Michael Hancock is the Book Reviews editor on First Person Scholar. He is a PhD candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. Currently, his grey matter is engaged in writing a dissertation on the use of image-based and text-based rhetoric in videogames.
“We propose in this collection that Game Studies—that peculiar multi-, inter-, and trans-disciplinary field wherein international researchers from such diverse areas as rhetoric, computer science, literary studies, culture studies, psychology, media studies and so on come together to study games—has reached an unproductive stasis. Its scholarship remains either divided (as in aforementioned narratologists and ludologists and their updated analogues) or indecisive (as in its frequently apolitical stances on play and fandom)” (3). – Jason C. Thompson and Marc A. Ouellette, The Game Culture Reader
Jason C. Thompson and Marc A. Ouellette’s edited collection of essays The Game Culture Reader begins with an attack on established game studies—or perhaps not so much an attack as a very pointed prodding to shake off existing lethargy and “game culture by culturing games” (5). To that end, each of the twelve essays making up the collection investigate game studies within broader humanities traditions, from gender studies to Burkean rhetoric to Bourdieu’s cultural capital.
It is a common enough device for scholars to at least imply that the writing at hand is what is needed as a solution to a discipline at large, and game studies, as a still-burgeoning field, seems more prone to those claims than many; as such, it is no surprise to see Thompson and Ouellette making such claims. What is more impressive is the degree to which they adhere to that principle in their selections and in the book’s introduction, declaring that game studies “must also fundamentally reject not only the worn commonplaces of today and their auditioning replacements (gamification, proceduralism)” (6). And what is perhaps most surprising, and certainly most unusual, is the degree to which they succeed.The Game Culture Reader makes very bold claims in presenting new avenues of game studies, and while it may not always reach those heights, it does present a variety of perspectives useful to any practicing game scholar.
The book is divided into three sections, each with four chapters. The first section, “Video Game Theory” tends to focus on game terminology and potential frameworks. In Chapter One, Steven Conway’s “On Ludicity,” Conway introduces hyper-ludicity and contra-ludicity as tools for evaluating games, referring to elements that expand play by augmenting or adding new powers for the players, and elements that introduce limitations, respectively. He expands this discussion to a rich variety of videogames, and illustrates their presence and use in the discussion of everything from player ranking systems to pre-order bonuses.Next is “Bourdieu’s Forms of Capital and Video Game Production,” in which Randy Nichols refers to Consalvo’s “gaming capital” and makes the case to apply the notion of cultural capital more generally in game studies, looking at how reputation places a person within the larger field, and how cultural capital allows that person to negotiate though that field in socially approved ways. This analysis, he argues, can be extended to a global level, allowing micro-level game studies focusing on particular games and players to communicate with macro-level studies of the game industry as a whole.
Marc A. Ouellette takes rein in “Gay For Play,” and presents a framework for queer approaches to game studies, particularly in terms of drawing in existing studies of fitness pictorals, slash characters, and queer readings of traditionally straight-viewed characters. Given that last year has seen events such as the QGCon at UC Berkeley and The QUILTBAG Game Jam, Ouellette has tapped into an area of game studies that is growing in appreciation and interest. Rounding up the section is Rolf F. Nohr’s “Restart After Death,” in which he applies critical discourse analysis’ concept of “normalization” to player performance and death in videogames. In short, the process of playing a game, from creating a character to completing a level, pushes players through repetition and death to self-normalize and adopt the game’s standard of what success means in the context of that game.
Section two is “Ludic Spaces and Temporalities”; as the title suggests, it is in many ways the most diverse section, as its subject is potentially very broad. It starts with Ruggil and McAllister playing devil’s advocate, looking at the potential pitfalls and “wicked problems” that can arise out of incorporating videogames in the classroom, from the way that games are perceived as being simpler than they actual are to the difficulty in matching the time it takes an individual student to play through a game with the time allowable in a classroom curriculum. Their point in doing so is not to discourage teaching games in the classroom, but to develop better pedagogies wherein the instructor is aware of the risks and benefits. In “Movies in the Gameworld,” David O’Grady re-conceptualizes time in videogames in order to make a case for defending the videogame cutscene—or at the very least, Fallout III’s cutscenes. Time scales in videogames are wildly inaccurate, with some actions being severely abridged and others vastly drawn out; used properly, a judiciously applied cutscene can smooth over the cracks of time out of joint (and that’s my random literary reference, not O’Grady’s).
“Playing with Numbers” by Stefan Böhme returns to the concept of normalization, arguing that the numerical underpinnings of videogames, from the graphs and charts of SimCity to the goal measurements of World of Warcraft push players towards normalized behavior. In fact, he argues that it is often not even pushing, as Starcraft players will craft programs such as BWChart for measuring data that the game itself does not provide, such as hotkey application, and actions per minute, which in turn are used as measurements to mark capable players. The section concludes with Christine Daviault’s “Into the Third Dimension,” where she makes the case that some female persistent NPCs (Non Player Characters that are both female and have a definable role in a game) go beyond sexist eye candy to provide narrative integrity and a relatable character, especially for those who find they cannot relate to the PC. In fact, using PNPCs such as Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2, Cortana in Halo, and Alma in F.E.A.R., she goes so far as to argue that these characters compensate for the lack of character in the silent male protagonists.
