On Rise of the Videogame Zinesters

I finally got around to reading Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters over the past week. I liked the book. That should come as no surprise.

I have written extensively about the power that video games have to erode our sense of self and our belief that we have sort of solid subjective identity. In fact, we are fluid, constantly territorializing the world around us and being rewritten by ideas that we come into contact with. Video games, like comics, offer a point of contact that actively makes us alter of our bubbles of subjectivity–for comics, this is the act of closure; for video games, this is being forced to take action in a new subjective space.

Anthropy writes that the uniqueness of games as a form is that games only “happen” when one takes an action. Action is necessary for us to call a thing a game–the player has do something in a space with governing rules. A game where no action is taken is a movie or a slideshow. This is also my working definition for games, though I come to it through reading Galloway and Sicart, and I am glad that Anthropy is voicing a similar idea in clear, concise language.

The core ethic of the book is that game creation should be democratized. I am paraphrasing here, but Anthropy is arguing for an end to the exploitative practices that game companies, and game schools, capitalize on in order to extract excess labor from game creators. As the gatekeepers to the “dream” of game making, these companies have the ability to abuse their workers to no end. The only way to escape that system is by taking away the gatekeeping ability from game publishers and developers; if everyone can make games, people can’t be enslaved for trying to accomplish their dreams.

At the same time, that democratizing process would also increase the lived experiences that get translated into games. Most games are created and developed by white middle class males for white middle class males. It is only by interrupting the hegemonic identity of game design that we will begin to see games reflecting the existence of people in the real world. The more people who can tell their stories, the more people who will respond, which means more diversity in the community on the whole.

That is the call for “zinesters” in the title. We need massive numbers of amateur makers who just want to make art and games. We need to flood the field with a diverse range of games in order to really show who gamers are. The latter chapters of the book are about just that. Anthropy provides a list of tools for amateurs to create games with and some basic design practices to get journeypeople started. She also provides some top-tier examples of “zinester” games, most of which are completely awesome.

So that is what I liked about the book. I have some criticisms, and I will number them here for the sake of clarity.

1. The “zinester” is fundamentally disempowered and obscure.

This is not a “gotcha” criticism. Rather, it is a practical reality that Anthropy seems to ignore for political reasons–zinesters don’t have a lot of area they can cover, and they don’t normally make wide changes. Their limited accessibility is an issue, too, which prevents them for being a real political force. The best case for a zine is that it gets picked up ten years later by some academic or publisher, bound into a hardcover, and then promoted as an artifact. The video game zine has some of the same problems. A number of the games in the back of Rise require installation of unique programs, which puts further space and time between me and the gameplay. This means that the casual player is less likely to play the game, period. The best case scenario is that the video game zine plays for a small, insular audience who is savvy to the inroads and programs needed to play the games. That doesn’t seem healthy to me, and so video game zines seem to be damned to obscurity in Anthropy’s model, which is the saddest thing.

2. The book strays into Anthropy’s personal life too much.

This is purely aesthetic. Part of the ethic of the book is that parts of the self should be included in all artistic creation, and so I understand dipping into personal feelings to explain what goes into making a game. What I didn’t really care for was the sections where Anthropy told me about the fights she had with her game professors or about her personal relationships. The book seemed to fight between being a text about game history/design and a book about how cool Anna Anthropy is.

At the end of the day, the book is a brilliant resource for anyone who has any desire to make games. It remains positive in the face of a fucked-up industry that does whatever it can to stifle growth and development, and that is an accomplishment by itself.

Go buy the book. Go read Anna Anthropy’s blog. Go make a game.

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