Book Review – The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture

One of the key premises of The State of Play is that there is a fundamental problem with the way critics and journalists approach videogames. Editors Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson explain that “games have traditionally been engaged with and discussed as products of technology rather than products of culture, which is why most game criticism still tends to read a lot like a review of a mobile phone or a car” (8). And, particularly as regards journalistic criticism, they’re right. Most reviews of games are about the shiny new graphics or the physics engine or how many possible narrative endings or guns are available.

Now no one, Goldberg, Larsson, or me, is suggesting that reviews ought to wholesale ignore these elements of games. But Goldberg and Larsson argue that “the discourse on games is moving into a state of post-escapism—that is, a discourse that looks for meaning beyond entertainment and the joy of play” (11). They suggest that games criticism ought to pay more attention to the cultural implications of games, their social context, their engagement with politics, their ideological influence. And I couldn’t agree more.

However—and this is a very big ‘however’—what The State of Play offers isn’t even remotely what Goldberg and Larsson claim is necessary for the state of games criticism. Instead, The State of Play suffers from the other fundamental problem with games criticism as I see it: the penchant for personal narratives about how people feel about games, whether as players or creators. The book is a collection of essays which situate games as products of deep emotional connections to nostalgia for historic games (as in Leigh Alexander’s “Advent,” excerpted from her longer Breathing Machine) or games that were made in response to personal life events (as in Anna Anthropy’s “Love, Twine, and the End of the World”).

I don’t think there is inherently a problem with these kinds of confessional think-pieces. I just think that calling them “criticism” is disingenuous. I’ve read Alexander’s Breathing Machine and I enjoyed it very much, but it most certainly is not games criticism. It’s an interesting exploration of her personal relationship to games and computers, and as a memoir it provides interesting insights into the way in which my generation grew up on the cusp of a technological and techno-cultural revolution. But it is not criticism. Anthropy’s personal choose-your-own-adventure-style essay is also interesting as an account of how a creator arrived at a particular genre and style, but it, too, is not criticism. Evan Narcisse’s “The Natural: The Parameters of Afro” is a personal account of what it is like to be unable to find or create a player-character who possesses ethnic hair choices—and how alienating that experience is—in a much-needed effort to call for greater diversity in games. But it is not criticism.

Criticism is a genre of academic or review-style journalistic writing which engages with the generic components and conventions of a cultural form relative to the historical and cultural milieu into which that work was produced. It involves research into social, political, and economic contexts as well as a demonstration of understanding of the conventions of the creative genre (in this case, of game mechanics, visual arts, and narrative) which uses both to make an argument about the purpose and/or impact of the creative work in question. It is not a personal reflection on anything; rather, it is a deliberately objective attempt to analyze the work relative to its cultural context and possibly the ideological intentions of or influences on the creator(s).

Another thing that bothers me a little about The State of Play is the way in which it feels a little bit like an attempt by the editors to raise their personal profiles (I’m not going to say “money-grab,” because I know how very little money a ‘critical’ book actually makes for its creators). Many of the authors included in the book are names which have now become keywords in the social justice battle for videogames: Anna Anthropy, Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian. It isn’t that these women have nothing valid to say—they certainly do—but it’s more that Goldberg and Larsson knew that if they included them the people engaged in the war would feel obligated to purchase the book out of solidarity (or hatred, depending).

Part of the reason this bothers me is that I desperately wanted The State of Play to be more critical than it is, and Anthropy, Quinn, and Sarkeesian just aren’t producing the level of intellectual inquiry that I want to see happening in games criticism—and I know that there are people out there whose names aren’t household words are doing it, and doing it very well.

There are a handful of chapters which make a more valiant attempt at critical analysis, including Ian Bogost’s (who is about as serious an academic as one gets in game studies) design analysis of Flappy Bird, although it fits more with the informal tone of the other pieces in the book than it does with his academic books Unit Operations and Persuasive Games. David Johnston’s “The Making of Dust: Architecture and the Art of Level Design” is less confessional and more practical, but it doesn’t have the critical slant of game design academia; the chapter is about how he came to develop levels for Counter-Strike, not a critique of design methodologies. Merritt Kopas’s “Ludus Interruptus: Video Games and Sexuality” is similarly thoughtful, if also highly personal.

