Tagged in: games criticism

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: Shooter ed. by Reid McCarter and Patrick Lindsey

Title: Shooter
Author: edited by Reid McCarter & Patrick Lindsey, but this is an anthology with many authors
Year: 2015

Summary: an anthology of critical essays on shooters, largely focusing on first person. A good read for anyone who loves the genre and wants to dig into some good, short critical thought on the topic, but also a good entry point for those new to games criticism.


Shooter is an anthology of fifteen critical essays (sixteen if you count the foreword) on shooters, each from a different author with their own distinct take on the topic and style of writing. The love the authors have for the genre shines through their writing, whether they are singling them out for their flaws or praising them for their successes. Each essay revolves around a single game – from cornerstones like Doom to under-appreciated failures like Haze. Most of these essays jump from analyzing a single work in its own right to the relationship of that work to the history of the genre, the relationship between players and developers, or the role of shooters in our greater cultural landscape.

In a lot of ways this anthology is refreshing. These essays look critically and seriously at a genre of games so often dismissed as mindless entertainment or demonized as mindless violence. The foreword itself helps frame the purpose of this book by pointing out that shooters have cultural and artistic importance and deserve criticism in their own right.

Shooter is fairly short – Amazon suggests it is 127 pages but the book only exists only in digital format. I read it over three evenings, with each essay a short enough to read over a ten or twenty minute chunk of time. Overall I found it a nice mental break from some of the tougher game design theory texts I have been reading through. Shooter is not a challenging read, but it is an interesting one with plenty of ideas worth mulling over, and the essays cover many different styles of criticism, from fairly dry analysis to very personal stories. Keep in mind that almost all the essays contain heavy spoilers for that particular game.

I really enjoyed this anthology, despite some initial misgivings since games criticism can (personally speaking) often disappoint me as a developer. Instead, I thought all the essays in Shooter were really solid, with a few that definitely stood out to me as very worthwhile reads. My fingers are crossed that Shooter gains enough positive traction that it will encourage more critical anthologies like it – I would certainly add them to my reading list. If you don’t read much games criticism, I would consider this an excellent introduction, and if you already love criticism then this collection will be a treat for you. I think Shooter would be a good pick if I were teaching a class on games and needed a collection of articles to introduce students to critical reading of games.

My main caveat is that I haven’t played most of the games written about in this anthology. It’s difficult to disagree with an author about his interpretation of Wolfenstein: A New Order if I’ve never played the game myself. That said, I didn’t find my lack of knowledge an impediment to reading (the essays give plenty of details) and I found each topic interesting even if I have little interest in playing the game itself.

The only negative thing I can really say about Shooter is that it is not critical enough. Most of the essays were easy reading in part because I didn’t find the arguments within particularly challenging. Some of the essays reiterated points to me that I already bought into – though with the caveat that they used very specific examples to showcase those points. I can’t say I walked away from this anthology with a brand new understanding of shooters, but then I am not sure that’s really the point of the collection in the first place. Instead it felt like it filled the niche of “good food for thought”.

Since it’s hard to find detailed information online, and because I enjoyed all of the readings, below is a full list of the essays in the collection along with a short (often incomplete!) summary and initial thoughts. I’ve avoided any specific spoilers in the games.

Chapter 1 – Shooting Things in Public: Battle Garegga and the Arc of a Genre by David S. Heineman

The author goes into detail on the history of shooting games, from carnival games to arcade games, and uses this sort of public sphere gaming to talk about Battle Garegga, one of the last old-school arcade shooters. He then compares these short burst, high-skill oriented, public play with the isolated, singleplayer gameplay that takes precedence in shooters afterwards. I can’t say I entirely buy the premise (especially considering the importance of multiplayer shooters and esports) but appreciated the historical perspective.

