Book Notes: Rise of the Videogame Zinesters (Anna Anthropy)

https://www.amazon.com/Rise-Videogame-Zinesters-Drop-outs-Housewives/dp/1609803728

This series, Book Notes, is just my thoughts on some of the books I’ve been reading about video games. I don’t have a thesis for my dissertation yet so I’m casting a wide net, and these are loose and unfocused because I’m not sure what I might end up using them for. I may or may not end up using them, but I hope they’ll be useful to me at some point, and if they’re useful to other people too, cool.

“I have to strain to find any game that resembles my own experience. This is in spite of the fact that videogames in America are an industry and institution” (2). This might bepp; a catalyst for the book’s momentum, propelling Anthropy toward her thesis, which is an argument that game development tools are easier to access than ever and a broad community of people should be using them to make games that represent their own experiences. She gives lots of examples of people who do just that, and I think it’s something to keep in mind when using games in a classroom of students who have various backgrounds and different levels of expertise with games. Some of the tools she mentions seem relatively easy to use, but probably aren’t easy or intuitive enough to use as a tool in a first year English class. Twine might be a fair solution, though, and is worth checking out in more detail.

“The ability to work in any art form with the digital game’s unique capabilities for expression shouldn’t be restricted to a privileged (and profit-oriented) few. If everyone is given the means to work in an art form, then we’ll invariably see a much more diverse, experimental, and ultimately rich body of work” (21). When we talk to students about authorship and intent and the rhetoric of video games, it can be tricky. Most big, studio-driven games don’t have a single person who we look to as the primary creative force. It took decades for us to do the same with film, as producers were more readily given credit for a film’s ‘message’ or creative success until the 50s and 60s. With the smaller games that Anthropy and others make, there is typically one person who is responsible for the game, making authorship clear. This makes them nice, easy texts to use in the classroom, but I think it’s important to discuss how those big studio games still have authors and messages and should be critiqued as such.

“Given the expenses of distributing a game – lot check, compatibility testing, printing, marketing – how does anyone afford to make games?” (33-4). She tracks the tie between development cost and who has made games historically – middle-upper class white guys – and how computers and the Internet (35) have made distribution of small, independent games much easier, changing the landscape of what games look like and how we view game developers. This is one of the most interesting and important points in the book, I think.

“A game is an experience created by rules” (43). She goes into considerable detail in arguing for this definition of a game, and I think it works. Without rules, a ‘game’ is just activity, and video games automatically introduce rules by having a world that is run by rules – of physics, and systems, etc. It might be interesting to ask students to define what a game is, especially if we discuss games like Gone Home or Her Story, since they don’t have the trappings or rules that are typically found in popular games. But I’m not sure when I’d fit this in during a composition class.

“Folk games, like folk songs and folk texts such as the Bible, have no single credited author, but rather many untraceable authors over many years. They’re artifacts shaped by entire cultures, and generally they can tell us a lot about those cultures” (49). This is a huge part of how I already teach games to my students. Why should we study videogames? Because they are a reflection of who we are as a culture, regardless of the genre or platform or audience. Most games are commercial products first, yes, but like film and popular music before them, they still say something about the producing culture’s values, beliefs, and attitudes towards itself.

“Folk games tell us about the culture that created them; authored games tell us about the author that created them” (51). Yes, but I would argue that they also tell us something about the culture. Authors and their creative visions are shaped by the culture that they are immersed in, and if enough authored games are studied, patterns begin to emerge to reveal the same kinds of patterns that folk games do. I don’t think Anthropy would argue against this, I just thought it was important to note.

