Review: The State of Play

by ibull

Book: The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture
Edited by Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson

The State of Play is an edited collection of short articles from a variety of contemporary videogame critics, whose professions and backgrounds are diverse and varied. Several contributors teach and write to the academic community; others have made some money making games and writing critically about their play experiences. If there is some question about method, this volume serves to exemplify what a diversity of critical lenses looks like for a seemingly complex and sometimes esoteric medium. While the concept of play is a guiding heuristic for the editors of this collection, the book as a whole is perhaps better conceived of as a curiosity cabinet from which readers can examine different—none seemingly better or worse—modes of critical engagement with respect to games. In addition to more traditional forms of textual analysis, the collection also demonstrates how letters, choose your own adventures, and abbreviated historiographies work in the proverbial toolbox for critical writing. If the goal of this volume is to seed conversations about the landscape of contemporary critical game analysis and design, it succeeds. It does so by situating together authors who use personal experience or political ethos to index different relationships people can develop with other people/players or games themselves.

While each chapter offers valuable insight to isolated, specific topics or themes, a number of chapters stand out to me personally for their thoughtful reflection on intersections of subjectivity, representation, community, and emergence. Evan Narcisse’s essay titled, “The Natural: The Parameters of Afro” almost stands alone in its straight-forward and concise articulation of how video games routinely alienate black players and representations of black characters. Starting from the premise that an afro reminds Narcisse of his love of blackness and himself, he uses representations of the afro in videogames as a place to begin a conversation about the ways game design(ers) [passive] aggressively marginalize and distort representations of black people and black culture. Narcisse reminds the reader that people enjoy games—something is playful—when players can feel good about themselves. When designers neglect the desires of black players to realistically represent themselves in virtual worlds, they actively participate in the ongoing alienation of black lives from places of contemporary social living—that doesn’t feel good. For Narcisse, the afro is also a symptom of a larger problem within the commercial production of video games; it’s not just that the graphics don’t do black bodies justice, but stories about black characters are more often marginal or absent, as well. The concerns of graphical representation relate to the perceived importance of particular characters; so, ‘fixing’ the problem requires some concerted attention to multiple areas of the production process. ‘Naturalizing’ blackness is going to require a concerted effort on the part of working professionals in a variety of fields—art design, writing, programming, project management, etc—to both mentor black people and support their projects. Manifesting the feeling of love or enjoyment between black people and their player characters is going to require more than better aesthetic representations of virtual hair.

In a similar but markedly different register, merritt kopas’s “Ludus Interruptus: Video Games and Sexuality” resonated for its frank and personal discussion of sex and gaming. For kopas, games have been a medium through which questions about sex acts and consensual sex. Arguing that early emphasis on combative and competitive play seeded the grounds of mainstream game development, kopas figures that contemporary attitudes in mainstream game development are, in some way, the product of path dependency. If we want to understand why current games poorly represent sex and relationships, we need to study the initial conditions from which various systems emerged, developed, and persisted over time. The contemporary sophistication of ‘violent’ games is not—and was not—natural, she argues; the current state of technological possibility is an inevitable product of the personal interests and cultural backgrounds of developers whose early histories of playing games began with games like Dungeons and Dragons and Doom. One can’t help but wonder what the canonization of these games does for the ongoing acculturation of younger generations into mainstream play and development communities. Perhaps to this end, kopas offers an alternative canonical account of games that seem to progress representations of sex, relationships, and consent. Saints Row IV is the only ‘mainstream’ game that kopas catalogues, and many of the games that do make mention are distinctly more alternative or ephemeral; they are: Rest (Lydia Neon), Consensual Torture Simulator (merritt kopas), Luxuria Superbia (Tale of Tales), Queer Power (Paolo Pedercini), Slave of God (Stephen Lavelle). These games aren’t simply progressive in terms of their representative stories, but they challenge preconceived notions of how game mechanics and graphics scaffold ideas in terms of player behavior and choice about consent, love, and pleasure.