Chapter 2 – Action, Death, and Catharsis: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare by Reid McCarter

This essay (one of my favorites) talks about how war, terrorism, heroism, and the current political climate are portrayed in Call of Duty 4 and serves as an opportunity to “purge our demons through an interactive manifestation of our largest cultural fears”. It goes on to explain how the game falls short of really confronting those fears and argues that we need to move forward to acknowledging the uncertainty and anxiety we have about our future. This essay was very good, and I don’t think I do it justice with my summary.

Chapter 3 – Far Cry 2 and the Dirty Mirror by Patrick Lindsey

This talks about the modern era of critical shooters (specifically starting with Bioshock) that attempt to address the relationship between players, violence, and gameplay. It claims that Far Cry 2 stands out from others by embodying this message in every aspect of the game, instead of overlaying that message in an overwrought plot and with extended cut-scenes that spell it out for the player. (As the author says, “The game’s violence is never explicitly commented on — it simply exists.”) While so much has been written about Far Cry 2 already, this essay seemed to bring a different perspective (albeit one still in line with other critical thought).

Chapter 4 – Fallout 3: If You Can’t Join ‘Em, Beat ‘Em by Holly Green

This was kind of a lovely essay about the author’s hesitation to play first person shooters, and their unforgiving usability curve, and how she used Fallout 3 to learn how to play the genre slowly at her own pace. One of the reasons I liked this is because it resonated with me so much. My first shooter (beside the original Doom and Wolfenstein 3D) was Deus Ex and one day I’ll write about that wonderful/harrowing experience. The author’s hesitation to try shooters, the difficulty in learning very ‘simple’ concepts, the fear of playing with more expert players – all of these mirror my own experiences.

Chapter 5 – To Conquer Pripyat by Alex D. Jones

The author analyzes the role of the environment in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. as a dynamic, active role in the game, with a degree of agency similar to that of a character. This essay was timely since though I have never played S.T.A.L.K.E.R., I did finally watch the Tarkovsky film of the same name and I found myself nodding along as I read. I thought the author’s point was supported by lots and lots of details, and this is one of the essays that has led me to pick up a copy of the game.

Chapter 6 – Paths of Contact: Narrative Friction in Gears of War by Ethan Gach

I think this essay suffered the most from not having played the game in question, Gears of War: Judgment so I found it difficult to really engage with the text. It was a critical look at how the narrative of Judgment attempted to go further and be more meaningful, but ultimately fell flat because it struggled against all the elements that work so well in Gears of War – those elements, essentially, being the pacing and spectacle.

Chapter 7 – The Disempowerment Fantasy of Red Orchestra 2: Rising Storm by Carli Velocci

Argues that games about war generally empower a single heroic player to be the avatar of an entire side of the conflict, which is far from the reality of war in which a soldier is just one set of bullets within a sea of firearms. Red Orchestra 2′s brutal multiplayer, where players die fast, with no respawn and little hope, heroism is shunted aside. It has an “emphasis on avoiding death over acquiring power.” I was won over by the thesis – disempowerment fantasies are rare in games but fascinating to me – and enjoyed the article.

Chapter 8 – Gilded Splinters: BJ Blazkowicz and The New Order by Javy Gwaltney

The author looks at how the main character in Wolfenstein: The New Order appears to represent a old, dying breed of genre, and how this game acts as a kind of monumental send-off to that character and the original design sensibilities of Wolfenstein. He draws a comparison to the latter half of the Beowulf epic throughout the essay. I honestly can’t say much more without spoiling the game, but I enjoyed it a lot, and thought the comparison with Beowulf (one of my favorite pieces of literature) felt very appropriate.

Chapter 9 – Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway: German Representation in World War II by Corey Milne

The essay discusses the representation of allied soldiers – protagonists with unique personalities, portrayed as flawed and complex and undeniably human – with the representation of German soldiers – portrayed only as violent, uncaring, and dehumanized. This essay points out the atrocities of the Allies and the complex issues facing normal German soldiers and asks that games portray these nuances instead of the stereotypical good vs. evil showdown. I actually thought this was the weakest essay in the collection, in part because the issue of faceless Nazis is well-trod ground (perhaps more so in other media than games) and in part because the game itself seemed forgotten halfway through. It’s not that I disagree with the thesis – the opposite, of course – but rather than I gained little from reading it.

