Posted by: Emilie | JUN-24-2019
Below is the (short!) statement I delivered at the King’s College London Interdisciplinary Approaches to Digital Play symposium, on June 21, 2019. I was responding to the question of life writing’s role in the study of videogames, in a Q&A panel context where each panellist would give a 5-minute presentation and then answer questions for the rest of the hour. The symposium brought together a wide variety of scholars and perspectives which led to the proceedings being a lot more interesting and wide-ranging than many other conferences I’ve been to! There were also many provocative questions about where the disciplinary boundaries of Game Studies were currently located, and if they were worth enforcing at all… Thank you to Rob Gallagher and Feng Zhu for inviting me to this very cool experiment.
I primarily come from art history in background and approach and wrote my dissertation on the exhibition history of videogames in art institutions. I’m interested in life writing and games not in the ways it can supplement or reiterate industry narratives but ways it can challenge it. The default history of videogames moves in “eras” loosely attached to console generations or technological developments putting the industry on a steady upward curve of improvement. And this means there is always a good reason to make the past obsolescent and prune away failures or digressions.
Unpopular games, weird hardware projects, unconventional uses are excluded from this history, this argument of what videogames are. And it’s interesting to me how game culture mythology appears around more significant disruptions and then becomes commonsensical, like that the Atari ET tie-in game was so bad all the returned copies had to be dumped in a landfill, and the home console market collapsed.
But did a “low quality” game really cause a crash? The findings within the infamous landfill included factory-sealed versions of many Atari games, so this story lets material problems of the market speculation and crunch the industry is built on off the hook.
To quote a blog post by game maker thecatamites: “if ET really did destroy the industry it would be the best videogame ever made.” Instead, it made room for Nintendo to move into the North American console market and implement stronger IP protection and closed platforms which critic Brendan Vance explicates as the real “Nintendo’s Castle.”
Many regard Nintendo with affectionate nostalgia shaping how we conceptualize videogames today, but meanwhile the idea of “quality” continues to police a specific form of videogame that is gendered, classed, racialized, and associated with a particular form of abled body, fortifying videogames against “intruders” in the form of piracy, mods, the high volume of steam games, experimental and artgame forms, etc. The stories that the game industry tells about itself, and which game writing, game studies and game exhibitions often implicitly buy into deliberately selects certain objects and narratives, marking others for exclusion.
Lost Histories Jam was a writing jam I organized as a part of an annual exercise to get more people writing about games in unusual ways. In this case the prompt was to address videogames that participants remembered but had never seen writing about.
Videogame life writing often consists of nostalgic articles, blog posts and books about already-revered consoles or IP. However, Brendan Keogh analyses Pilgrim in the Microworld, David Sudnow’s record of obsessively playing Breakout as a case study for what life writing could offer, reorienting game studies not around attempts at isolating a core “object” of the videogame, or universal qualities or categories but instead investigating videogames as experienced.
To demonstrate what this approach can lead to here are some examples of things made in the jam…