Anthropy talks about what she calls “grown-up games” and gives the example of a paper and pen RPG called Gang Rape, developed by Tobias Wrigstad in 2007 (58). Wrigstad’s intent was to highlight the mishandling of rape cases in Sweden. This is an important discussion to have, maybe with students. Video games have mostly shrugged the stigma of being for children, but they are still seen as a form of entertainment for kids, teenagers, or dumb, immature adults (see almost any movie or TV show where video games are played by characters). If we’re accepting that video games are a modern art form, which we are, then they should be allowed to deal with mature subject matter without discussions of appropriateness or censorship. I think some would like to say we already allow for that, because we protect games with the first amendment, but we still censor games as a culture in other ways, which is why sex, nudity, and sexuality is rarely shown in western games but violence is prevalent, and vice versa in eastern games. Our cultures dictate what’s acceptable in art, even if not explicitly stated or regulated.

“A better comparison [for games] than film is theater, which is where a lot of our game vocabulary (“the player,” “stages,” “set pieces,” “scripting”) comes from” (60). She goes on to explain that players interpret intent and narrative differently, performing the same role – say, of Master Chief – differently based on how they interpret it. I think this is an interesting idea, but I’m not sure I agree. The vocabulary she points to seems to have come from other arenas, like game terminology (a chess ‘player’) or film (stage and film share much in the way of terminology, including ‘set pieces’ and ‘scripting,’ but given the latter’s vast popularity, it seems more likely that we took terms from it and not from the former). The idea of players interacting and creating scenes intuitively does smack more of theater, but I think games that are collaborative and less narratively structured, like MMOs or online shooters, are really the only good examples of this. Many games are cinematic and have fairly rigid narratives that have something very specific to say, leading the player through it. They use camera angles, music, and scripted action/dialogue that can’t be improvised, making them very much more like film than plays.

“I thought (and think) that ‘higher education’ is bullshit” (96). Ouch. There are certainly some aspect of higher education that are, in fact, bullshit, but I think it’s dismissive and short-sighted to label it all as such. Sure, the closer we get to a profit-based jumble of bureaucratic crap the further we get from the original intent of our institutions, but I’m sure there are millions of people who have had intellectual awakenings thanks to engaging in scholarly study and debate. But I very much digress.

“That’s part of the reason why contemporary big-budget games have so much clutter and so few strong ideas. The games are all over the place because the creators were all over the place. It’s hard to have a strong singular vision when the process of creation is spread so thin” (102-3). This is a fair point, but I would add the commercial nature of many games, too. Some of these big-budget games are not created with any artistic intent, they are crafted as products that should perform well and entertain consumers enough that they spread the gospel. Yes, it can be argued that every game is a piece of art, but sometimes the art is just a byproduct. Games like World of Warcraft or League of Legends or Overwatch are primarily focused on user experience, value, and social engagement, so it’s this focus on the product as a commercial object that keeps them from having a unified artistic vision, not a large, non-unified group of artists. There are, in my opinion, big-budget games that can have narrow artistic visions despite not have a clear artistic leader at the helm, even if it is rare.

“What videogames need right now is to grow up. The videogame industry has spent millions upon millions of dollars to develop more visually impressive ways for a space marine to kill a monster. What they’ve invested almost nothing in is finding better ways to tell a story, and in exploring different stories to tell. That’s for us to do … Every game that you and I make right now – every five minute story, every weird experiment, every dinky little game about the experience of putting down your dog – makes the boundaries of our art form (and it is ours) larger. Every new game is a voice in the darkness” (160). And here it is: the thesis, a call to action. This book was published in 2012, which is forever ago in video game years, and it’s interesting to consider its message in the wake of the indie game explosion that’s happened since the book came out. I suspect Anthropy would look at many of the commercially successful indie games – Minecraft, Stardew Valley, Firewatch, etc. – as different than the short, experimental games that she often highlights, but I do think that the number of these types of games shows that things are changing. Slowly, yes. And painfully, given that every time a game like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture or What Remains of Edith Finch is released we have to suffer through the vocal minority that claims they’re ‘not really video games.’ Either way, I think this text’s focus on authorship and voice in the art of game making interesting to consider when teaching games as texts.

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