Gaming the System: Oppression & Play

For teachers dealing with topics like racism, sexism, and classism, one of the hardest things to do is to get across the systematic, structural nature of oppression. I teach college classes, and most of my students have stewed for the majority of their lives in a culture that praises “individual responsibility” and discounts the effects of structural obstacles to health and happiness. Helping students – especially those who have benefited from oppression — to think of sexism, racism, transphobia, ableism, and so forth not just as qualities of “bad people” but as principles that organize our entire society can be a challenge, to put it mildly.

So, when I taught a sociology class on gender and sexuality this summer and was looking for ways to help students grasp the systematic nature of the topics we were discussing, I put anna anthropy’s dys4ia on the reading list. I hoped to use it in the place of the documentaries or memoirs that are often used in these kinds of classes, as an example of the ways in which gendered identities and bodies are scrutinized and evaluated on a daily basis. This wasn’t a class on games, but since dys4ia assumes very little fluency with the language of conventional games, it seemed to me to be a fine substitution.

What I like about dys4ia over a film or textual narrative in this case is that it drives home the systematic nature of gender regulation. Too often, students come away from (often tragic) films or written accounts about gender and sexual minorities feeling upset about the particular circumstances of the unfortunate individuals’ lives – or worse, defensive and refusing to acknowledge their complicity in systems of power. What they miss is that these accounts are often not atypical – they’re examples of the results produced by oppressive systems, not reducible to the deeds of one or a few “bad people.” The point of these kinds of examples, for me, is not primarily to promote “awareness” or empathy – though I do want my students to become more empathetic people – but to get across the fact that people’s lives are structured by power.

Because dys4ia requires active participation by the player, it draws them into the logic of a system bigger than the individual. It gives non-trans players a tiny glimpse of the frustrations of living in a society that tells you over and over that you do not exist, and that, when it on occasion deigns to admit that you do, then drops obstacle after obstacle in the path of your desires and goals. Here, one student said that the game helped them to better understand the process of transition and all of the institutional and societal barriers involved. Another told me that the game helped them to better understand the idea of ideology as a force bigger than the individual, something that can structure one’s options and choices in life without one’s knowledge or consent.

Based on this reception, I think there’s a strong case to be made for incorporating games into the classroom in this way. Of course, games are working against a negative stigma in the classroom that film and text have by now shaken off. And it should be said that much of this stigma is for good reason – too many games are totally impenetrable to anyone without years of prior experience, or else have little of value to say about the realities of our lives and the systems in which we live. For these reasons, in dedicated learning settings, games have mainly been used in very narrow ways – through “edutainment” products or else by attempting to “gamify” learning. But there are more and more games like dys4ia being made, games that target wide audiences and tell important and resonant stories in insightful ways.

Recognizing that, I want to go further than merely pushing for games to be allowed into classrooms. Instead, imagine a space that taught game design alongside critical social theory – antiracist, feminist, queer, and so forth. Christine Love alongside Micha Cardenas, Molleindustria paired with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Porpentine next to Jasbir Puar. The purpose wouldn’t be to make games to “save the world”, but to recognize the power of the medium to tell stories about our lives, and to help participants develop both an analysis of power and marginalization in society and the skill and confidence to communicate those analyses through games.

I’m excited about the possibility. Since I’ve started making games I’ve wanted to share the medium with more and more people, especially those who didn’t grow up with or don’t feel they understand games. And I want to see more games that tell stories and depict experiences that are meaningful to people other than the traditional core of “gamers.” Personal writing, music, and visual art have been used alongside radical political and social analysis for ages – for consciousness-raising, telling the truths of our lives, and expressing ourselves in ways that help us keep going.

So, how about it – are we ready for radical collective gamemaking?


  1. patriciaxh

    @IcePotato @nitemaremodenet hey – thanks!

  2. Fengxii

    @m_kopas Is teaching oppression and power structures really seen as radical?

    • m_kopas

      @Fengxii in the context of the US education system, often yes

  3. m_kopas

    @jsantley I think the fact that digital games can handle complex rules/game states w/out a player’s involvement make them especially useful

  4. m_kopas

    @jsantley that said, analog games work too. I’ve thought about using President/Daifugo to demonstrate unequal life chances, for instance

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