The final section of the book is “Video Game Rhetorics,” and begins with Kevin Moberly’s “Preemptive Strikes.” Out of all the essays in the book, Moberley’s is the one most directly addressing the perceived shortcomings of existing game studies, arguing that the ludology/narratology debate serves more than anything to polarize the field so that nothing can enter it except that which fits into the established narrative. To that end, he provides existing examples of the formalist slant, including failed attempts to move away from it, including Bogost’s 2009 “Videogames are a mess” speech, and argues that we should instead stop viewing games as simulations and look more post-structurally at how it addresses the wider culture of players. Chapter 10 is James W. Creel’s “Failure is Not an Option,” which uses Kenneth Burke’s concept of framing to say that Gearbox’s Brother in Arms: Hell’s Highway uses its portrayal of Operation: Market Garden during World War II to tacitly convince its players to accept justification for the war in Iraq. World War II’s conceptual frame of the “Good War” means that we now view its sacrifices as necessary for the greater good; through juxtaposition, Moberley argues, the game then calls on us to treat Iraq in a similar fashion.
In Chapter Eleven, editor Jason C. Thompson takes over to study Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, positing that the game demonstrates the Aristotelian topos “the war-brother,” wherein the spatial boundaries of home-war are dissolved and visual anachronisms are introduced so that the audience is invited to complete the enthymeme of associating the response of the US after Pearl Harbor to that of the response to 9/11. In doing so, the game creates an acceptable, utopic masculinity, one that caters towards established hegemonies. The book ends with Francisco Ortega Grimaldo, and his essay “Board(er) Games,” in which he describes his experience crafting a series of games based around issues of immigration and border patrol that he has witnessed as a person living in Juarez-El Paso. After describing each game in term, Grimaldo argues that board games deserve more attention, not just for study but for creation, as they are well-suited for capturing lived perspectives and conveying them to their players.
The Game Culture Reader is a book where I found myself disagreeing with many of the minor points of the authors, while still very interested in the rest of their arguments. I am very skeptical, for example, of Marc Ouellette’s claim that ludology is more inclined than narratology to accept the fluidity of gender; I tend to think, historically, it has swept gender somewhat under the rug, such as Aarseth’s claim that he does not see Lara Croft’s body but sees “through it and past it” (Aarseth 53 “Genre Trouble”). But at the same time, the simple point that videogames contain elements similar to the “under the radar” power of physique magazines gives a new perspective on generations of square-jawed, barrel-chested silent protagonists. And speaking of such protagonists, Daviault’s claim that players can relate to the female PNPC needs to be contextualized in the perceived economic impetuses that prevent making female PCs more common. But her observation that female NPCs flesh out the strong, silent type strikes as particularly relevant, given that the last year has seen at least two extremely popular AAA games based around a father-figure/daughter dynamic in Bioshock: Infinite and The Last of Us. While not silent, Booker and Joel are typical gruff, male protagonists (albeit a little older than most, as befits a fatherly type); where would they and their games be without a female protagonist to inject some interest? Perhaps we can even take an upsurge in such games as recognition that the silent male protagonist, as echo chamber for the player’s role within a game world, is becoming somewhat tired.
And there are other such points of minor disagreement and larger acceptance. I agree with Thompson’s conclusion that Rising Sun was meant to be viewed in context of the War on Terror, while remaining somewhat skeptical that a reference to dust is meant to bring to mind the ashes of 9/11 or the threat of anthrax (205). Moberley’s on-spot discussion of the failings of game studies pushes through a somewhat overly complex Alien vs. Predator metaphor. Finally, I think O’Grady’s argument for the validity of the cutscene is rather specific; I cannot easily think of another game besides Fallout III (and the obvious Fallout: New Vegas) that can make the case that the cutscenes—specifically, the death-based cutscenes that follow the PC getting killed, or killing an enemy in the game—serve as suture between combat time and playing time. But I very much agree with his larger point, that dismissing the cutscene for its violation of player agency is a simplification of its purpose, and the concept of player agency.
My feelings for the book as a whole are roughly similar. I have some minor apprehensions on the choice of essays; the two different essays that center on normalization had a lot of overlap, for example. Moreover, placing Thompson’s and Creel’s essays side-by-side seems a definite misstep, as the similarities in argument—two World War II First Person Shooters that seek rhetorically to push the player into endorsing the War on Terror—give them a sort of inertia that detracts and distracts from the larger purpose of the book. And while I am nitpicking, Part II’s unity with the book of the whole is strong but its unity with itself is weak; out of the essays contained in it, only O’Grady’s really explicitly addresses the stated theme of ludic spaces and temporalities—I say that despite the fact that many of my favorite essays of the collection come from this section. And even on a second reading, I am not sure exactly what to make out of the extended metaphor regarding Odysseus and the suitors that begins the introduction.
But none of my clutching-at-straws nitpicking really matters. What matters is that The Game Culture Reader makes very bold, very big claims to address some of the preconceptions of gaming and to enlarge it into new fields, and on that level, it hits a high degree of success, the kind of success where even those that do not quite succeed fail in manners so interesting that they are still worth noting. Ortega-Grimaldo addresses the focus on videogames and technology over other media forms. Ruggill and McAllister point out the shortcomings in blindly endorsing game play in the classroom. Böhme complicates the traditional narrative that players move subversively through a game’s system, with an example of players working to further normative behavior. Moberley speaks directly to the inadequacies of game studies. It is an impressive, useful set of scholarship, made more useful with their juxtaposition, which is exactly what a good collection should do.
It is fairly easy to find a work in game studies that claims to be revolutionary and is only accurate in that it spins rapidly in circles. Oullette and Thompson’s The Game Culture Reader should be commended as a collection of diverse essays that claim to extend and complicate the field of game studies and, more often than not, do exactly that.
Aarseth, Espen. “Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Patrick Harrigan. The MIT Press, 2004. 45-55. Print.
Thompson, Jason C. and Marc A. Ouellette, eds. The Game Culture Reader. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013. Print.