Another of these is Dan Golding’s “The End of Gamers,” which takes a much more critical viewpoint and tone. The chapter is an expanded version of a blog post Golding made in the wake of GamerGate on Tumblr in August, 2014 which addresses the historical masculinity of the “gamer” label and the rise of hostility against women in gaming. It also makes the claim—like a piece by Leigh Alexander written around the same time—that “gamers” are “dead.” In the late summer/early fall of 2014, this was not an unrealistic position, or so it seemed. In the weeks following the inception of GamerGate, many people believed that GamerGate itself was evidence of the death throes of online misogyny and the privileging of men in gaming. It was an attractive claim, but one that has not borne much fruit; although the hashtag itself has fallen in popularity, the attitudes and symptoms of the GamerGate movement sadly remain prominent enough for more than enough people to steer clear of online discussions of gender and gaming. Nor has the gamer identity disappeared—although I would argue that it is very slowly starting to shift. Golding’s piece is still well worth reading, but the topicality of its conclusion is fading, and had been by the time of its publication (in 2015).

The only chapters I would truly call “criticism” in the academic sense are William Knoblauch’s “Game Over?: A Cold War Kid Reflects on Apocalyptic Video Games” and Ola Wikander’s “The God in the Machine: Occultism, Demiurgic Theology, and Gnostic Self-Knowledge in Japanese Video Games.” They even have citations (unlike any other chapters)! They also stick out like the proverbial sore thumbs, although I would argue that, in this case, they are shiny and jewel-encrusted rather than sore. Admittedly, both pieces begin anecdotally, but they quickly turn from personal to critical, and provide interesting commentary on the intersection of socio-political context with the development of games in their respective places and eras.

I suppose my most fundamental complaint about The State of Play is that the vast majority of it isn’t saying anything new. As an academic—and academia is ultimately the home of professional critics—I have been trained (possibly even brainwashed) to look for the newness in each paper, article, and book I read. If what is being said isn’t new, then it isn’t worth publishing (so academics have been told since they were undergrads). Some of the pieces are reprints, some of them are narratives which recount stories that have been nigh on told to death (Sarkeesian and Katherine Cross’s “Your Humanity is in Another Castle: Terror Dreams and the Harassment of Women”). But they aren’t doing anything interesting with the information they contain; it’s just more of the same, told by different people, in different words. To me, that isn’t worth publishing a whole book about, although I suppose it is new to someone (just not someone who has been in the games world for the last three years).

It’s time for the dissenting voices in games to start telling new stories—not just repeating the old ones. It’s time to take the stories and experiences and the games themselves and do something more with them than just rehash the same old complaints and surface-level calls for treating women and people of color as humans. (Yes, we should treat them that way, but repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the colloquial definition of insanity, so perhaps it’s time to try something new.)

What is perhaps most disappointing for me is that many of the chapters—particularly Narcisse’s and Hussein Ibrahim’s “What It’s Like to Always Play the Bad Guy: On the Portrayal of Arabs in Online Shooters”—have so much potential to engage in rigorous criticism, and yet they fall back on the new genre-du-jour of the internet: the personal think-piece. I am the first to admit that I write plenty of things which are in fact also personal think-pieces. And I publish them on the internet, whether here at TLF or on my personal blog. I don’t even have a problem with them being published in books—but I do want books to be honest about what they are, and Goldberg and Larsson’s introduction (and the way the book has been marketed, at least where I have seen it) suggests that The State of Play is a critical analysis. It’s not. It’s a collection of (mostly) think-pieces centered around the idea that games matter, socially and politically, and that we ought to think more carefully about them. I agree wholeheartedly, but that doesn’t make it a book of criticism. It’s a book that contains desires, concerns, visions, fears, and thoughts, some of which are critical of the industry, but none of which engage in the kind of academic criticism implied in the introduction.

I suppose my hostility toward The State of Play is more of a reaction to the replacement of serious (academic) criticism by a proliferation of think-pieces which, like the vast majority of chapters in this book, lack rigor and research, even if the core premises are interesting and worthy of exploration. By defaulting to personal and confessional narratives, pieces like those contained in this book legitimize those who mock intellectualism and dismiss academics as out-of-touch. Although they most likely have no intention of doing so, when think-pieces gain the authority of print, they stake a claim for opinion over researched facts, emotion over analysis. I want games criticism to expand, to thrive, and to mature, to become a discipline that no longer needs to defend its merit, and The State of Play doesn’t do that, however much I want it to.

Summary: The State of Play is a collection of personal, often emotional, essays talking about what it is like to create games, play games, and live and work in the gaming community. It provides interesting insight into different perspectives, but (with two exceptions) most of the chapters don’t progress beyond the anecdotal to the critical or analytic.

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