Rise of the Videogame Zinesters

by Anna Anthropy

Review - Rise of the Videogame Zinesters

“What videogames need right now is to grow up. The videogame industry has spent millions upon millions of dollars to develop more visually impressive ways for a space marine to kill a monster. What they’ve invested almost nothing in is finding better ways to tell a story, and in exploring different stories to tell. That’s for us to do: the people who don’t have to sell thousands of copies of a game to break even, who aren’t obliged to fill their games with eighty hours of content, who are beholden to no one, who are free to be silly and weird and creative and personal. Hobbyists and zinesters. You and me” (Anna Anthropy 160).

Anna Anthropy may seem disillusioned with the state of gaming, but it should be obvious to any reader of this book that she has a great love of the medium and is optimistic for its future. Anthropy is a long-time gamer and game creator, so the criticism she levels at the industry is grounded in her experience on both ends of a videogame. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is part-history, part-how-to that gives an overview of games and their histories in the first half, and shows the readers how to start making their own games in the second. Throughout the text, Anthropy calls for games that are more personal, more accessible, and more diverse. While she understands (and explains) why the industry focuses primarily on games where the player spends most of her time killing other characters, Anthropy wants to play a different kind of game, made by a different kind of person. Anthropy wants everyone – regardless of their access to technical knowledge or money – to make games, because she wholeheartedly believes in power of videogames to tell meaningful, personal stories. I found Rise of the Videogame Zinesters to be an engaging book, and would recommend it to anyone interested in small, personal games, as an overview of the genre. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is provocative and inspiring, an almost-manifesto. It is not heavily engaged in games scholarship (though Anthropy is clearly aware of the work of people like Ian Bogost, for example), so those coming to Rise of the Videogame Zinesters with that expectation may be disappointed.

The eight chapters (and two appendices) provide the reader with an introduction to the state of the medium, as Anthropy sees it, written to be accessible to gamers and non-gamers alike. Chapter 1 details, somewhat provocatively, Anthropy’s “problem with videogames” (1). She addresses the “is it art?” debate, stating (unsurprisingly) that games are art, but she also provides a convincing explanation for the debate’s longevity. Videogames are not nearly as diverse as other art-forms, even those as young as film and comics, so videogames don’t seem as culturally relevant. Anthropy points to the “insular and homogeneous” (7) population of game creators and players as one of the reasons why there’s such a lack of diversity in games: (generally) affluent men make games for themselves. Though my own opinions of the state of the videogame industry are in line with Antrhopy’s claims, her generalizations are sometimes too general and I found myself looking for clearer statistics and demographics. The lack of specific statistics could be due to the fact that this chapter is about Anthropy’s own experience, which is that Anthropy doesn’t see herself (or people like her) in the games the mainstream industry makes. Since she’s not interested in joining the industry, Anthropy chooses to make and play hobbyist, zinester games.

Once she’s presented the crux of her complaint (and her solution), Anthropy takes a step back and walks the reader through a history of videogames in Chapter 2, “The History of Magic”. She positions the first digital game designers as engineers who made games that reflected their influences and interests, such as the fantasy tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons. The first digital games (dnd, Zork, Enchanter and Spellbreaker) blend complicated programming with the fantasy of magic, and Anthropy cites Jeff Howard’s insight into the “relationship between programming and the verbal grammar of magic” (Howard, cited on 27). Both wizards and programmers have the ability to alter the reality of their games, which is an enticing simile. Unfortunately, Anthropy drops magic as a metaphor for game design in the rest of the chapter, which provides a history of the corporatization of the videogame industry. Once non-creators begin to exert creative control over the content of videogames, Anthropy sees less and less diversity, and she argues that publishing companies are not likely to take risks on stories that aren’t already proven to be profitable.

After spending two chapters exploring the problems of the current and historical videogame industry, Chapter 3 anticipates her readers’ question: why bother with videogames? If a game is, as Anthropy defines it (broadly), “an experience created by rules” (43), she asserts that games are particularly well-suited to telling stories and “exploring dynamics, relationships, and systems” (46). This echoes Ian Bogost, who explains that videogames are “especially effective at representing complex systems”, though Anthropy believes that all games – even ‘folk games’ like tag or chess – explore and represent a variety of systems and relationships. Videogames, however, provide even more opportunities to explore relationships. Their sometimes-hidden and often complex rules allow videogames to act as a teacher, shepherding the player in the right direction, while giving her the freedom to experience the story personally. While Anthropy does not present information that would be new to a long-time scholar of game studies, someone just starting out would find this overview of games engaging and possibly provocative.

