Reading Play

Whether or not you consider yourself a gamer, video games have probably found their way into your life. Maybe you spend hours lining up gemstones, hypnotized on your daily commute. Or perhaps you roam the streets, scanning the landscape with your phone and searching for pocket-sized monsters; or live a second life, work a second job, and loyally tend your Facebook farm. Players love these games, but critics have struggled with how best to examine them, partially because video games defy categorization. They often have filmic elements such as mise en scene, a soundtrack, and a classic narrative arc. But the comparison to movies only goes so far: If video games tell stories, they do so in unique ways. They are stories that are also playgrounds; they can be mindless distractions or allow players to actively create their own myths.

Since video games have only been around for about forty years, it’s not surprising that a significant body of criticism has yet to emerge. But that is beginning to change. Much of the best writing is (unsurprisingly) online: Critical Distance, which started in 2009, is an aggregating site with weekly round-ups of video-game writing from across the web, organized by theme; Kill Screen, with its strong focus on indie-gaming, has both a print magazine and website. And NPR recently launched a longform series, “Reading the Game,” that takes a literary approach, examining characters, narrative arcs, and dialogue. Books on the subject are not scarce, but only a few examine video games in interesting ways. Below is a list of some left-of-center approaches, an oddball assortment that suggests novel ways to critically engage with this hard-to-define medium.

The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games by Jesper Juul

In The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam makes an argument for failing as a means of attaining queer, or alternative, forms of knowledge. “Under certain circumstances,” he writes, “failing . . . may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.” Jesper Juul posits a similar argument in his essay on the painful side of video games. Failure is embedded in all gaming experience; we die and we die again. This repetition of failure brings about frustration, aggression, even despair. But such self-inflicted pain, as Juul explains, is central to why players keep playing. Besides the satisfaction of eventual success, our failures create a cathartic drama. The Art of Failure, the first book in MIT Press’ “Playful Thinking” series, makes a case for why such masochism is meaningful to us, understanding failure in video games as akin to classical tragedy.

Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack by Andrew Schartmann

A whole book dedicated to a single video game is rare, so Andrew Schartmann’s slim book, which is devoted to just the theme song of one game, is an enjoyable anomaly. Part of Bloomsbury’s “33 1/3” series offering short books on individual albums, Schartmann’s essay dissects Koji Kondo’s famously catchy score, revealing its complexity as both a classical composition and a feat of coding. The old Nintendo console could only handle a limited number of musical bars, with only a few tonal variations. Kondo programmed the arrangements to repeat in random sequence so the music wouldn’t become overly predictable. He also took cues from Mario’s movement—the music’s bouncy syncopation mimics the mina character’s frenetically random jumps. Schartmann’s close reading could easily have become tedious. But it never lags, as he shows how music has played an essential role in video games’ artistry right from the beginning.

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner

Kushner’s book embeds the history of video games in a character-driven story. His densely reported account of how two nerdy Dungeons and Dragons fans created two of the most successful games of their time—Doom and Quake—reads like a heist story fueled by excess and betrayal. (It was the ’80s after all.) Kushner’s storytelling moves rapidly, without skimming over the minor details that make his two lead characters so tragically sympathetic. His epic saga plays out in computer labs and basements as well as in huge competitive arenas. Taking video-game history out of the digital realm makes for a richer drama, as the world onscreen can sometimes stagnate when translated onto the page.

Death by Video Game: Danger, Pleasure, and Obsession on the Virtual Frontline by Simon Parkin

Here, Parkin examines the irrational devotion of people who have died while gaming. Beginning with a 2012 headline—the story of a twenty-three-year-old man who died after playing League of Legends for almost twenty-four hours straight without eating—Parkin charts the extremes of gaming compulsion. The author avoids rushing to conclusions: He doesn’t wring his hands with moralistic doubt or brush these cases off as bizarre rarities. Instead, he uses this macabre phenomenon as a way of understanding all levels of obsession.

How to Talk About Videogames by Ian Bogost

If there was any fear that a book with such a declarative title might be didactic, fear not. Bogost suggests that a video-game critic should be, on one hand, like a “film critic,” and on the other, “like a toaster critic.” With video games somewhere between art and appliance, Bogost’s approach lends his critiques a welcome flexibility. In this collection of essays, Bogost examines with equal attention the critical darling Journey, the blockbuster franchise Mario Kart, and the bona fide “stupid game” Flappy Bird. In each case, Bogost suggests that the critical eye should refocus, seeing games through an unconventional—and not always serious—lens.

"The Minecraft Generation" by Clive Thompson

Thompson’s essay from the New York Times Magazine unpacks Minecraft, the unclassifiable behemoth that is at once a game, an educational tool, and a social network—whatever you want it to be. Younger players who are learning just how much agency they have over their digital worlds treat Minecraft like an infinite toy-box, only limited by their imagination and tech know-how. By accepting that Minecraft is no ordinary game, and therefore needs an unorthodox analysis, Thompson can move from Walter Benjamin, to the history of block-building toys, to STEM teaching. His diversions are all in service of understanding the full complexity of the game, both technically and socially, when at first glance it seems like child’s play.

Rennie McDougall is a writer in New York. His work has previously appeared in Culturebot and Real Time magazine. He has also worked as a contemporary dancer in New York and Melbourne.