Why Write About a Book?

An Editorial About Book Reviews

Bio: Michael Hancock was Book Reviews Editor for First Person Scholar since 2012 and is yet a PhD Candidate in English at the University of Waterloo. His academic interests include text and visual represetation in games, horror games.



Writing this editorial is, for me, a bittersweet occasion. Like the rest of the First Person Scholar old guard, I’m soon to be trading in my FPS credentials for a mortarboard, and as of September, the book reviews will be in the very capable hands of Chris Lawrence (and I can’t wait to see what he does with them). I’d like to use this editorial to reflect on what book reviews as a section means, to my work at FPS, to game studies, and to academia and broader audiences at large.

First and foremost, though, I want to thank the reviewers, readers, and copy editors who labored to make these reviews possible. You’ve persevered in what’s often at least figuratively a thankless task, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have worked with all of you.

Every published book review seems like a minor miracle. Accessing the book itself is the first hurdle—and not an insignificant one, as academic publishers in particular see nothing out of the ordinary in pricing even an ebook copy of a 150-paged game studies book at $150 or up. Reading the book can be a big time commitment, before even considering the time necessary to sit down and write a coherent, thoughtful response. Some reviewers, understandably, are reluctant to present themselves as an authority on a given topic, even after reading the book. And—more on this later—academia doesn’t value book reviews as much as other forms of writing, which makes it hard to recommend a review over an essay or commentary. Looking at FPS’ post history, the numbers seem to reflect all of these difficulties—out of our 150 posts, twenty-four are book reviews, making it a relatively small part of our three main tiers.

But small doesn’t mean insignificant, and small doesn’t mean unimportant. To me, at least, the book reviews represent the fundamental tenets of FPS’ goals as a middle-state publication.

The Problem, and Breaking the Cycle

That’s a statement that’s going to need some unpacking. First, FPS book reviews are valuable because, by and large, the established game studies journals aren’t doing them. By my count—and I’m being conservative here—seventy-five books related to game criticism have been published since the beginning of 2014 (the number of game studies-related books published per year has been accelerating considerably in the past five years, but that’s a discussion for another day). That number is just counting the academic presses, without even considering books that are self-published or from  independent publishers, where some of the most interesting writing is happening. Since the beginning of 2014, FPS has published eleven reviews, which is, admittedly, a drop in the bucket at best. But it looks pretty good when you consider that number over the same period of time for Eludamos, Game Studies.org, GAME: The Italian Journal of Game Studies, Games and Culture, The International Journal of Game-Based Learning, International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, Journal of Game Criticism, Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds, Loading, and Simulation & Gaming publishing nine reviews combined, with no one journal publishing more than four.  I’m not saying this to call out any of these journals—I of all people know how hard it is to find good people for book reviews,  and I regularly go to each of these journals for their quality articles. But so much long form criticism isn’t receiving the attention it deserves because no one knows it’s out there; if FPS can serve in this capacity, it’s service worth doing.

On a related note of knowing what’s out there, FPS reviews are valuable because game criticism has a very short, very select memory. In the conclusion to Gaming at the Edge (a book I hope we’ll be reviewing in the near future), author Adrienne Shaw discusses Manveer Heir’s 2014 GDC speech on diversity in videogames. She concludes that the talk itself was welcome, but press coverage of it was frustrating, as the press tended to treat the concerns Heir raised as if women in the industry hadn’t been raising similar concerns for years, only to be dismissed or threatened (208). Diversity in videogames is probably the most important example of gaming’s selective memory, as Gamergate and other events have illustrated the real costs that can accrue for those who speak out. But there’s a long list of other issues that we seem to continually recycle, often without acknowledging where the discussions have gone since their inception: games and art, formalist definitions of a game, and the never-ending yet somehow never-started narratology/ludology debate. Continually restating that videogames and game criticism is a new field does a disservice to those who have been pursuing these issues for years, especially in cases where their works have been dismissed or devalued. One of the goals of middle-state publishing, as FPS has pursued it, is to strike a balance between traditional academic models and the immediacy of newer forms. Immediacy is a hard target to hit with book reviews, but I’ve made it a goal of my section to encourage reviews of both newer, somewhat overlooked books and older books that warrant revisiting with new perspectives. Game criticism is always moving, which makes it imperative that we remember where we’ve been and where we want to go.

Expert Knowledge

My third point: FPS reviews are valuable because different perspectives are valuable. One of the most common concerns reviewers I talk to have had is that they don’t feel that they’re enough of an authority on the sub-speciality in a given book to write a review. I do my best to argue against this perspective; if you have read a book, you’re an authority on that book, especially to people who haven’t read it. Outsider perspectives have their own value, as long as the reviewer is upfront in establishing her own background. There are limits to this view—I wouldn’t ask someone who’s never heard the term e-sports to review T. L. Taylor’s Raising the Stakes, for example – but more often I think what limits the conversation is the idea that you need an unshakable authority on a game-related subject before you’re permitted to an opinion. Personally, I think the academic view of the authoritative reviewer has parallels with the mainstream game culture notion of the objective videogame review: total objectivity and total authority are chimeras, and going too far in pursuit of either erases the subjectivity of the reviewer at hand, a subjectivity which is worth preserving. Game studies’ interdisciplinary nature is usually presented as a strength—a reviewer with a perspective different from a book’s author or editor should be thought of as a strength as well. If only specialists can review books, then books will be written only for specialists. This mentality has furthered the balkanization of the humanities and other academic fields because of specialization, which in turn contributes to the general public sense of academia being an inaccessible ivory tower. Part of middle-state publishing is a dedication to audiences beyond academia, and I think part of that is encouraging reviews from people who don’t fit neatly into a book’s intended audience. If you’ve got a well-argued opinion on an existing critique of videogames, we want to hear from you.

