Hyperrhiz 18: Reviews

Lowood and Guins (eds.), Debugging Game History

Sarah Evans

North Carolina State University


Lowood, H. & Guins, R. Debugging Game History: A Critical Lexicon. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016. Hardcover $49.00.| E-book $35.00.| 464 pp. | ISBN: 9780262034197

As the first title in MIT Press’s Game Histories series, Debugging Game History: A Critical Lexicon seeks to offer a comprehensive collection of critical gaming histories. In their introduction to the book, editors Lowood and Guins acknowledge the relative dearth of scholarship on gaming history. They also argue that extant work in this area often appears as reductive chronologies that focus on the rise (and pitfalls) of the gaming industry. As a response to the lack of diverse content in this area, the editors envision this collection as a starting point for scholars looking to learn more about critical aspects of game history via forty-nine short chapters identified by keywords.

Each chapter offers a snapshot of a particular history for a range of steadfast and fringe topics. This collection succeeds in balancing their mix of core concepts and topics such as narrative, mechanics, and character with less well-tread areas such as game audio, menus, or demos. Gaming scholars from nearly any background will find something in this book for their research, whether it be a new take on an established concept or foundational information about an understudied topic.

Contributors include a refreshing mix of well-known and rising scholars hailing from interdisciplinary backgrounds ranging from law to cultural studies and everything in-between. This volume provides scholars new to the field with an excellent works cited list from which they may seek out future research areas.

Although the chapters appear in alphabetical order by keyword, the book’s contents can be organized into three categories: core topics that even newbie gaming scholars are likely familiar with, new takes on core topics, and peripheral topics that deserve more consideration. Despite the editors’ vision for this book to sit at the bleeding edge of the research area, some chapters resemble typical histories more than others—such chapters include “Adventure” by Nick Montfort, “Character” by Katherine Isbister, and “Controller” by Steven E. Jones. Due to the variety of topics in this volume and the number of chapters, the more traditional histories ultimately help the book since they offer useful information and demonstratively offer a counter example to contrast the types of radically critical work that appear elsewhere in the volume. Since game history is relatively new as a research area, such perspectives are still required as foundational works. Other chapters such as “Machinima” by Jenna Ng, “Game Glitch” by Peter Krapp, and “Game Audio” by William Gibbons offer scholars invested in the artistic side of video games something to think about as they cover some foundational histories of relatively understudied topics.

Although this collection contains many excellent chapters, for succinctness I will describe in more detail several chapters whose merits are representative of the book’s merits overall. Some of the most enjoyable chapters explore taken-for-granted concepts associated with games such as the chapters “Fun” by David Thomas, “Classic Gaming” by Melanie Swalwell, “Platform” by Caetlin Benson-Allot, and “Toys” by Jon-Paul C. Dyson.

By looking at games journalism practices, Thomas’s chapter on “Fun” explores the incongruous relationship between games and fun. As a gut reaction, most people (including Thomas) would say a primary draw of gameplay is fun. However, the chapter recounts how games journalists often avoid this term since it is taken as a given that games are fun. Because of this assumption, the concept has been left invisible and therefore uninterrogated. It can be argued that perhaps not all, or even most, games are fun but rather something else, perhaps engaging, intense, or thought provoking: is fun too vague a word to account for all of this? Thomas’ chapter makes one rethink the commonplace nature of this concept as it relates to games.

Similar to Thomas’ “Fun” chapter, Dyson’s chapter, “Toys,” provides thought-provoking analysis on the tenuous status of video games as toys. Although many definitional arguments could be made, a more interesting perspective on the issue, and luckily the one Dyson takes, brings readers to focus on a brief history of toys in world culture and the mistaken assumption that link toys and children. This chapter leaves readers with more questions than answers, which given the nature of the collection, is a great takeaway.

“Classic Gaming” problematizes the stability of any monolithic representation of what classic gaming entails. Swalwell traces the multiple cultural, value-laden meanings of the term “classic” as it applies to games and reminds readers that: “an appreciation of sociocultural and geographic specificity is important to develop if other histories are to be told, for instance from the ‘periphery’ rather than the ‘center’” (46). This chapter also usefully considers the difference between classic and retro, with retro dwelling less as a value judgement and more of a term that implies nostalgia or anachronistic novelty. Therefore, this chapter succeeds in reminding researchers that every game history comes from a particular point of view with accompanying values and goals.

“Platform” by Benson-Allot stands as a very successful chapter in both pointing to lesser known histories in gaming while setting readers up to follow a new research trajectory inspired by the chapter’s contents. Benson-Allot traces platform’s etymological origin to its current association with computer and game platforms. Benson-Allot does an exceptional job of returning to the material roots that many critical inquiries into gaming issues don’t consider. For example, she cites the “conflict minerals” that were/are used to produce many of the physical electronic devices we enjoy today as an exemplar of why these histories need not remain invisible. Focusing on the materiality of platforms engenders “a way of thinking about the history of video games as political, cultural, and deeply material world history” (346), a line of thinking all games researchers can benefit from contemplating.

Other chapters like “Narrative” by Marie-Laure Ryan and “Kriegsspiel” by Matthew Kirschenbaum exemplify the volume’s vision to bring important both well and lesser known game history topics and concepts into focus.

Ryan’s chapter speaks to new and experienced scholars alike begins with a brief overview of the evolution of narrative in early games until now as they corresponded to graphics complexity and ultimately moves to describe a taxonomy of game narratives: the journey narrative, the mystery or epistemic narrative, the world design narrative, and emergent narrative. Each (not necessarily mutually exclusive) category works to describe the level of player input and interpretation in relation to the game’s designed-in narrative elements, with emergent narrative allowing for the most player input and journey the least. The chapter’s format and contents work well in this volume’s context because it looks to the past and forward to the future giving readers usable theory.

“Kriegsspiel” focuses on one of the modern world’s earliest instances of gaming’s close relationship with the military. Kriegsspiel, translated from German as wargame, may refer to many distinct war games but this chapter focuses on one specific iteration of Kriegsspiel that eventually became a training tool for members of the Prussian military. By tracing this game’s origin and describing the context in which the game evolved to become closer to the ways that real wars were strategized, Kirschenbaum establishes how deeply entrenched games and military histories are with each other. Although this volume may have benefitted from more chapters that specifically explore gaming’s ties to military, the next book in MIT’s Game Histories series, Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming edited by Pat Harrigan and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, focuses on military histories of games.

Anyone interested in gaming histories can get a more in depth read into most of the book’s topics by consulting other published materials using the keywords provided in this book, but this volume offers them all in one place, a definite advantage if you are looking for inspiration on what to research next or want insight into how a topic may need to be reconsidered. I found that the chapters that work best offer glimpses into the future, which supports the volume’s aim to be a starting point since it allows readers some insight into what might need to be studied more or from another perspective in the future.

By offering histories, genealogies, and origins of certain words or phrases that we take for granted in the field of game studies, Debugging Game History succeeds in providing a sampler of game history topics and perspectives. Although many scholars will be familiar with some of the terms that are investigated via this lexicographic work, they likely are unaware of the precursors and origins of these same vocabulary terms. Knowing and understanding the origins of keywords is an integral influence on how its current instantiation manifests, and as was established through this collection, there is always more than one history to be told.


DOI Permalink

https://doi.org/10.20415/hyp/018.r02