Lindsey Joyce and Víctor Navarro-Remesal (eds), Culture at Play: How Video Games Influence and Replicate Our World

Lindsey Joyce and Víctor Navarro-Remesal (eds), Culture at Play: How Video Games Influence and Replicate Our World (Leiden: Brill Rodopi, 2021) 142 pp. €63.00, $76.00 Pb. ISBN: 978-90-04-37338-9

Culture at Play is the latest book in Brill’s inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary series “At the Interface / Probing the Boundaries”. The wide-ranging chapters in this collection investigate the mutual and multidirectional relationships between video games and the social, ethical, cultural, and educational world around us.

To outline an argument of validity and importance in purely financial terms, in the UK in 2020, the recorded music industry was worth £1.1 billion, the film industry £2.84 billion, and the publishing industry £6.4 billion [1]. The video game industry was worth £7 billion [2]. In addition to expected year-on-year growth, the video game industry showed its economic resilience and social importance as the effects of COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing, which have done significant damage to the music and film industries in particular, only further increased demand and sales. New and break-through titles like Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Among Us, along with many others, offered entertainment and escape, while becoming part of virtual water-cooler conversations across all communication channels. All of this is to say that, although the 21st century edges nearer to its midpoint than its start, it still feels as if the case needs to be made for video games being discussed as cultural objects that deserve and reward enquiry, research, and evaluation. Super Mario Bros is 36 years old—twice the age of most students starting at university this year—but this game, along with the ubiquitous cultural impact and influence Nintendo, PlayStation, Xbox, and PC gaming have had over the last forty years, will not feature on university Humanities syllabuses prominently enough to reflect the status of video games as one of, if not the, most important contemporary cultural sources. If Roland Barthes was alive today, he would be writing about video games rather than soap-powder and wrestling.

There are, of course, a good number of degrees along the lines of “Game Design and Development”, and no doubt historical and contemporary video game cultures are discussed, but the end goal for these courses is a production-line of qualified developers aiming for employment at an AAA studio. This is not to disparage these courses in any way, but rather to suggest that further critical understanding and appraisal of the tech-text are also needed, based not on vocational outcomes but on cultural significance, in the way that not all literature degrees teach creative writing and not all film studies courses address camera operating and editing suite techniques. This is where the value of books such as Culture at Play can be found. Its 13 chapters are written by a broad mix of contributors, from PhD students to professors, with backgrounds ranging from industry experience and Game Studies specialism to cultural criticism and architectural history. These different viewpoints offer a welcome breadth to the subject of how video games can influence and replicate the world, and the book is divided into four thematic sections: “Part 1 – Players: Types and Identities”, “Part 2 – The Human/Machine: Agents, Ethics, and Affect”, “Part 3 – Compassion, Recognition, and the Interpersonal”, and “Part 4 – Learning through Play”.

Part 1 investigates the identificatory processes players go through in their choice of games and avatars, with a predominant focus on gender and sexuality. Freer and Skinner’s essay on the Robot Unicorn Attack franchise, “Is Your Masculinity Threatened?”, persuasively argues that the “engaged irony” (cultural anthropologist Esther Newton’s term for when real affection accompanies amused awareness of incongruity) of its players successfully creates an inclusive experience and a safe space to challenge gender binaries. The other three essays in this section present primary research into their topics. “We Are Smash Bros” by McAvoy-James and Fletcher considers the relative popularity between Japan, the US, and Europe of playing as Sonic the Hedgehog in the Super Smash Bros series. In light of this book’s title, McAvoy-James and Fletcher could investigate the cross-cultural reasons for these different perceptions of the Sega mascot in more depth, and as the only essay in this section that makes no mention of gender, their research into the Bros seems a little for the bros. But they address well the specifics of the game’s mechanisms and the particular—perhaps unique—way that the functions and features of video games can be altered after general release through online updates in response to customer/fan feedback. Essays by Tymińska and Healey consider, from opposite angles, the porous boundaries between games and life in relation to discrimination. Tymińska’s “Empowering Avatars” researches the relationship between real-world social exclusion and in-game avatar customisation, suggesting that a strong and empowering effect can be had on a person’s psychological processes following positive identification with a game’s avatar, while “Without so Much as a Word” by Healey offers an interesting analysis of the use of gestures and silence to produce and resist hegemonic masculinity and homophobic language between players of Call of Duty. Tymińska acknowledges that the study is ongoing and further data is needed for deeper insight, and Healey’s conclusion left me wanting more, but this is a reflection of the wider interests stimulated by their valuable work.

