because their reactions are often already determined by what has been heard in the media due to the constant negative coverage of trans lives, rights and identities.

“Because Each piece takes the format of one conversation with one person, I hope they can imagine that person and really retain that one story,’ Zoyander says. “If people remember one story from a trans person it stops being this distant theory. There are two problems I’d like to solve: you can tell them these predatory stories [about trans people] and they buy it because they’ve never met a trans person and I want people to have an accurate story about a trans person they’ve retained. Another problem is that a lot of cis people feel like trans issues are this abstract philosophical problem, like ‘what is gender, anyway?’ I want people to have that feeling they’ve had a specific encounter and this isn’t a philosophical problem. These are actual problems who have very specific stories that vary one from another.”

Zoyander’s past installations have been successful in being able to get people to feel comfortable with games as a medium, and he’s found that games can be a way for trans people to connect their stories to cis people.

“People were walking in who I don’t see at arts events normally,” Zoyander says. “And people felt safe. And someone would come in and sit across the room and tell me all about playing. We’re [the trans community] dealing with devastating health issues and someone said they almost ended up in prison. There’s something about this not looking like fine art that I think is really beneficial.

We’ve built social structures around art where people feel that’s not the case. Using video games circumvents that. They get their sense of confidence back.”

There was a huge amount of work which went into creating the stories before even beginning to programme the games. Zoyander spoke with Japanese transgender people across a wide age range to try and get a multitude of experiences, and these experiences were often different between the generations and from what might be expected by Western queer people. However, one factor that remained is that the queer and trans communities are diverse. Not all trans people will hold the same opinions. For instance, Zoyander points out that in Japan conversations around declassifying being trans as a mental illness (in-line with the World Health Organisation and the American Psychological Association) erupted in different ways. Some welcomed the opportunity to reduce the stigma around being trans, but others worried that if being trans wasn’t recognised as a mental illness then the move could be used as a pretext to deny trans people medical support. Zoyander points out that this discussion about trans identities has much wider implications.

“It also connects to a boarder point of what it means to be transgender? Once we realise gender is this big wiggly multi-dimensional spectrum it’s hard to classify it.”

Taking trans stories and discussions and putting them into the medium of gaming can help provide audiences with a greater understanding of such a diverse topic that rarely receive honest or good faith approaches.

Zoyander acknowledges though that his work won’t be accessible to everyone, and he is working to try and see what improvements can be made. By going back to a more rudimentary era of gaming, a lot of the improvements in accessibility have inevitably been stripped away. However, the controller Zoyander created does have only one action button and four arrow  buttons. Additionally, there will be some full screens on display so those who are visually impaired can engage with the games. Yet, due to the visual effects those with epilepsy will be sensitive to the games and potentially unable to play.

Tapping into the history of games to such a degree has inevitably limited accessibility which is something Zoyander wishes to address. Yet, the historical feeling has also helped create such a strong point for the project that some people can otherwise connect with. Even during the interview stage of collecting trans stories, Zoyander found that people were willing to share their own historical experiences with computing and gaming, and how they often had a profound impact on them.

“I’m using an alternate history platform to represent oral history project,” says Zoyander. “And the history of technology comes up in interviews a fair bit. One of the interviewees says 1995 was an important year as Windows 95 came out. Windows 95 was when home computing took off and through being able to email, she was able to get into trans politics in other countries, and she ended up going to New York and transition in the US, becoming performing artist. She changed from wanting to live a short beautiful life as a glamorous individual transgressing gender and being the life of every party to focusing on being an artist to where she is now, where she says she ‘just wants to be a fat old woman and watch soap operas on TV.’”

It is a strange as a millennial who grew up with a computer in the home, to think of just how something as bland as Windows 95 could have transformed so many people’s lives. Yet, as innocent as it seemed by bringing us solitaire and that absolutely horrific dial up tone, it also sparked a digital age that we are, to some extent, trapped in now. The 90s online communities provided people with distance and space. They could begin to explore communities and make connections across the world, but in their own time. Now, true anonymity is harder than ever and it is an impossible task to log off. Brands have also taken over, and they control just how we connect to people, even when it comes to such personal topics such as queerness.

“We all pin our histories on brand names and it is troubling,” says Zoyander, “and it’s not about the brand. It’s about what we did and how we used the tools that are available and we end up serving these huge brands, that just don’t care about us, by making them the apex of their lives. YouTube content creators made YouTube but YouTube doesn’t give a shit.’”

By stepping back into the past, Zoyander has wrestled control away from the big brands and commercialism associated with gaming. He’s been able to convey authentic stories in a medium where the creator is in control, and passes that control to the audience who can take what they want from the narratives they are given. In some ways, being given stories of people they will never meet is more intimate than anyone would perhaps expect through this method. The interviewees and the players are allowing themselves to open up to a new experience, and potentially take themselves to a new viewpoint about such a deeply personal subject. Gaming can help break down the walls of silence and doubt.

“I think there are huge benefits to using videogames as a medium of expression. There’s a videogame exceptionalism I don’t like,” reveals Zoyander; – “[the idea that] because it’s interactive it makes empathy happen that others can’t. It’s really easy to stimulate empathy and that’s what you learn working on an 8-bit platform. It is one of the simplest programs and it’s triggering emotions in people. We are hard-wired about to be empathetic. There’s nothing special about games that make empathy happens.”

Zoyander’s statement is incredibly refreshing considering he’s using videogames as a way to make people to connect with stories that they may not have been able to have before. Yet, there’s a sober consideration of what gaming is and where it has come from, which is why this project is so compelling. Exploring yesterday’s games through today’s imagination and conviction may allow an opening in conversations routinely shut down. There might just be a way yet for games to help facilitate conversations about trans rights.

Details of Zoyander’s event, which runs from turday, Tuesday 15th January to Friday 8th February, can be found here.

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