In Chapter 4, Anthropy provides an overview of mods, hacks, engines, and level editors to show the variety of ways that “people like you are taking back an art form” in the hope that her readers will be encouraged to start changing games. It is an eclectic chapter, as Anthropy’s transitions from mods to hacks to machinima to engines and level editors are hard to follow. In each subsection, though, Anthropy gives a concrete overview (with interesting examples) of each genre. Mods and hacks can vandalize, reimagine, and/or subvert a game, providing insight into the original game, or fixing something the modder sees as a problem. Game engines allow designers to avoid starting from scratch, making it significantly easier and less costly to design a game, and level editors encourage players to become designers themselves. Anthropy prefers tools that open up videogame design to people with very little technical knowledge, since she sees the technical barrier to videogame design as particularly limiting to the diversity of the medium.

Since Anthropy’s reader should now be on board with the idea that anyone can make a game, Anthropy uses Chapter 5 to show the kinds of games that get made by “people like you”.  This is the most personal chapter, and the chapter most hostile to the industry and higher education. Anthropy tells the story of her own short-lived attempt to work within the mainstream industry, and the autobiographical nature of the chapter mirrors her desire for more personal games. She believes that single-author games are important to gaining a critical understanding of videogames, and wants the medium to move away from large, fractured design teams. Having a personal connection to the game (as a designer) or to the story (as a player) is paramount. In order to increase the number of single-author personal games that get made, Anthropy calls for game creation tools to become simpler and more like a sketchbook. She believes that people will make more personal games if they aren’t afraid to make “crap games” that take very little time to make or play, and may only be of value to the person who makes it (109).

The next two chapters provide more concrete instruction, answering the “how” of her title. Chapter 6 details her design process, illustrating her choices with examples of games she and her friends have made. Anthropy explains how her technical decisions work to elaborate on the story she tells, but the bulk of the chapter encourages accidents and weird decisions. She tells designers to embrace imperfection and constraints, showing how the mistakes or compromises that a designer makes can lead to the element that makes her game original and interesting. As long as the game is “weird” (135), it will be worthwhile, though I’m left wondering what makes a game weird enough to count, and who is doing the counting. If readers are left wondering what to make these weird, small, personal, imperfect games about, she closes the chapter with a prose-poem-like list of “anything [and] everything” a designer could choose as a subject (139).

Chapter 7 provides a set of tasks that a would-be designer should complete in order to make a game, though it is still fairly abstract. Anthropy explains that the tasks are abstract in order to ensure that a reader could follow the instructions, regardless of the tool(s) she ends up using to make her game. She does not provide technical instructions, since Anthropy trusts that her readers can learn the specific details themselves. This clear, simple list of 11 steps, ranging from “pick a tool” to “teach your character to do something” to “make another game” makes it easy for a hesitant designer to tackle the potentially overwhelming project of actually making that game.

Anthropy’s short conclusion reiterates her problem with videogames – they are not nearly diverse or personal enough – as well as her optimism and hope for the future: hobbyist game makers, “people like you”, are making games that are exciting and original, even if they are not widely popular. Anthropy also provides two appendices that would be useful to someone new to hobbyist games, both as a player or designer. Appendix A provides a survey of game making tools, such as Klick & Play, which she recommends despite its obsolescence, mostly for the community that surrounds it. She also recommends more recent tools, such as Gamemaker (for its popularity as well as its level-as-room metaphor) and Warioware (for its simplicity), though she criticizes the fact that the tools make it difficult to disseminate games made within them. In Appendix B, Anthropy provides a survey of the kinds of hobbyist games that Anthropy discusses throughout the book. Games like Striptease, and The Baron engage in themes – queer identities, objectification/alienation, complex moral questions – that the mainstream industry ignores. Other games, like All Of Our Friends Are Dead, challenge expectations about what a game is supposed to be, using hostile interfaces and confusing premises.

