This is my informal, uninvited rant for the week of GDC 2011. A few months ago, I signed on to serve as a technical editor on a book project being undertaken by two of my favorite game designers. In order to help them on their way, I scrawled an early form of this article on a napkin. This isn’t meant to lambast any one book in particular; rather, it should be taken as a broad diagnosis of what happens when one begins a book with the idea of writing about games-in-general, perhaps with the goal of authoring a text that will be “foundational” to the field.
First, select your “-ism.” Google your “-ism” plus “games” to make sure nobody else has used this “-ism” already. If they have, and it’s the only “-ism” you’re familiar with, just find a synonym or portmanteau. This will define your entire project. It’s important that you’re absolutely in love with the way you write about your “-ism.” You don’t have any clue what your readership might be, so get a name from another field to write on the back of your book that you are “essential reading for anyone studying games.” Another viable strategy is to write about “Games and X,” with X being a bad paraphrasing of three or four thoughts from an old/dead white dude.
Open with World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft is to game studies what Heart of Darkness was to your AP Literature exam in high school: it’s the perfect example no matter your “-ism.” Lay on us the existence of gold farming and the fact that Azeroth’s economy feeds into our own right away, because that’s heavy as all get out. Be sure to forget the difference between classes and races when you gloss “things you can play as.” Be sure to mention the number of hours you’ve logged in Azeroth; everyone will be impressed, really.
If you have to mention earlier MMOs, just say something about Everquest widows. This will serve as your segue into the topic of problem gaming. If you’re writing about game development ethics and practices, you can combine the subject of Everquest widows and EA Spouse into a subchapter titled “Widows and Spouses.” Pretend MUDs never existed, because otherwise you’d have to actually read something by Bartle post-“Players Who Suit MUDs.”
Within your first 20 pages, you’re going to need to type the names “Jenkins” and “Bogost.” Next, you need to find some kind of ridiculous reason to disagree with them, because they are the establishment, and you hate having to type their names. Popular choices include attacks against fandom for the former and claims of neoliberalism for the latter. Quotes from Raph Koster should be considered mandatory. But don’t talk about Chris Crawford, because then you’ll never finish your book.
Unless otherwise noted, these are the games you are allowed to write about: Halo, Grand Theft Auto (just pretend Grand Theft Auto III is where the series started and stopped), Civilization, Doom, Zelda, Mario, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, and September 12th. No other game deserves more than one sentence (non-compound).
If you’re a male writer, cite vague feminist concern about both the game industry and gender representation in mainstream games. But, whatever you do, don’t acknowledge the vital contributions of female academics and designers including Flanagan, Taylor, Consalvo, Pearce, Brathwaite, Anthropy, or Laurel (and on and on). Instead, just copy-paste some ethnographic survey numbers. The older these numbers are, the better. Or, make some up: “.06% of female fetuses played Gears of War vicariously through their mothers in 2009.” Be creative.
Do mention Murray, though, because everyone loves Tetris. And because, if you don’t mention her, she will eventually find you, roll her eyes, and shrug.
Just pretend that fighting games and shooting games are the same kind of simulated violence. And only use examples from the latter, because none of your reviewers have any idea how fighting games work. Find some egregious quotes from over-caffeinated suits at a major publisher, to show how despicable action games really are. Then mention that the U.S. Military uses shooting games for recruitment and training, because nothing the U.S. Military has ever used or created could be seen as good in any way by anybody. If you talk about competitive gaming at all, pretend that it only exists in Korea. That way, you can derail the discussion with a rehash on problem gaming in PC bangs (they smoke cigarettes in those places!).
When in doubt, “Me-high Chick-sent-me-high.”
If you’re a neo-Marxist, certainly include a throwaway quote from Galloway. But don’t, under any circumstance, cite Wark. In contrast to his radical, expressive prose and brilliant digital peering scheme, the Word document that only you and your editor will ever see becomes unbearably depressing. If you were Ivy League-educated, be sure to disdain the upper middle class as constantly as possible. That will show daddy who’s boss now.
Inconsistent referencing is a must. Include hundreds of meaningless quotations from Nintendo and Sony representatives, preferably taken from the New York Times or Wired, to get your readers as hot and bothered about videogames as possible. But, when you make broad claims about how games work and what people do with them, don’t cite anybody. Especially not another academic.
At some point, you’re going to feel tempted to talk about how computers work. This is going to be a disaster if you try to go into any detail whatsoever. Instead, your mantra here should be “Moore’s Law.” Just type it out a few times, then scribble something about “artificial intelligence” and “graphics and audio” in between. You will need to mention that, at one point, computers used to fill entire rooms.
Woah, just think about it for a second. Woah.
Moore’s Law is actually an inverse metaphor for your entire project, because you’re essentially spinning a page-length abstract’s worth of new contributions into 200 pages.
You have to decide which Will Wright game to “critique.” Go with Sims if you’re looking for a wide readership. But if you’re writing this book about videogames primarily for nerds, do Sim City. Don’t even think about analyzing Spore if you’re valorizing hackers or modders anywhere in your book, because then you’d have to admit that most hackers, modders, and user-gen creators care almost exclusively about stuffing phalluses into every game possible.
Try not to normalize your spelling of common terms. For example, within any given page you should include all of these: “digital games,” “computer games,” “digital computer games,” “video games,” “videogames,” “games,” “hardcore,” “hard core,” and “hard-core.” Use the words “mechanics,” “rules,” and “features” interchangeably.
Finish with a note on your optimism for the future of indie game development.
Just kidding, you’ve never played an indie game. Go with ARGs instead.