Chapter 10 – Truth vs. Propaganda: Fighting Through the Haze by Ed Smith

The author argues that video games aren’t violent enough, and instead game violence is disposable, sanitized, and relies on spectacle instead of being “distressing, disturbing, or provocative”. In it, he looks at the game Haze as a precursor to Spec Ops: The Line and even argues it’s superior (conceptually, maybe not in execution) because it also approaches the concept of developer complicity in video game violence, not just player complicity. Anyone who knows my particular interest in horror will understand why this is my favorite essay in the collection. Just the initial statements on how game violence isn’t really that violent won me over. It was a wonderful surprise, too, to find so much depth in a game that was generally panned and forgotten.

Chapter 11 – The Joys of Projectiles: What We’ve Forgotten About Doom by Steven Wright

This talks about the difference between games of the star-studded past – the time of Doom and Wolfenstein 3D – and how they differ from the current palette of first person shooters. In particular, the author zeroes in on physics projectiles in older games – which afforded for tactics like running and dodging and judging projectile speed on various weapons – and compares that to instant hit detection common in many modern games. While his points about the speed and movement early shooters gave to their protagonists, and how some modern games (Titanfall, for example) have been bringing this agility back, I think tying it to projectile speed is a bit overstated.

Chapter 12 – Perfect Dark: A Bundle of Bones by Kaitlin Tremblay

This essay discusses the ‘male gaze’ and the use of women bodies as props and decorations to be looked at in games, and how Perfect Dark circumvents that by making the main character not just female but also presented in the first person. That perspective prevents the character from being looked at, meaning she can only be judged by her accomplishments and skills. This sets her apart from another major female character at that time – Lara Croft – who exists in third person and is unambiguously evaluated for her body. My only criticism of this piece – and I think it makes its argument very well – is that it covers a lot of ground I am already really familiar with.

Chapter 13 – The Lurking Fear: Firearms in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth by Robert Rath

The author explores how the game uses guns deliberately in contradiction to the power fantasy of most first person shooters. As a horror game, it focuses on guns as limited tools, full of usability issues (i.e. lack of reticle), with severe consequences (attracting enemies), and even can be turned against the player. I’ve argued on the topic of guns in a horror game before, since they are a tool to empower the player to defeat an enemy and thus undercut its effectiveness at making you afraid. Cthulhu seems to take a similar approach as, say, Alien: Isolation (dangerous and best to be avoided) – except that guns seem to take a much more central role in the game.

Chapter 14 –Kane & Lynch 2: Hell is Other People by Filipe Salgado

In a nutshell, the thesis of this essay is that the game is ugly — not as an insult, but rather the argument is that its aesthetic is ugliness and you can see this in the art design, sound design, handling of weapons, relationship between the characters, and so on. The author sums it up really well with the following sentence, “Its sloppy guns, its nauseating camera, its lack of security and constant chaos — almost everything about the game seems built to repel the player.” This kind of critique (in a larger sense) touches on one of the ways games criticism can be really interesting and engaging: that it doesn’t matter whether these elements are actually intentional, but instead that they exist and a person can find meaning within them.

Chapter 15 –My Brother, Counter-Strike, and Me by Gita Jackson

As you would guess from the title, this is a wandering personal essay about the author’s relationship with her brother and their relationships with games. She compares how her brother’s natural inclination toward discipline, practice, and hard work was reflected in his mastery of a game like Counter-Strike. The author then compares this with her own style of play – gravitating towards natural talents rather than devoting the time to master of skill – and feeling, perhaps, inferior (or perhaps just different?) in her relationship to games. This essay resonated a lot with me, personally, and I feel it does a very good job of showing how a non-competitive player like myself looks at games that demand very high levels of skill. (A prior book I read this year – Playing to Win – convinced me to tackle competitive play head on instead of avoiding it and, incidentally, I have been learning Counter-Strike as part of that goal.)