Part 2 discusses video games with regard to tempo-spatiality, ethics, and affect theory. Separately, Lippitz, in “Killswitch Engage”, and Goritschnig, in “Pushing the Lever”, tackle the moral dimensions of Life is Strange and provide thoughtful interpretations of how the game-play mechanics provoke and demand ethical responses. For Goritschnig, the core of the game concerns utilitarianism and the trolley problem, and he argues it enforces, “through a continuum of shame and guilt”, a correct answer that one should die, not the many. The conclusion neatly handles the fact that this undercuts the freedom of choice the dilemma requires for its potency and how Life is Strange may leave players facing a different choice of their own: betrayal at the removal of autonomy or relief from the burden of choosing. Lippitz examines the ethics of the game from the perspective of its effectiveness at creating emotional connections between the player and non-player characters (NPCs). This essay offers an interesting comparison with Goritschnig’s as it makes a good case for how the elasticity of design offers a preferable middle ground, from a ludological point of view, between nil and total player agency. Lippitz argues that a sandpit approach of total freedom offers the player insufficient feedback for their choices, while a rigid system of unalterable interactions and outcomes leaves the higher functions of players unengaged. For Lippitz, the elastic approach of Life is Strange combines with the emotional pull of the NPCs to create an “ethically relevant” game. How this squares with Goritschnig’s analysis of the game could be considered through the latter’s discussion of Hofer’s concept of “secondary morality”, which proposes that, although it may be similar to their primary values, a person’s moral code when playing a video game must be considered as a separate entity. This is the kind of thought-provoking enquiry that makes Culture at Play a rich resource for students and scholars of video games and culture.

Joyce’s “Agents in Space and Time” applies narratological theories to video games to create a convincing argument that the player performs as both narrator and character in interactive narrative games. The description of how these dual functions relate to space and time in games such as The Banner Saga and Kentucky Route Zero, and in comparison with traditional text-based narratives, provides the reader with a welcome understanding of the way video games adopt and adapt literary strategies to the specific characteristics of their form. Joyce notes how the character-customisation screens of these games pause the action, allowing the character/narrator-player to operate “outside story space and time” and consider at leisure their role as narrator. It would have been interesting to compare this with the narratological effects of a game like ZombiU, in which looking through the menu—when changing weapons, for example—has to be carried out in story space and time, meaning the narrative cannot be stopped and leaving the player vulnerable to attack. If you were being generous, you could point to the two pages of the essay that are entirely repeated across pp. 55-58 as being a postmodern textual performance of the ability of video games to rewind and replay through space and time, but in reality, this is the just the most noticeable example of the errant proofing that lets down the polish of the book on a number of occasions. But this is not Joyce’s fault, and it is testament to her argument that stands up well to an immediate second reading.

Schalleger’s essay, “Light My (Camp-)Fire”, takes a similarly Humanities-orientated view, claiming a videogame such as Firewatch constitutes “a transhuman form of affective labour” as its appeal stems from the emotional connection to the absent-present NPCs, while deconstructing freedom of choice and subverting the notion of a player being in control of events. The idea that the empowered subject of traditional game design reflects a “modernist worldview” seems questionable in light of modernism’s (certainly the high modernism of Eliot, Woolf, and Joyce) portrayal of the individual as fractured, multiple, and subject to chaotic and controlling forces, and the application of affect theory on the whole might be better considered in terms of post-postmodern New Sincerity. But this is only a minor strand, and the essay ends by discussing how the affective nature of the game and the inability to control others makes for an emotionally compelling experience that causes the player to consider their “primary reality”.

The essays in the final sections further discuss video games and interpersonal relationships, their capacity to evoke compassion and recognition, and the educational benefits of play, if games are designed correctly. The book ends with the thought-provoking essay “You Can Deny Seriousness, but You Can’t Deny Play” by Morini. It discusses the “Ludic Century” and how the gamification of late-stage capitalism threatens to reduce us to passive contributors to our own total surveillance, constrained by the new rules of the market, with productivity and data as our only means to score points. For Morini, it is vital we resist and remain conscious that there are always “other games that can be played. Even if it requires breaking the rules.” With its breadth of topics, Culture at Play offers a number of ways to consider the roles, effects, and possibilities of video games, and it makes a welcome addition to the cultural study of this pervasive medium.

Adrian Osbourne, Swansea University