Review: The State of Play ed. by Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson

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.
Year: 2015

Summary: An anthology of essays about games culture, all of them somewhat autobiographical. They range from incredibly personal experiences to more academic critiques.

State_of_PlayTo 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).

Review: Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butcher

Book: Universal Principles of Design
Author: William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler, designers
Year: 2010 for the enhanced version, which I review here, but the original edition is from 2003

Summary: Alphabetical, illustrated overview of many design rules, spanning fields from architecture, product design, web design, user experience, and so on. Highly recommended as an easy reference text for anyone who cares about usability and design of objects.

100PrinciplesOfDesignUniversal Principles of Design has come highly recommended to me from people of various departments, but seems to have a special place among UI and UX designers – and for good reason. This book attempts to survey major principles from every field of design and package them in a neat, inviting, and (dare I say it?) well designed book. Universal Principles of Design is not about games, but the lessons within often intersect and overlap with situations and problems familiar to game designers.

The book is 263 large, glossy pages long. Each principle of design takes up a pair of pages: on the left the principle is identified, defined, and explained in easy English, with references to studies and recommendations for further reading. On the right hand side the authors use a variety of annotated visuals (graphs, diagrams, photos) to illustrate the principle in practice. This means that you can open up the book to any page and immediately get a comprehensive and clear overview of that page’s principle. It’s easy to digest without being too simple or brief.

The topics are arranged alphabetically, which means that as you read one principle may have very little to do with the next, though all fall into the broader category of “design”. Some principles are very relevant to game design – like Performance Load (“the greater the effort to accomplish a task, the less likely the task will be accomplished successfully”) or Five Hat Racks (“there are five ways to organize information: category, time, location, alphabet, and continuum”). Others are interesting as novelties but won’t make me a better designer – like the principle of Most Average Facial Appearance Effect (“a tendency to prefer faces in which the eyes, nose, lips, and other features are close to the average of a population”).

If you’ve read much on usability and user experience design, then a lot of these principles will tread familiar ground. Many of the principles that didn’t get much mileage for me as a designer were related to visual design, advertising, and product design, or repeating axioms like prototyping and iteration that most designers have already internalized. The large number of principles covering architecture and environment design makes the book particularly relevant for level designers.

The only caveat I have is that Universal Principles of Design don’t seem to be all that universal. Several of them actually focus on western culture bias without acknowledging it. For a simple example, the Gutenberg Diagram principle describes how eyes move across a page of information, and describes this as from left to right. But this principle is reversed or otherwise flipped in languages that are read from right to left or other directions. I have similar misgivings about other principles that make claims about how we associate empty space with expensive products, or the color red with attractive women and strong men. Meanwhile, others had to point out to me that the principle of Hunter-Nurturer Fixations regarding gender role behavior is flawed because it relies largely on a debunked study to prove its merit.

Those aside, I do recommend the book. I don’t think people should take a principle from its pages and treat it as the complete truth, but as guidelines they appear really solid. I think the topic is general enough (all design fields) that the book has a lot to offer anyone, regardless of whether they know nothing about game design or have many years of experience. However! This is not a game design book, so your mileage will greatly vary depending on your own interests and needs. If, like me, you’re looking for a game design specific book set up in a similar way, Universal Principles of Game Design by Wendy Despain appears to follow a similar format (but I abstain from saying if it’s good until after I read it).

Some Entry-Level Design Positions (May 2016)

There’s a myth that design is not an entry-level position, that you have to work your way in from QA, programming, or art, and this myth is used to discourage a lot of aspiring designers from ever pursuing design in the first place. The truth is that there are lots of jobs available (though not nearly as many as there are students), with a mix of qualifications (specific tools or languages), from a wide variety of design roles (technical, systems, levels) and an even bigger variety of studios (AAA, mobile, etc.).

Since a whole lot of students graduate in May, I collected some entry-level design job postings from a variety of companies. By posting the jobs, I am not vouching for them or the companies. I am simply letting you know they exist. This list is not exhaustive, just what I pulled together over a couple of evenings. Browsing through them should give you a good idea of what to look for when you’re trying to find those entry-level jobs.

I expect the job postings to get outdated rather quickly but I won’t be updating this page.  Jobs are listed in no particular order.


Associated Technical Designer – Blizzard Entertainment

Level Designer – Ubisoft Montreal

Game Designer (Scripter, Singleplayer) – Infinity Ward

Assistant Level Designer – Sledgehammer Games

Level Designer – King

Junior Game Designer – Raven

Associate Level Designer (Temp) – Sony Santa Monica

Technical Designer (Temp) – Sony Santa Monica

Level Designer (Contract) – Gearbox Studios

Design Intern – Demiurge Studios

Associated Level Designer – Hi-Rez Studios

Quest Designer – Bethesda Game Studios

Level Designer – Bethesda Game Studios

Associate Level Designer – Wooga

Design Intern – Arkane Studios

Junior Content Designer – Rumble

Game Designer – Ludia

Development Support, Design – Rockstar San Diego

Gameplay Scripter – Rockstar Toronto (two openings)

Gameplay Scripter – Rockstar Leeds

Design Intern – Tilting Point (scroll down for it)

VR Level Designer – Third Floor Inc.

