Title: The State of Play
Editors: Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
This guest review is written by John D. Moore (@johndmoore5 on Twitter).
The State of Play is a collection of sixteen diverse essays on a variety of topics related to contemporary video game culture written by game creators, journalists, and academics. The collection comes from Seven Stories Press, a company that has demonstrated a dedication to publishing interesting and new kinds of books about video games in the last few years, including anna anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters and The State of Play editors Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson’s own Minecraft. The essays consist of some previously published material as well as pieces original to or adapted for this volume. This is not a video game culture primer; while each essay does an adequate to great job of describing the particular corner of video game culture it explores, a basic familiarity with games and the popular discourse surrounding them is necessary to keep the reader from feeling disoriented.
The book is prefaced by a short introduction written by the editors that argues for its own necessity in the current climate of video game culture. The editors propose the term “post-escapism” for our present moment, pointing to a paradigm shift for independent game production and video game criticism symbolized by – if not initiated by – the miserable advent of Gamergate. As such, it explicitly announces its progressive stance against an oppositional conservative “side.” The majority of the essays have a definite progressive political slant, dealing primarily with race, gender, and sex. Not every piece is so politically conscious, such as level designer David Johnston’s rich account of his approach to designing CounterStrike maps and the tensions between level design and real-world architecture. Curiously, the introduction does not make reference to this or other pieces that fit this loose classification, and that lack of framing is disappointing. It does provide for their place obliquely by linking progressive politics to a progressive approach in writing about games as cultural objects that matter and are subject to the same scrutiny as other media.
There are as many approaches to writing as there are contributors in this volume. anna anthropy’s essay “Love, Twine, and the End of the World” is characteristically playful and borrows the format of a choose-your-own-adventure book, sometimes even inviting the reader-player to exit the book and take action elsewhere, advancing her cause for games as a powerful medium of self-expression. In “A Game I Had to Make,” Zoe Quinn writes of her experiences surrounding the development, release, and reception of her Depression Quest in an intimate and challenging second-person perspective, stylistically reminiscent of the text of her game. Cara Ellison and Brendon Keogh share a meandering correspondence about the meaning of violence and its dominance in contemporary video games, trying on frames like colonialism. History professor William Knoblauch offers a wide-reaching analysis of apocalyptic scenarios in games from the late Cold War to the present.
In one of the book’s finest pieces, Anita Sarkeesian and Katherine Cross describe their separate and varied stories of online harassment, putting them together to expose their common threads of misogyny that are, in turn, pervasive in mainstream video games and video game culture, dehumanizing and objectifying real women as non-player characters. Sarkeesian includes a harrowing sample of the threats she received. It is a vivid and accessible chapter that succeeds in succinctly delivering many of the main points of Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency project and I’d nominate it as required reading for anyone involved in video games.
With no thematic divisions, there is no clear structural logic to the book’s presentation, though some of the juxtapositions provide provocative or synergistic effects when read together. Evan Narcisse’s “The Natural: The Parameters of the Afro,” an exploration of black representation in games, pairs very neatly with Hussein Ibrahim’s “What It Feels Like to Play the Bad Guy,” about playing first-person shooters where the only in-game people who look like the author are presented as enemies and the representations of his culture are often ludicrously inaccurate. Together, these issues connect to the next essay by Quinn in a way that opens up broader questions about embodied experiences. Other essays, especially toward the end of the collection, seem arranged at random.
In these pages, it is unfortunately rare to see an acknowledgement of the specific regional discourse the writers are talking about, even as Japanese companies (which are admittedly multinational, with major global presences) are routinely referenced. An exception is in one of the standout pieces of the collection, in which merritt kopas examines the intersection of sex, games, consumerism, and culture, arguing that the intertwining of these themes in mainstream game productions is a reflection of our society’s misogynistic and problematic relationship to sex. While she acknowledges that her discussion might be applicable in some areas to other cultures, she emphasizes that her focus is on her own American context. This statement stands in contrast to the introduction, which identifies the mainstream game industry as historically preoccupied with the “young, white, Western male” from its genesis. That of course applies to what would generally be termed the Western video game market since the late 1980s, but it seems to dodge the problem of other major markets, or at the very least the Japanese market. Oli Wikander, a professor of Religious Studies, offers a strong exception, examining Western theology and Gnosticism in 1990s Japanese role-playing games. It’s an excellent piece, but its position at the back of the volume seems to speak to its outsider status.
The book would have benefited from more careful editing on both macro and micro scales. There are a few more instances of awkward grammar and spelling mistakes than I’m accustomed to seeing. In addition, only a handful of the pieces cite their sources, which is disappointing. Predictably, those who cite are among the small handful of academics in the collection.
On a related note, my biggest complaint about the book is its lack of contextualization. At least three essays were originally written for their authors’ blogs, and I think it would strengthen the book to contextualize these articles as such. Short introductions preface each piece, but they mainly serve to specify the topic of the essay. This book was published in 2015, so it is mildly confusing when Ian Bogost’s piece on the fantastic stupidity of Flappy Bird and video games at large, originally posted at The Atlantic, refers to “last summer” but means the summer of 2013. The nature of blogging tends to produce writing that is very reactive to its moment and the broader online ecosystem of blogging. These repurposed bog posts are all fine pieces by themselves, but their transition between media calls for some more compensation than the book provides. Another example would be Dan Golding’s fine specimen of rhetoric “The End of Gamers,” originally a 2014 Tumblr post, in which Golding opts to not delve into the events commonly credited for spearheading Gamergate, deeming it not worthy of consideration. Given the priorities of his post, this makes sense on Tumblr. The nature of a print anthology, however, would almost certainly benefits from a stronger historicization either in the text or in footnotes, especially if it aspires to continued relevance.
While the collection’s lack of an absolute unifying coherence is arguably a weakness, it is simultaneously a strength. The diversity of content allows for a wide range of examples of different ways people are approaching video games. The collection and availability of the pieces that were originally published online in a physical book has great value, preserving them from the vicissitudes of ephemeral news cycles. To give an example, in researching this review I discovered that Shanahan’s essay has disappeared from its original home on the Internet. While it remains available elsewhere online for the time being, it would be a shame if it were ever lost to the Internet’s ever-growing cemetery of failed servers and expired domains.
The book’s inclusion of essays on so many varied subjects from so many different angles inspires an excitement concerning the existence of new possibilities and fresh approaches that even this wide-reaching collection cannot accommodate. The collection’s title, The State of Play, suggests a sort of crystallization of all the current discourse surrounding games. I would love to see something like this turn into a series, chronicling these conversations as they continue to evolve in coming years.
The State of Play is strongly recommended for any reader with an interest in the current culture of video games and how we talk about them. Each individual essay could provide, at minimum, a jumping-off point for a spirited discussion on a major topic in contemporary video game culture. Indeed, I can imagine this volume providing the backbone for a unit in a college course. To that end, it’s worth noting that Seven Stories Press offers (free examination copies of its titles to professors.
* * * * *
John D. Moore is an M.A. student in the Department of East Asian Languages & Literatures at the University of Oregon researching Japanese anime in general and Mobile Suit Gundam in particular. He is also a filmmaker and hobbyist developer of several dozen freeware video games, including Caverns of Khron and ExpandoScape.