Reading notes: The Rise of Videogame Zinesters

I just finished reading Anna Anthropy‘s most recent book on the topic of DIY games. Here is the full reference, part of my short yet growing bibliography on the subject:

Anthropy, A. (2012). Rise of the videogame zinesters : How freaks, normals, amateurs, artists, dreamers, dropouts, queers, housewives, and people like you are taking back an art form (Seven Stories Press 1st ed.). New York: Seven Stories Press.

As far as essays go, this reads like a novel. I could hardly put it down, Anna frames making games as something anyone can (and should) do, so one feels like they are the protagonist in this story. The text as a slight self-help or therapeutic slant, but I quickly got over that (it is, after all, part of the DIY you-can-do-it-too message).

Here are some of the things that stuck as really interesting:

In writing about the problem with videogames in the first chapter, Anna asks a very astute question: “what are games good for” and posits that “non-professionals” should think about games (p. 20):

because different forms are suited to different kinds of expression, and some are more effective at communicating in certain ways than others. Broadly, films and photographs are best sited for communicating action and physical detail. Novels are best suited for communicating internal monologue and ambiguity.
What are games best suited for? Since games are composed of rules, they’re uniquely suited to exploring systems and dynamics. Games are especially good at communicating relationships; digital games are most immediately about the direct relationship between the player’s actions or choices and their consequences. Games are a kind of theatre in which the audience is an actor and takers on a role – and experiences the circumstances and consequences of that role. It’s hard to imagine a more effective way to characterize someone than to allow a player to experience life as that person (p.20)

In chapter 3 further examining what are games good for, Anna establishes that “a game is an experience created by rules” (emphasis in her text). Using the games of Tag, Tetris and chess (european and viking), Anna highlights these characteristics of games, such as creating “house rules” (on-the-fly variations to a game).

In digital games, the computer keeps the rules. The computer tracks all the numbers. Digital Games therefore have much greater control over what information the players have access to, making video games capable of much greater ambiguity than board or card games. (p. 52)

This ambiguity allows for more complexity and assists in “telling stories” (id). In fact,

the format of the videogame-which lets rules be changed and introduces over the course of the experience, and which lets the author hide the causes for events and show only the effects-lends itself more easily to an overt, sustained narrative than any physical game format.
Because the rules are kept by the machine, the rules in digital games tend to be more numerous and more subtle. (p.52)
[…]
Through playing the game, the player develops a sense of the limits and subtleties of these hidden rules. This interaction between the player and the game, dependent on the game’s hiding information, gives digital games their special capacity for subtlety and nuance. (p.53)

I like the discussion surrounding folk games (like Tag), commercial games (Anna refers mostly to high-budget commercial games, such as first-person shooter games or elaborate adventure games, as the archetype of this category), role-playing games (such as in-person dungeons and dragons) and “zine” games. But you have to wait until chapter 5 (“the new videogame”) for Anna to get to talk directly about the role of the author of a game (at p. 102).

For example, in commercial games, the producer has the most impact on the narrative structure of a game, but they are the most removed from the actual creation of it as huge teams are deployed in their creation. In folk games, the author is all but forgotten, as the game has entered into our common cultural experience. Rarely are authors of games known or remembered for their contribution.

Chapter 7 (“by your bootstraps”) gets into suggested steps involved in designing a game:

Task #1: Choose a tool (p.144)
Task #2: Introduce a Character (p. 145) [the protagonist or the player]
Task #3: Teach your Character to do something (p. 146) [using the simple “subject” (player) “verb” (action) “object” (thing) structure, such as “Mario jumps over a flame-throwing flower”]
Task #4: Introduce a second Character (p. 147) which could help or hinder the player…
Task #5: Make some Noise (p. 149) [add sound effects which could assist the player understand the consequences of their actions and help narrating the story]
Task #6: Round out the player’s vocabulary (p. 150) [add more verbs that the player can use: run, throw, sink…]
Task #7: Design a level (p. 151) “I am using level to mean the sequence of events the player has to negotiate using her vocabulary of verbs”
Task #8: Finish the story (p. 154) [end, start, screens…]
Task #9: Have someone play it, then change it (p. 156)
Task #10: Distribute your game
Task #11: Make another game [better, different, experiment]

I already covered some tools (also here, in my French blog) one could use to create videogames, but Anna adds a few others (at p. 163, appendix A):
Kilk & Play the Games Factory from ClickTeam
Gamemaker
Scratch
Twine
Inform 7
Wariorware D.I.Y. (for Nintendo DS)
Knytt Stories (level maker)
ZZT (DOS based ASCII game maker).

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