Intern Game Designer – EA Mobile Firemonkeys

Level Designer/Scripter Internship – EA DICE

Design Implementer – Gunfire Games

Junior Game Designer – Doubledown Interactive (job ID: 15166BR)

GDC 2016 Wrap-Up

I’ve been to five GDCs now and each one has been different, and each one has been much, much better than the previous one.

This year I livetweeted over a dozen sessions I attended for those stuck back home without access to the vault. You can find them all here:

This year VR was huge. I initially thought VRDC would kind of segregate or corral VR people into their own separate, smaller conference but I was wrong. VR was everywhere, and lines for their talks filled up the hallways. I stayed away from them in general, since I worked in VR for the year prior to moving to Ubisoft and don’t really carry much developer interest in it anymore. (Small indie studios, please stop just testing sim sickness on yourselves. Test a wider range of people. Your products are going to give VR a bad name.)

I also saw lots of long lines for some of the indie summit business or marketing oriented talks, which obviously don’t carry much interest to me. I ended up only attending one indie talk – on procedural generation – and leaving the rest to catch up on the vault.

I filled Monday and Tuesday with a ton of talks from the Narrative Design summit. I had never attended it before but looking through the vault from previous years had stemmed my excitement because they largely seemed to be talks for writers with very little on design. This year felt different – it felt like design, systems, and narrative structure in games were at the forefront. My favorite talks were in the Narrative Design track, including my best-of-GDC award for “Forget Protagonists: Writing NPCs with Agency for 80 Days and Beyond” by Meg Jayanth, which delved into ways the player lacked power over NPC stories.

One of the trends I’m seeing from the Narrative Showcase, the narrative-focused games up for IGF and on the show floor, and the conversations I had around me is that systems are becoming a lot more integrated into narrative, and there’s a lot of narrative innovation coming out that is very specific to games. This might be my own biases sneaking in since I love interactive narrative so much.

Beyond the sessions, this year I attended a couple break-out sessions in the park organized somewhat spontaneously. Alex Jaffe from Spryfox organized a system designer hangout one morning, and Emily Short organized a group interested in procedural interactive fiction. Both were better than the official roundtable formats, since they encouraged mingling and smaller groups of similar interests rather than a handful of people dominating the conversation. Tying into my prior remark about narrative systems – the procgen IF group was huge, and the system designer group pretty much talked about procedural narrative and social simulation half the time. I suspect the rise of the “roguelike” and success developers have been making with procedural content is on a collision course with the narrative-focused developers. To be fair, I’m pretty trendy too – the last side project I made was a procedural interactive fiction game.

As usual, I said yes to any opportunity to do outreach. Last year I talked with IGDA scholars, and this year I spoke with women scholars from Diversi, a group that helped a whole bunch of students and scholars in games (and games-adjacent) programs attend GDC. This year I also was recruited to talk to a crowd in a less formal Q&A with two of the creative directors from Ubisoft Toronto – I think it went well, but I had to defer answers to others fairly often with my limited experience at the studio. For the first time I got on the list to attend the Women in Games Luncheon hosted by Microsoft and I definitely appreciated that outreach (in spite of their pretty epic stumble at their party the same night).

I did give a talk this year as part of Richard Rouse’s “Rules of the Game” microtalks. While I think the content is solid, I also think I flubbed a bit on my delivery (I think my 10min talk went to 13min). You can find my slides (as well as the other speakers) on his website here (direct download):

This is also the first GDC where “I know you from twitter!” almost became a meme for me. It was great but also kind of awkward – I don’t know how to respond and my instinct is to question, “Do I tweet too much?” In the end it doesn’t bother me too much, and it was great to put names to lots of faces I’ve chatted with online. It’s even cooler when someone I want to meet from twitter also just happens to want to meet me for the same reason, and I found myself in a few ‘consultation’-like meetings where I let people extract whatever they wanted from my brain and vice-versa. Someone even brought me a birthday cake (no, I did not eat the whole thing). For all its flaws, twitter has been invaluable for making friends with like-minded designers.

