‘Rise of the Videogame Zinesters’: Changing Games by Making Games

In her book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, game designer and critic Anna Anthropy argues in favor of a simple, yet radical change to the video game landscape. Her mission is refreshingly straightforward, as is her prose: “What I want from videogames is for creation to be open to everyone, not just to publishers and programmers. I want games to be personal and meaningful, not just pulp for an established audience. I want game creation to be decentralized. I want open access to the creative act for everyone. I want games as zines” (Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Seven Stories Press, 2012, p. 10). She admits that it’s a daunting order, but then spends the rest of the book enthusiastically and convincingly showing that such a change is well within our grasp. Her book, which could have easily been a simple polemic against entrenched publishers, instead becomes an optimistic guide for people of non-traditional backgrounds to take ownership of the medium.

It’s well known that the earliest video games came from elite universities where engineers had access to expensive machines. