Book: The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Videogame Culture
Author: This is an essay collection edited by Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson, with a variety of authors.
Summary: An anthology of essays about games culture, all of them somewhat autobiographical. They range from incredibly personal experiences to more academic critiques.
To get it out of the way, the full list of authors are: Ian Bogost, Leigh Alexander, Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, Katherine Cross, Ian Shanahan, Anna Anthropy, Evan Narcisse, Hussein Ibrahim, Cara Ellison, Brendan Keogh, Dan Golding, David Johnston, William Knoblauch, Merritt Kopas, and Ola Wikander. Normally I like to identify authors by their occupation/relationship to games – many of these authors take on role of games critic, games developer, or both. All of them have careers in and around the game industry and many of them have a long history of writing about games.
The State of Play is not a book on game design or the development of games. Instead, the book aims to look at the state of videogame culture that exists in and all around the games we make, play, and critique with a series of autobiographical essays. Prior to this, I’ve read essays by about half of the listed authors before and generally liked what they had to say, so I was looking forward to this collection. I read this book slowly – about an essay a week – but it’s very short and could easily be finished in a couple nights.
I received The State of Play direct from the publisher before it was released, so I have an ‘uncorrected proof’ version with a different cover, but as far as I can tell none of the content is different from the consumer copy.
The individual essays range from “pretty good” to “outstanding”, and I’ll be commenting a bit on each one further down in this review. The collection as a whole, though, felt a bit misdirected. The first time I attempted to read it, I felt a mismatch between what I thought the book was about – analyzing the culture surrounding games – and what it really was about – authors sharing their personal relationship and interaction with games culture, like a series of snapshots in the lives of people involved in the game industry. Taking into account that many of these essays are personal in nature, each one follows a very different format – some more like a critical essay, others more biographical, others more like personal testimonials. Some lean more on the poetic, while others take a more pragmatic writing style.
However, taken as a whole many of the essays don’t feel like they fit in well with the group. Essays on personal interactions with racism or sexism in games, including the Gamergate movement, fit well together in a shared theme where authors expressed their joy and fascination with games in spite of the barriers they encounter within the often toxic mainstream gaming culture. But some of the other essays – on the viral phenomenon of Flappy Bird, for example – don’t fit in with the rest, taking on a more clinical and academic approach to their subject. Mind you, I consider those other essays excellent – my criticism is just that they don’t seem to match the more personal essays in a collected, coherent anthology.
All that said I’d say my review of The State of Play is mostly positive. If you already read a ton about games culture and have read a lot by these authors, then (like me) a lot of the content may feel redundant or preaching to the choir, without much new to chew on. Those few nuggets of wisdom and insight, though, are worth combing through the book for. Some of these essays are available in other publications so if one interests you I recommend seeing if you can find it free before deciding whether to pick up a copy of the book. It’s nice as something to read, but there’s no one I’d explicitly recommend it to. It definitely requires a high level of literacy in games in order to follow along for most of the essays, so it’d be appropriate for regular gamers and game developers but not for those with a passing interest in the medium.
Like Shooter, the other games criticism anthology I reviewed, I decided to do each essay justice by talking a little about it separately. Hopefully this also helps others decide whether they’d like to pick up a copy or look up a specific essay to read.
Advent by Leigh Alexander
This is an excerpt from Alexander’s book that covers her early experiences as a 6-7 year old, written in the style of a memoir. She recounts the computer as a riddle, a mystery for her to solve with great stubbornness. This is not one of Alexander’s best essays but it’s a particularly good one to start off the anthology with.
Bow, Nigger by Ian Shanahan
Shanahan’s essay is written as an action-packed play-by-play of a multiplayer encounter he had in Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. It hinges around the racist callout from another player, but the author unpacks the single statement into several layers: the game’s rules, the use of a slur to denote power imbalances, the strong player-enforced etiquette within the game.
Love, Twine, and the End of the World by Anna Anthropy
Anthropy writes this semi-autobiographical essay as a choose-your-own-adventure, telling you which section to turn to depending on what you want to know next. It flirts with several topics in a small space: her personal relationship with games, a tutorial for Twine, options for making money via gumroad and patreon, the development story behind Queers at the End of Time (note: I highly recommend this game). The deliberately meandering essay only works thanks to the choice-based structure.