There was one big downside to the whole conference: I was sick. Now, it wasn’t the GDC flu and thankfully I’ve avoided that. But I have had real issues sleeping starting about a month ago which means that almost every day at GDC there was a window of time where I started to fall asleep where I sat, regardless of how exciting the talk was or how hard I tried to stay awake. I was exhausted in the evenings and couldn’t stay out too late at parties, and I had about an hour commute on BART to the couch I stayed on at a friend’s house. I don’t really have a lesson here other than it’s hard to attend GDC without your full health and know when to take a break and take it easy.

That’s all. Fingers crossed I will be there again next year.

Review: The Art of Failure by Jesper Juul

Book: The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Paid of Playing Video Games
Author: Jesper Juul, game studies academic
Year: 2013

Summary: A very smart look at failure in games as a psychological state, a gameplay mechanic, and as a narrative device. This is a theory book I would recommend to developers.

artoffailureThe Art of Failure is part of a “playful thinking” series published by MIT Press and, like the other books in the series, it’s a short rather academic exploration of a somewhat niche topic in games. The book describes itself as an “essay” and that may almost be accurate: the book is short at only 124 pages, not including the pages and pages of references at the end. One of the reasons I picked this book (and yes, the short length was one of them) is that the author – Jesper Juul – is often referenced in other academic or theory books on game design.

Since the topic has such a small scope, The Art of Failure is able to go into a great deal of depth into the issue while also being fairly comprehensive. This avoids a lot of the problems I’ve found with more general-topic game design textbooks, which tend to survey the field rather than dig deep into a single corner of it.

The book is divided into six sections: an introduction, defining what we mean by failure, the psychology of failure, failure as a gameplay mechanic, and failure as a narrative device or fictional dressing. While failure itself is explored largely in its relationship to games, the book also address failure (and related ideas of tragedy and catharsis) and its relationship to media in general.

The author introduces the readers to the topic of the book by exploring the “paradox of failure” – that we feel bad when we fail, but yet we seek out situations (games) that guarantee failure. The Art of Failure is Juul’s attempt to reconcile what we know about “failure” and our relationship to it and help understand and explain the allure of failure in games. While doing so, he introduces various psychological concepts such as self-defeating behaviors – players who purposely self-sabotage so that when they fail it has less impact than if they had properly prepared – and learned helplessness – the lack of belief in your own competence when faced with the possibility of failure.

Juul uses the chapter on the psychology of failure to cover a kind of axis of failure: internal-to-external (the fault of the player or the game), stable vs. unstable (whether or not it is due to chance), and global vs. specific (whether the player is deficient with no ability to improve, or just deficient in a particular skill). By mapping these against, say, a piece of gameplay, you can get a pretty good idea as to whether player failure feels fair or unfair and if players feel they can improve (and keep playing) or if the odds are stacked against them (and give up).

I felt that the chapter on failure as a gameplay mechanic was particularly good – in many ways, failure is just another way of looking at goal-setting. Juul’s divides goals into three categories – completable goals that can be reached only once, transient goals that can be reached many times (i.e. multiplayer matches), and improvement goals that measure you against your last performance (i.e. scoreboard). None of this is particularly new to me as a designer, but since the author approaches all these familiar concepts from the point of view of failure I found some new insights. For example, he points out that while games – in general – have gotten easier compared to the unforgiving nature of the 80s and 90s, failure itself has actually become more common.

I haven’t really addressed the chapter on failure as a narrative device in games because I find myself divided on it. The author uses Anna Karenina as an example of a tragedy – failure in fiction form – and explores how one might translate that story into a game. He ultimately comes to the conclusion that tragedy in a game involves a level of uncomfortable complicity – a player must direct the tragedy – that stands games apart from other media and makes it particularly difficult to implement. (I say ‘conclusion’ but really it’s more of an exploration of these ideas rather than grandstanding claims).

Keep in mind that this is an academic book so it’s drier than some of the other books written by and for designers, but since it’s short it doesn’t really last long enough to lose momentum. I will say that the introduction – which is almost a quarter of the whole book – felt like a slog that didn’t add much to the rest of the book and could be skipped. Once I got past the introduction I couldn’t put the book down, and barely a page goes by that I haven’t heavily underlined with great, fascinating pull-quotes. For such a short book, I barely touched on the topics it covers – I only highlighted a handful that I found particularly interesting.

That said, after reading the book I did have a sense that it was somewhat meandering, and not as directed or carefully organized as I would have preferred. To be fair the author does describe it almost as a personal essay of sorts. I think it’s best to describe The Art of Failure as an attempt to explore the topic from various angles rather than leading the reader through a predetermined thesis and conclusion. (This is possibly one of its strengths rather than a weakness).

The Art of Failure is probably best at home among game studies students and academics, but it’s written in a way that I think a lot of developers who are interested in a bit of theory would appreciate. While I can’t claim it’s practice-oriented, it does use lots of real life examples of games to support its exploration of failure , grounding it better than some other academic writing I’ve come across.