Review: Rise of the Video Game Zinesters
This is the sort of review to begin with a description of myself, the reader: I am a 24-32 year old white, heterosexual male who comes from a very liberal background (I live in the Portland, Oregon of the East, Western Massachusetts) and, while I write about video games, I do not make them. These are all very important conditions to understanding my reaction to Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Video Game Zinesters, a work of astounding ambition that wants to teach us that “anyone can make games.”
It is part academic history of video games from an outsider perspective. But it’s also a “how-to” guide to making games, an inspirational tool, an autobiography, and a lengthy rant about the state of the industry. Rise of the Video Game Zinesters succeeds at some of these points better than others; a passing familiarity with Anna Anthropy’s previous work, which I lacked, will no doubt inform you, before I even begin to tell you, which parts succeed and which points fall short.
Anthropy’s risen to some prominence lately by being a vocal backer of the Pirate Kart entered into the Independent Games Festival, as well as her recently released Dys4ia, a game about transgendered individuals starting hormone therapy. As a writer she gives the impression of someone passionately convinced that every single person on the planet can, and should, make a video game. Her enthusiasm is infectious. She makes you want to go out, download one of the many, many tools she lists for making games, and make your own games. Her descriptions of the process are immensely helpful, and her inspirational sixth chapter, “Making the Games”, convinces us that it’s something we could do.
It’s something she did, as well, and the autobiographical portions of the text tell a compelling story. Anthropy is at her best talking about herself. Her story is fascinating, well-told, and a nuanced portrayal of what the gaming industry is like. Her sections on her time at the SMU Guildhall in Texas are among the most riveting parts of the book.
Less riveting are the segments on the games industry as a whole. Anthropy takes her experiences with a game design program and extrapolates it to discussing game development studios. While we have some high profile examples of the “crunch” that she rails against, most notably the Team Bondi debacle, she isn’t in a position to comment well on the topic, and it shows. While she may have collected a ream of experiences from her interactions with game designers turned indie, we are not privy to this information. Your appreciation of her argument will be based on your biases: if you agree with her, you’ll be nodding and smiling. If you don’t, or if you have no strong opinion (like I do), then you’ll be scratching your head, wondering which of her ideas are founded in facts.
Her railing at the topics and tropes of video games works a modicrum better, but still suffers from overreaching. Her core argument—a lack of games with nonwhite, nonheterosexual, nonmale protagonists—is an enthusiastically presented, “No shit” argument, and her examples, offered by independent developers, are interesting.
Less convincing is her attempt at an academic history of game design, talking about how things got to be this way. The trouble comes because, while Anthropy is infectiously enthusiastic, her academic writing isn’t quite up to snuff. Her writing about games development is like creating a game for a Jam: it’s quick, it’s fast, and passion will overwhelm everything. Academic writing, meanwhile, is like developing a big-budget game: you need to build. Points need to be foundated on other work. You need to position your argument within the constructions of other writers.
Anthropy is a little too punk to do this convincingly. She’s trying to reinvent games’ history outside the realm of the mainstream, and while I appreciate her enthusiasm I struggle with even the most basic points. She makes claims, for instance, about how the earliest games were developed by people who love Dungeons and Dragons, how computers were only accessible to engineers. These are her most obvious points, but they’re still outside the realm of the given—if I hadn’t read about the design of early RPGs I’d have no idea about the Dungeons and Dragons connection. While the punk might scream, “This information is obvious! They were made by privileged white male nerds!”, it’s not obvious to anyone without a specific skill set. It references by stereotype, rather than with specifics.
So when she claims things like, “The game industry is broken,” or “Video games today come from and contain exactly one perspective,” her proponents are nodding along happily while those of us with a speck of doubt are shouting, “Where are the facts?” They don’t come, and we become increasingly skeptical of her arguments. We’d even buy small, statistically insignificant arguments: the top twenty-five games of 2005 feature producer credits exclusively given to men and feature white male protagonists. Done and done. We’d buy it. It would be more convincing than the founding in enthusiasm we receive.
That is Rise of the Video Game Zinesters principle problem: in a book trying to prove video games a legitimate artistic medium open to everyone, it itself lacks legitimacy. It takes punk a little too close to the heart: instead of building up on the works of others, it’s trying to burn everything down and strike out in a brand new direction. It feels like a stranger cross between an enthusiast giving the reader a pep talk and an orphaned academic text, unable to comfortably situate itself in the history of video games writing despite spending half its length on history.
That said, Rise of the Video Game Zinesters makes me want to make video games. The parts I’ve quibbled with are the appetizer, and its main course is unsurprisingly solid: Anthropy will tell you you can make games, and you will believe her. Mission accomplished.