In fact, if there’s anything I regret from my tenure as review editor, it’s not going far enough to promote different perspectives. I wish I had dedicated more time to pursuing a wider diversity of reviewers, and, especially in the early days of FPS, I regret pushing reviewers to hit that formal, authoritative tone instead of pursuing their own voice and position. It’s to that end that I’ve been very grateful for the review model pioneered by Elise Vist, as I think it really draws out the multitude of approaches that can be brought to bear on long-form criticism, asking what a given work meant to the reviewer’s research, to the field, the classroom, and to the reviewer personally. These are questions worth asking. Most of all, though, I regret not stepping further out of the academic field in terms of the books themselves. I’m proud of how multidisciplinary the reviews are—we’ve got reviews about ethnography and sociology, genre and gender, games for health and game culture. There’s some edging towards criticism outside of academia, but not enough. Further, I would have liked more reviews on things that blur the line of engagements with games entirely: gamebooks, game art books, longform criticism like Leigh Alexander’s Lo-Fi Let’s Plays. Chris will have his own vision of where the Book Reviews will go, but these are my own roads not traveled.

Creating Value

My final point, at first glance, is somewhat paradoxical: FPS reviews are valuable because academia doesn’t value book reviews.  Recently, digital ethnographist Tom Boellstorff had some very nice words to say about the value of book reviews¹:

I have always considered the book review genre as a form of conversation in its own right. In my view book reviews are less interesting as forms of judgment or gatekeeping—of assessing a book as “worth reading,” or determining virtues and flaws. All this can happen in book reviews, of course, but I contend that book reviews are, at their best, tools for conversation. They place books in various historical and scholarly contexts. They provide succinct, synthetic overviews of a book’s argument, allowing busy scholars to learn the outlines of someone’s research. They thereby place that research into conversation with broader communities of intellectual practice.

All of this points towards the value of the book review, and I agree with it entirely—the review is a tool for conversation, and one that grows better through continued use. But for every post in favor of book reviews, I can point to one that argues the opposite  (Kelsky), that any time spent on a book review is time spent on something that has low academic value, and time away from your own writing. The latter argument is part of the objective review notion; to say that a book review is not the reviewer’s own writing is to erase the reviewer’s presence in the review, to reduce the review to an evaluative exercise. To say that a review is not part of a scholar’s, or anyone’s own writing is insulting, or at the very least, reductive. By placing the review on equal footing with our other sections, FPS is restoring the conversational aspect of the book review, rhetorically presenting a model counter to traditional academic models. Presenting alternative models is an essential—maybe even the essential—part of middle-state publishing.

We’ve frequently been told at FPS that pushing against the established academic model is idealistic. But this isn’t idealism. It’s pragmatism. It’s survival. We graduate students, in game studies and the humanities in general, are frequently being trained for positions that don’t exist (Yachnin and Yetter). So we need to create our own spaces to exist, to construct our own systems of value that offer alternative perspectives. That doesn’t necessarily mean working against the existing system, or working to undermine it. But it does mean being open and willing to explore alternatives, and that exploration sums up the best of my experiences at FPS.

Granted, book reviews are, at times, just a very small part of that exploration.

But small doesn’t mean insignificant, and small doesn’t mean unimportant.


¹ I had a hard time tracking the quotation down, to be honest—I mention this because a Google search of “Tom Boellstorff book review” didn’t turn up the post, but did turn up the FPS review of Boellstorff’s ethnography handbook on the first page. Reason 1b on why FPS reviews are valuable: the scarcity of game studies reviews  and open access journals featuring reviews means that virtually all of our reviews become prominent voices on the books in question by default.

Works Cited

Boelstorff, Tom. “The Book Review as Conversation.” The Geek Anthropologist. 27 Apr 2015. Web. 21 Jul  2015.

Heir, Manveer. “Misogyny, Racism, and Homophobia: Where do Video Games Stand?.” Game Developers Conference 2014. Monscone Center, San Francisco, CA. Mar 2014, GDC Vault 2014. Web. 21 Jul 2015.

Kelsky, Karen. “The Professor Is In: Is Writing a Book Review Ever Worth It?”. Chronicle Vitae. 4 Aug 2014. Web. 21 Jul 2015.

Shaw, Adrienne. Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture. Minnesota UP, 2014. Print.

Yachnin, Paul, and Leigh Yetter. “The future of the humanities.” Policy Options. Nov 2014. Web. 21 Jul 2015.