Rise of the Videogame Zinesters

Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is a highly compelling book, one that should be widely read, and will, with luck, spur a number of folks on to become indie game makers. I’ve been thinking long and hard about how I would review the book, but while I was doing that Jenn Frank went and wrote 99% of what I had wanted to say. Anna Anthropy has written a highly compelling provocation to get out there and do something, and done so by writing from a personal place that allows us to see for ourselves the way we can use videogames to express something deeply personal about ourselves. Anthropy’s book leaves no doubt in our minds: videogames are a medium like any other, and can and should be used by independent game creators as an outlet of personal expression, one that has unique properties and can connect with its audience in ways other media can’t.

That said, there was a part of the book that wore at me like a rock in my shoe on an otherwise pleasant and invigorating hike. While Anthropy is highly encouraging of everyone to get out there and start writing videogames, she has choice words for those who do so as a part of a major game development studio, arguing that games written by them lack deep engagement and emotional investment. She asserts this by pointing to BioWare—a developer praised for its storytelling and character design. While arguing that games by and large do not speak to queer audiences, she preemptively counters those who would point to the various same-sex relationship options in BioWare’s games by saying that

[T]he lady-sex in Mass Effect is just one of many branches on a tree of awkward dialogue, offering nothing resembling the actual lust, desire, and flirtation that women feel for each other.

This is, of course, a fair assertion for her to make. Different people will have different responses to art, and some people will respond strongly to the same scene that leaves others completely cold. The dialogue trees introduce a what can feel like a stochastic rhythm that some players will find highly disruptive and immersion-breaking. There are many who will disagree with this assessment, but many others who agree whole-heartedly. But this is an issue of aesthetics, and one that we can’t judge absolutely. Anthropy continues:

But, aesthetic failures aside, the most important distinction here is that these are stories about queer women that are generally written by white, college-educated men. These are not cases of queer women presenting their own experiences.

I find this accusation especially irksome, as it brushes off the work of a number of artists simply by claiming an identity for the writers, and then using that identity to set them aside, removing them from the conversation.

Even more problematic is the simple fact that the identity Anthropy has created here, at least in BioWare’s case, does not match the reality. While I cannot speak to the sexuality of any of the writers, I know for a fact that many of BioWare’s writers defy the label of “white, college-educated men.” The writing team for Mass Effect 3, for example, was composed of 3 women and 6 men, while Dragon Age 2 was 4 women and 2 men. Since Dragon Age 2, the writing team for that series has been upped to 5 women and 2 men. While the team may be overwhelmingly white, it is worth noting that noted black author and activist Minister Faust has written for BioWare. While it is true that all the folks involved are university-educated, it would be disingenuous to claim that they’re “generally white, college-educated men.” To do so is to sweep aside the many, many writers who are not, and would, for games like Dragon Age, actually omit the majority of the writers involved in the game.

This isn’t to suggest that everything’s hunky-dory and that there is no bias towards white, college-educated men in videogames. Instead, I think it’s important to avoid generalising in a way that undermines the work of those who might not be white, might not be college-educated, and who might not be men. Anthropy writes ” I hope that what you take away from this book is that the videogame isn’t the creation of a corporation, but of an author, that this form is important, and that people are using it to do exciting things.” I think this statement, to me, sums up exactly what upsets me about Anthropy’s dismissal of Mass Effect and games like it: it’s important, as Anthropy notes, to remember that videogames are not the creation of corporations, but we should not discount the games that are made by artists, rather than an artist. The people involved in Mass Effect 3 were personally invested in their work, and many of them were very upset at the backlash against the game’s ending. What they felt was a personal accomplishment was received by a number of fans as nothing more than a commodity, and they were upset when they felt that they, as consumers, had received a product that was not tailored to please them. By ignoring the artists behind big titles like the Mass Effect series, we perpetuate that sense that the game is a commercial product, and encourage players to throw a fit when they find that that product challenges them.

Games are made by all sorts of people, from sole authors like Anthropy to small groups like the folks that worked alongside Phil Fish to make Fez, to larger groups like those at BioWare. Some games will be better and some games will be worse. Some games will have heavily invested creators (no matter how many) and others will have creators who phone in a half-baked game with the hopes that it’ll earn them more money than they put in. We should be judging these artists by the work they produce, rather than how they produce it, and we should give collectives the same respect that we give solitary authors. Perhaps I’m too much of an anti-Romantic, but I think there’s something wonderful in a group of people coming together, putting egos aside, and creating something that works together beautifully and that might not have been created had any of the group gone it on their own. To play on EM Forster, I’d say “Only create…” (although truthfully “Only connect…” would be a great motto for game designers). And at the end of the day, I suspect that Anthropy would agree with me. Maybe not completely, but probably at least in principle. And that’s what makes Rise of the Videogame Zinesters such an excellent book: there will be parts you agree with, and there will be parts that you disagree with, but in the end it will make you think, and with luck, it’ll make you create..