“… video games are a complex and rapidly evolving form, where different qualities intertwine and influence each other in subtle, often surprising ways. A progress, critical approach to games and their place in culture does not preclude the appreciation of them as the rich and wonderful pieces of entertainment they are. But if our understanding of them is to move beyond the simple escapism, games must be held up to the same standards and allowed the same scrutiny as any other form of creative expression. “ — Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson, editors, from introduction to The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture
This rather uneven collection of essays — The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture — is nonetheless an important look at how video game culture reflects both the good and the bad of this still-emerging form of popular culture entertainment. Tackling topics like Gamergate head on and exploring issue of gender and race, the writers here go deep with insights. And many of them are game developers themselves, as the subtitle suggests, and so, reading their insights from the other side of the console, so to speak, is an intriguing element of The State of Play.
One of the more intriguing essays here is from Hussein Ibrahim, whose piece entitled “What It’s Like to Always Play the Bad Guy: On the Portrayal of Arabs in Online Shooters” does what it says — it gives Ibrahim a platform to explore the culture of video game design that always seems to pit denizens of the Middle East as the enemy terrorist with guns and bombs.
“The problem is, the ‘authenticity’ (of games like Medal of Honor) is only on one side. As an American, you get to relate to the hero defending his country from terrorists threatening your freedom. As an Arab, you get to relate to the guy who wants to blow up your city, and that’s all,” Ibrahim writes. “Often, it seem more time is spent making sure the guns in the game are authentic than on accurately representing the culture I belong to.”
Interestingly, Ibrahim plays those very games, and finds himself feeling “Indifferent (about the portrayal), which is unsettling.” He then notes an event in which someone noticed a map in Modern Warfare had a saying from Allah hanging in a virtual bathroom. An uproar ensued among Middle East gamers (Ibrahim says there are “several million” players of the franchise in the Middle East) and the map was later revised, the Allah engraving removed. He wonders why this event (the engraving) caused more uproar than how Arabs are used as villains.
“… I guess we have all grown a little numb,” he notes.
Another interesting essay — “A Game I Had to Make” by developer Zoe Quinn — explores a game designer’s quest to make a game for themselves, to understand a confusing world. In this case, the game in question — Depression Quest — is designed to help a player deal with depression. Writing in second person, Quinn tracks the development of the game and the release into the world. She never expected the kind of splash her game received.
“You have inadvertently become a beacon for the cause of depression,” Quinn writes. “A massive conversation has begun around the game, sometimes positive, sometimes negative … you’re happy that a lot of people feel like they can talk about this enormous, invisible thing (depression) they have always been unsure of in the public eye.”
In “The Squalid Grace of Flappy Bird,” Ian Bogost explores how such a simple app game became so popular (before the developer, overwhelmed by the success, pulled the game from the Apple App store). Bogust’s exploration of game design, and the ways in which Flappy Bird both ignored and followed the “rules” is intriguing, particularly when he dips into how games reflect culture, and vice versa.
“In game design circles,” Bogost writes, “we sometimes wax poetic about the elegance and simplicity of a design, the way complex emergent behaviors arise from simple rules and structures … The best games are not for us (or for anyone), but instead strive to be what they are as much possible. From this indifference emanates a strange squalor that we can appreciate as beauty.”
The State of Play is a needed book, in that it steps back from video games and examines the ways in which culture and gaming are meshed together, warts and all. NOTE: there are some themes and language in here that might not be appropriate for classrooms, so you might want to read it first before bringing it in for students to read or use.
Peace (beyond the game),