Conclusions

Academics or game studies scholars might find that they want more than the text offers, though I believe that someone new to the field would find its scope and accessibility useful. I occasionally found myself wanting more analysis: why did she pick the specific games she discusses? What makes those games particularly important to her or to her philosophy? Anthropy presents her examples with little context or explanation of their relevance other than the understanding that Anthropy found them relevant. It was occasionally frustrating to feel as though I was expected see an apparently arbitrarily chosen game or tool as representative of a larger cultural shift. I wanted more close readings of the games she presents, so that I could understand her choices more clearly. It is clear, however, that Anthropy wrote this book for “people like you”, which includes people often left out of academic discourse. That Anthropy largely ignores the academic conversation about videogames is appropriate, considering her audience. If Rise of the Videogame Zinesters were more closely engaged with games scholarship, the points that Anthropy makes about access would be obscured. If anyone should be able to make games, anyone should be able to talk about games – even without having done enough research to enter the academic conversation.

Her generalization of the mainstream videogame industry – though in line with my own concerns – makes me uncomfortable. I would have liked more rigorous citation of statistics, such as the demographics of mainstream designers. I came to this text already agreeing with many of the assertions that Anthropy makes about the (in)accessibility of the mainstream industry, and I knew enough about Anthropy’s body of work to trust her expertise. However, recent conversations about the mainstream industry (such as the backlash to #1ReasonWhy) show that not everyone will be as willing to trust Anthropy as I was, and those readers would likely be turned off by Anthropy’s generalizations. I would also have appreciated more counter-examples of good and bad mainstream or popular independent games. Counter-examples would ground the book in the current boom of commercially successful indie games like Minecraft and Super Meat Boy.  I’m not sure if those would count as zinester games, and a deeper analysis of her examples might have answered those questions.

Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is also very meandering. Anthropy dips in and out of topics, moving from one to the other just as I start to get into each idea. It feels more like a conversation than a book, with transitions that occur as though Anthropy is suddenly reminded of something else she wanted to say, mid-chapter. I imagine that was intentional, however. Anthropy presents her own experience of the industry and the genre, and drags the reader along with her, excitedly jumping from idea to idea.

It’s clear that this book is not written for me as an academic interested in hobbyist games, but for me as a newbie game designer to encourage me to actually make something. If I’m interested in the above questions, there are countless sources for me to turn to, but fewer sources as accessible as Rise of the Videogame Zinesters for a hesitant designer, especially one who doesn’t feel comfortable in mainstream gaming culture. Even though Anthropy intentionally avoids academic discussions of zinester games, I believe that it would still be useful for games scholars, particularly those interested in engaging in games as scholarship. I agree with Anthropy that games are a valuable cultural resource, and the creation of a game is as academically interesting as playing one. I would like to see games scholars make games like the ones Anthropy suggests – quick, “crap”, and sketchbook-like. These games could be a way to work through a particular theory, or engage with specific tropes or mechanics. Games could present or translate complex conversations, making it easier for new scholars to enter the discussion. If all games scholars made games, it might, uncomfortably, further blur the lines between creator and commentator, but I believe that the added conversations and points of view that games-as-research bring would be beneficial.

Overall, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is a very optimistic text, and it’s hard not to be infected by its hopefulness. I’ll confess that immediately after putting the book down, I started work on my very first “crap game”, so I am happy to say that the book did its job.

 

  • Robot Parking

    Agreed: while Anthropy’s argument is not directed towards academics, her enthusiasm for DIY game design (going so far as to point out useful tools for non-coders) makes the text a great selection for an introductory DH course.

  • Adrian Verscharen

    Just imagine: A lot of people write short stories, or little poems, even if it’s just little pieces to express themselves. But only very few people (compared to all the authors of amateur literature) make games. I wonder what kind of an impact this kind of large-scale ‘deprofessionalisation’ would have on videogames as an art form. If people would create games instead of writing pointless fourliners. Just Imagine.

    • Jason H

      I think that’s really exciting. If the art form is going to grow in any meaningful way, it’s probably going to have to come from the bottom up. It would be awesome if game design could become a part of the curriculum in the early grades.

      • Adrian Verscharen

        And thereby a habitual part of our everyday artistic productivity.

      • Elise Vist

        After reading this book, I really can’t think of any reason why we shouldn’t include game design in art curricula — if kids learn how to paint, why not make flash games, too (budget and bureaucracy aside…)?