August 28, 2015 6:00 AM | Joel Couture
The State of Play can be a bit of an odd, meandering book at first glance. Compiling sixteen different essays covering a range of topics from a variety of writers and developers, it wanders in many different directions. From delving into the relationships and traditions we build into games, why so many games use violence as a mechanic, or how Twine has opened development to an entirely new set of developers, it explores many topics in brief. It can feel a little bit all over the place in its mission to show that games are more than just toys we use to blow off steam, bouncing from topic to topic. What it does, and does exceptionally well, though, is show that video games mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It shows that there is so much depth to the hobby that many of us love, and it is astounding to see so many people see so many different things when they pick up their controllers.
Games mean different things to many of us - things born of our place in the world. For someone of the Arab world, what does it feel like to shoot at stereotypical depictions of your people while playing Call of Duty? What's it like to see the Cold War fears you grew up with turned into the background fiction of a game? To tell your own unique story that you thought no one else would understand, only to meet others who share in your pain ? To wonder what your online teammates would think of you if they found out who you really were? How do the games you play make you feel, and what is it about you as an individual that makes you feel that way? It's interesting to see so many different vantage points looking at so many different games, all finding meaning based on that intersection between our games and the culture, beliefs, and lifestyles we bring to them.
The State of Play also speaks to those curious about the development of games. An extensive chapter on Dust (The Counter Strike Map) delves into the thoughts and planning Johnston put into creating this iconic map. Speaking of city and building design as well as the specific needs of the game's players, it's an intriguing look at how the virtual worlds we inhabit are brought to life. anthropy explains the unique appeal of Twine for those who want to get into games but lack coding expertise, telling a story that is touching, personal, and provides hope to budding developers. Quinn's chapter on the development on Depression Quest gives another look at how a difficult concept can become something so much more through the interactivity of games. Games have begun to touch on new concepts, ideas, and lifestyles, and with all of these, games are growing richer.
With these changes have come movements to push back, believing that the games we play should stay as toys, and toys meant only for a select few. There is a paranoia in the gaming landscape, one that is suspect of gaming's broadening appeal. Golding's chapter on the term 'Gamer', with its loaded meaning and history in the halls of video game PR, looks at where the name comes from and why certain people feel it needs defending or destroying. Cross and Sarkeesian team up to speak of the treatment of women online, and the small and major ways in which they're bullied by the people who play games. Both put to light some uncomfortable aspects of our shared hobby, showing that not every thought drawn from it is positive and helpful.
As some seek to alienate and segregate with their games, others see them in ways that help draw others together. Quinn's chapter speaks to the people who've been helped by her game, even at great personal cost to herself. anthropy's work also speaks to this, explaining how Twine, in its simplicity, gives a voice to many who feel they've been silenced in other aspects of their lives. Kopas' chapter on sexuality in games draws on that same idea, speaking to how games can speak to intimacy just as easily as they can to violence. They can be about the things that bring us together rather than separating us into heroes and enemies.
Much of this has come from shedding beliefs of what games can and should be about, steering away from the focus on conflict that has held in its grip for decades. Many of the writers speculate on how we reached this point, such as Ellison and Keogh's chapter on why violence has become the default way to communicate in games. Their chapter admits they recognize the appeal of a well-placed headshot, but seeks to explore why that is. Kopas looks into the same by inspecting gaming's origins in the halls of universities, telling the same Dungeons & Dragons games in digital formats. Why have our games always required win/loss requirements, and how has it been freeing over the past few years to finally step away from these motivations?
The State of Play still has even more interesting concepts ideas. The abundance of religious symbolism and history in JRPGs is given a wonderful look in Wikander's chapter on the subject, answering some questions on why we saw such a rise in the subject matter in the 90's. Bogost writes a worrying account of Flappy Bird, one that left me wondering why I bother playing games at all. Alexander's account of growing up with text adventures reminded me of the kind of wonder games filled me with when I first found them - that feeling of escaping the humdrum real world for one where I felt more competent and powerful.
There is a powerful sense of the back and forth between games and those who play them as you read the book. You see what our interactions bring to games in Shanahan's chapter on Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, seeing how the players themselves bring honor, or a lack thereof, to a game with no mandatory framework for it. Our own thoughts infuse the games we play, and while we may be nothing but avatars in virtual worlds, we bring our lives in with us. As much as I played games to escape my life, it still followed me inside. As much as these worlds were false, pieces of them followed me back out when I came back to the real world.
The State of Play feels like it flails in places, wandering as if it doesn't know what it wants to do. Many of its topics beg to be longer, but as hints of the interesting things contained in games, it's a great leaping-off point. As is, the book succeeds in showing the reader that there is a deep, vast world of thought going into the games we play. These games have inspired thinking, have brought people closer together, and provide a means of touching lives like no other medium. They are not without their problems, but they are growing and becoming something so much more than the toys I used to treat them like. Touching, approachable, scathing, and hopeful, The State of Play is a delightful view of how games and people intertwine, and how, with some work, we're each improving the other.
The State of Play will be available on October 20, 2015 for $17.95 from Seven Stories Press. For more information on the publisher, you can head to their website or follow them on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.