The Natural: The Parameters of Afro by Evan Narcisse
This is the best essay I’ve ever read on the absence of blackness in games. Many of the topics were familiar, but Narcisse explores them all and with surprising depth and poignancy for such a short essay. Throughout he uses the titular example – that his most basic neutral black haircut does not exist in games – to explore what it means to lack representations of black culture in video games. I highly recommend this essay.
What It’s like to Always Play the Bad Guy: On Portrayal of Arabs in Online Shooters by Hussein Ibrahim
The author describes what it’s like to be a games critic in the Middle East where the most popular games – first-person shooters like Call of Duty – often feature nonsensical and highly offensive Arab representations. These caricatures bear nothing in resemblance to the people and places these players know personally. The author notes that players seem to have just given up without a fight for better representation, not realizing the power they have to enact change.
A Game I Had to Make by Zoe Quinn
This essay jumps to different snapshots in time before, during, and after the release of the author’s game, Depression Quest. It’s poignant and poetic and really drives home both how personal the game was as well as the harassment that followed it. The tense – written in the second person “you” – to help readers step directly into the author’s shoes rather than treat her as a character/celebrity in a famous story. Quinn’s an excellent writer and I highly recommend the other articles, often similarly personal in nature, she’s written on her blog or in other publications.
Your Humanity is in Another Castle: Terror Dreams and the Harassment of Women by Anita Sarkeesian and Katherine Cross
Sarkeesian and Cross follow the topic of harassment in games but specifically from a feminist point of view. Cross recounts how she navigated World of Warcraft as a female player, while Sarkeesian describes the unending flow of garbage she receives in the form of harassment for the crime of critiquing games. Together, they propose these, and other, experiences aren’t all that different from one another and explore what it is about games culture that drives these toxic actions. (As an aside, Cross’s critical work on games is excellent and I highly recommend her Gamasutra articles).
The End of Gamers by Dan Golding
Golding explores the identity of “gamer” and why so many gamers took up the Gamergate banner in reaction to what they perceived as an attack on their identities. The author explores their own personal discomfort, even as a teen, with being labeled a gamer, and uses that to launch into how games themselves changed but the identity of “gamer” never evolved to keep up.
The Joy of Virtual Violence by Cara Ellison & Brendan Keogh
Written as a series of letters back and forth between the authors, this essay explores why violence is so ubiquitous in games and why it feels so, so good to partake in it. It’s a somewhat literary essay (they talk about Paradise Lost of all things) and flirts with all kinds of little ideas, concerns, and ethical implications of how violence is used in our games.
The Squalid Grace of Flappy Bird by Ian Bogost
An excellent – albeit rather hyperbolic – exploration of Flappy Bird as a viral success. Bogost claims that games are objects you operate, that they are broken machines meant to frustrate you in ways no other media does. The author attributes Flappy Bird’s success to its earnestness in how awful the experience of games really is.
The Making of Dust: Architecture and the Art of Level Design by David Johnston
This is the one essay in the entire anthology that I think every level designer should read. Johnston talks about his early experiences making levels in Wolfenstein and Doom before creating the famous Dust and Dust 2 maps for CounterStrike. He discusses his approach to level design, but also compares it to the trends in level design at the time when these tools were new and experimental.
Game Over?: A Cold War Kid Reflects On Apocalyptic Video Games by William Knoblauch
The author is a professor who teaches on the Cold War and reflects on how games have changed the way they treat nuclear warfare, and have moved into different types of apocalyptic scenarios. Knoblauch points out that the new generation of gamers have lost touch with the harsh reality of nuclear warfare and that games have an opportunity to impress upon them this seriousness.
Ludus Interruptus: Video Games and Sexuality by Merrit Kopas
Kopas talks about the poor portrayal of sex – and the lack or avoidance of sex – in mainstream video games as compared to violence. She describes how that influenced her to create positive, playful games about sex and uses this essay to direct the reader toward other experimental games in this sphere, and where games may progress toward in the future. Keep in mind that the essay deliberately avoids Japanese games, and instead talks specifically about Western culture.
The God in the Machine: Occultism, Demiurgic Theology, and Gnostic Self-Knowledge in Japanese Video Games by Ola Wikander
Wikander is an Old Testament academic that talks about cultural trends in his youth, the 90s, that focused on gnosticism, occultism, conspiracy theories, and how they were reflected in various Japanese games at the time. This is a fairly academic essay that explores some philosophical elements – including the relationship between “creator” and “created” – in several games. While I liked it, this is a good example of an essay that’s much too short to give full credit to the topic. (Contains major spoilers for Final Fantasy X and Deadly Premonition).