Videogames suck

Culture in Review: Rise of the Videogame Zinesters

Contributed by: JR

The main problem with Anthropy’s book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, is one of scope. If Anthropy had positioned her research as a celebration of burgeoning diversity in underground game development, such as can be found for both film and literature, and no more, I wouldn’t have a problem. But Anthropy overshoots her ambition. She wants diversified authorship (or at least her version of it) to be the saviour of modern game development, the thing to pull it out of its current rut. In doing so, she ignores the historical development of other forms that grew alongside games, and focuses on things in games that are not its natural strengths.

Her rallying cry is stirring enough: she correctly points out that modern popular gaming draws from an embarrassingly small well of game types and subject matter, that its marketing is homogenous and unimaginative, and that serious development funding has a bottleneck of authorship and distribution. You can level these arguments at almost all popular entertainments that aren’t games, and Anthropy knows this.

But her argument that diversity of voice—or, in her words, “more dykes in games”—will broaden and improve game development in general rests on some hefty, unproven assumptions:

  1. The democratising force of the Internet naturally improves the standard of gaming by removing privileged barriers to distribution.
  2. Diversity of voice is meaningful to a significant proportion of the gaming population.
  3. Maturity in gaming is reached through demonstration of meaningful themes and stories.

For Anthropy’s claim to be valid, we have to be able to demonstrate beyond doubt a chain of direct influence from independent developers to AAA titles. We are still very much in this process, despite some encouraging examples, and we won’t be able to say yes or no for at least another decade. Much as the pop nihilists would like to, we can’t say with certainty that the arrival of the eBook is directly responsible for Fifty Shades of Grey, or that YouTube gave us four dozen indistinguishable Found Footage spookers.

For every story of the guy who got a job at Valve with a home-designed level, there’s a million more tryers who didn’t make it. Besides, mavericks who made it are not a new thing: the history of Art pre-Internet is littered with the self-taught like Lovecraft, Freddie Mercury, or Tarantino.

For a celebrant of inclusiveness, Anthropy pulls out some weary stereotypes. Her paragraph-brief account of the history of game development sounds more like the setting in one of the whitebread games she criticises: hordes of White Male Social Outcasts beavering away in basements full of huge computers for forty years, creating Pong in their spare time. She should read a biography of information theorist John von Neumann, who lived a life to make Ian Fleming jot down some notes.

Anthropy buys so readily into the Privileged White Male Canon line that she doesn’t seem to realise her own idea of “inclusivity” consists of little more than alternate sexualities. Diversity of authorship, for gaming as it is for all the other popular entertainments, has any meaning at all for only a small, prominently liberal, politically invested subpopulation of gamers. I strongly suspect that the vast majority of gamers couldn’t care less if the game they are enjoying was made by gays, dykes, the transgendered, whites, or indigenous Australians.  Arguing that diversity of voice is going to translate into better games is like arguing that a dozen Rose Troches or Gregg Arakis means better films for all.

Besides, many other art forms exist without such a demand for plurality. Why demand of games what isn’t being demanded of, say, ballet, or architecture, or photography? Anthropy makes this demand of games because she, unconsciously, is focused on story-bearing art forms, and thinks that More Stories from Different People = Better Games, literally using the infinite monkeys argument. Ignoring that this argument is usually wheeled out to demonstrate you have to generate a whole lot of shit to get an iota of good stuff, if there’s an invisible point 4 above it’s this: Games are not the natural medium for single-authored storytelling. Her entire argument must grant privilege to the game designer as the sole, unerring provider of whatever theme is being delivered, which ignores 60 years of literary theory. (Even if you don’t buy into your Barthes, you can refute this by just asking five of your friends what they thought Game X meant, and counting the expressions of befuddlement.)

If Anthropy were suggesting that indies and basement coders were going to improve gaming by exploding the form, I’d be right behind her. But she’s not. Her insistence on paramount diversity of theme is the same tired misdirection that the Internet gaming media is obsessed with, and just as wrong. Her book-long litany of example games consists of little more than short-form exercises in thematic punchiness—games like executing a bound soldier and finding you can’t restart, or “sacrificing” your pixel block in a tower so the next guy can reach for the stars.

These aren’t games so much as something you might whip up hung-over for second-year culture studies. I’m not degrading people’s work here. These can be valuable experiments and mini-statements in a form that’s big and ugly enough now to survive increasingly fluid definition. But that’s all they are: formative exercises, snippets of Internet street theatre. They don’t amount to a Movement, just a collective exercise in doodling. Championing them is like championing Boy and Bicycle over Blade Runner.

Popular gaming will not be rebuilt by a diverse bunch of basement coders aiming at the great bull’s-eye of Art. It needs mavericks to test its form, and the mechanics of game distribution, and for the successes of experimentation to filter up to enough top-tier developers to take the good bits and leave behind the sophomoric stabs at Theme of the Day that indies can get away with. Right now, gaming is doing the complete opposite. The AAA title attempts at Big Theme would be embarrassing in any other form, while the same games grow increasingly more rigidly designed and film-like. And with every step further away, gaming journalism applauds the industry they imagine themselves to be part of for being clever and mature.

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