In a discussion of match-based war games like Call of Duty and Counterstrike, I find Hussein Ibrahim’s, “What It Feels Like to Play the Bad Guy,” to also explore ideas of consent and pleasure—albeit, under different terms. Ibrahim begins by talking about the role videogames played in helping him acclimate to life in Egypt. He initially grew up in Detroit, MI, but his father found work in Egypt, so the family to moved while he was still a kid. Feeling drawn towards online multiplayer games early on, it was only a matter of time before he found himself in the community LAN centers close to home. There, he found people almost entirely devoted to Counterstrike and other first-person shooters. The essay develops as a discussion of his curious attachment to games that explicitly alienate and marginalize representations of Arab people. As someone who identifies as Arab, Ibrahim is also explicitly interested in the subtle ways games like Call of Duty make a potpourri of accurate and inaccurate representations of places in the Middle East. How should someone interpret the intent of Infinity Ward, the publisher for the Call of Duty franchise, when they promptly respond to community demand to remove blasphemous representations of holy scripture in a bathroom, but do nothing about more obvious misrepresentations of ‘Arab’ identity (e.g., the stereotype that all Arabs are insurgents)? How should one interpret the side-by-side placement of two road signs, for example, when one reads in coherent Arabic, while the other reads as complete nonsense? How does someone like Ibrahim reconcile a pleasure for something that is also some implicit embrace of painful, villainous stereotypes?

Perhaps I feel particularly drawn to Ibrahim’s essay because I’ve recently been re-captivated by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a first-person shooter released in November of 2009. Over the holidays, Steam discounted the game, and several friends bought into the PC version for the first time to take advantage of the still-active online multiplayer infrastructure that allows people play competitively. I have a fun time of developing relationships with my teammates and coordinating in-game activity with what they know about enemy locations and playstyles. In addition, the controller interface and mechanical design of objects, classes, and maps are nuanced and well-balanced—so much so that some players strongly contend that MW2 is the best chapter in the Call of Duty franchise, if not the best first-person shooter of all time. I don’t play many first person shooters, but I think for people like me MW2 can play like a well-designed instrument—a demanding human-computer relationship that requires the execution of simultaneous mimetic and theoretic skillsets.

The game is also a provocative object for the ways in which designers chose to skin player characters and game maps—sometimes ugly flowers still smell sweet. The armchair critique and condemnation leans on understandings of this game as a war simulation—a game like many other first person shooters whose subtext suggests the real pleasure in playing has to do with fantasies of domination over jingoistic representations, choice characterizations of people and cultures that belie the realities of those made victim in times of war. The temptation here may be to conclude one’s characterization of these games, to revel in the process of correctly identifying racist tropes, but what I appreciate most about Ibrahim’s essay is how he demonstrates the limitation of that analysis. When that kind of critique becomes the end of one’s analysis, you’re cornered into pathologizing the enjoyment of something morally reprehensible. The means by which one arrives at a diagnosis requires some cannibalization of one’s history and identity. What is Ibrahim supposed to feel in the encounter of the Arab terrorist? As a white woman, what am I supposed to feel? And once we open pandora’s box, are we supposed to do something about those feelings? Ibrahim’s essay doesn’t really provide someone with a way to navigate those questions, but his account complicates what it might mean to have a stake in the answers to them.

The question of ‘what’s at stake’ seems like a good one to conclude on for the purposes of this review, for it is a question that varies considerably for the authors included in this collection. As a catalogue of such, this The State of Play is incomplete, as I would have appreciated some greater attention or attenuation to the discursive environments where these conversations are taking place. Perhaps with a bit of irony, notions of place and space with regards to writing and distribution aren’t really elucidated in this volume. History and disciplinary knowledges serve foundational purposes, but what about contemporary meatspace makes writing about play possible? What are the material conditions of games production and distribution that make alternative and independent development of games a reality? I found it noteworthy that many of the contributors are not staff writers for what many would consider to be the most popular games-themed or tech-focused or arts-centered magazines and websites. I mention this not to marginalize the authors or subjugate their contributions in any particular way, but to consider for a moment what it might mean that much of what circulates here as contemporary, edgy critique is in some way ephemeral or alternative in a larger purview of games writing or games journalism. Some of the work that we consider most valuable culturally, intellectually, and historically doesn’t make sense a periodical—for some reason, this collection of essays must be a book. Maybe one possible reason for this has something to do with the contemporary ‘state’ of culture writing in virtual spaces about objects that coalesce online communities. As a metatext on contemporary discursive practices, I think it’s important to foreground The State of Play as introductory scaffolding for readers emerging writing styles, themes, and vocabularies that characterize popular intellectualism online—both in terms of topics that were included and what didn’t quite make the cut. For me this isn’t a failing of the book, but a way of thinking ahead about where the conversation about play is probably going to go.