The Split Audience in A Normal Lost Phone

So there’s this type of game where – I don’t want to call it a social justice game, but that’s what you can imagine people calling it. It’s the type of game that focuses on marginalised identities, particularly touching on issues of gender and sexuality, and which often has a political slant, dealing explicitly with the violence faced by people in these marginalised groups. As you might imagine, there were more than a couple of these games in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice, which I wrote about back in July. Actually, the first one of these I played was Extreme Meatpunks Forever, which – the game’s description reads “Gay disaster mech pilots killing fascists”. It’s exactly that, and it’s pretty great.

Today, though, I wanted to talk about A Normal Lost Phone, the 2017 game about looking through a phone that you find in the street. You have to unlock different apps and sort out password resets and figure out the whole backstory around how this phone got lost in the first place – and it falls into that general category of games about marginalised identities. Over the course of the game, you discover that the phone belongs to Sam, a closeted trans girl living in a small town in the States. There’s a bunch of homophobia, Sam’s family is conservative and everything-phobic, and Sam is trying to figure out how to express and live in her identity as a girl while still maintaining her physical safety.

That’s all just the set-up though – the reason I wanted to talk specifically about this game is because it’s a great example of this particular thing I’ve been noticing. When you eventually get onto the message board where you learn that Sam is trans, you can find one particular thread where a cis woman comes in and sort of says hey, my boyfriend has just said he’s actually a trans woman, but I don’t know what transgender means. And everyone very patiently and politely explains at great length what it means to be trans, as much for the benefit of the audience as anything else. They bold all the key takeaway points (“sex is between the legs, gender between the ears”, “being transgender doesn’t automatically mean undergoing genital operations”), and congratulate the woman on “making the effort to come here and ask your questions.” It’s very clearly framed as an introduction for audience members who might not have any exposure to trans people, or to the idea of what it means to be trans: “I know that you feel lost,” they tell the woman, “particularly because this is the first time you’ve encountered a transgender person.” It kinda reminded me of a similar setup in A Mortician’s Tale.

If you remember the article about A Mortician’s Tale from back in August, or if you’ve played it yourself, you might remember that it’s a game where you read a lot of emails. That’s where most of the story’s interpersonal drama happens, where you read about getting hired and fired and argue with the corporate suits. It’s also where the game tells you a bunch of background information on what morticians do and what good burial practice is and all the rest of it. The explanation is that you play a mortician, who’s presumably subscribed to Mortician’s Weekly or whatever – and that fictional conceit serves as a veil, allowing the developers to pack in non-fiction tracts about the death industry. They know that their audience will be full of punters, and so they set up a structure to explain things that might be unfamiliar to their audience. It’s a very similar approach to what you find in A Normal Lost Phone, which makes sense – they both face the same situation in terms of the split in their audience. When you’ve got games about groups of people who are maybe less well-known, or who generally don’t have an enormous public profile, you’re essentially faced with two types of audience member. You’ve got the people who are part of that group, who already know a lot about it, and you’ve got your average punter, who’s rolled in the door knowing nothing and who probably needs a bunch of background information before things can make sense. As a creator, you have to decide how you balance those different parts of your audience. One option is to set up a mechanism where you can explain everything that’s going on. In Mortician’s Tale, that’s a daily newsletter. In Lost Phone, it’s the message board with the cis woman.

At the other end of the spectrum, of course, you’ve got games like Extreme Meatpunks Forever, which I mentioned above. That’s not a game that’s interested in explaining the idea of queer or trans identities to random passers by. It’s not a game that’s interested in explaining or justifying the theory behind punching neo-Nazis. Instead, it caters pretty heavily to the section of its audience that already knows what’s going on. If you think fascists are bad and you think trans people are cool, you’ll have a ball. Otherwise, if you’re a bit more of a punter, if you don’t really have any understanding of leftist politics or the trans community or antifa, it’s possible that you’ll find the game really off-putting. It’s not here to hold your hand and walk you through the things you need to understand in order to appreciate what’s happening. It’s for people in the know.

And both approaches are valid in their own way. Growing up in a Pentecostal church, we often used the language of in-house and out-of-house conversations. There were things we’d talk about in church, conversations that belonged to the community when we all gathered together, and then there were things that were a bit more accessible that we talked about with people who weren’t Christian. It’s not about being devious or manipulative, you know, it’s not trying to trick people into the church by keeping secrets. It’s more that, as believers, we need a space where we can talk amongst ourselves without having to constantly justify and explain everything for non-believers.

So it’s valid to have both of those spaces. They have different functions, they do different things, neither of them is sufficient alone. But the problem for artists is that you’ve generally only got one text. You’ve got to figure out how you balance your in-house and out-of-house conversations – how you prioritise and speak to the different components of your audience. Do you try and bring in the punters, or do you make something that’s pretty clearly designed for your community? For Lost Phone, while specific elements probably speak more to one side than the other – the message board being a really clear example – the overarching design speaks to both sides in different ways. The core idea of reading through someone’s phone and finding out they’re trans – it’s something that’s going to resonate differently for trans people and cis people. The importance of privacy, the threat of violence if that privacy is undermined – those issues will have different meanings for cis and trans people, based on the relationship that the player has to those issues in the real world. By building a game around privacy and investigation, A Normal Lost Phone speaks to both parts of its audience. It asks the player to investigate a trans person’s phone, allowing the player to self-identify either as an outsider doing the investigating or as the trans person being investigated. In both cases, it raises different questions about the dynamics of privacy and power, of knowledge and secrecy and the right to be safe. It oscillates between asking ‘Should you be looking?’ and ‘Should you be looked at?’, depending on – well, on the person doing the looking.

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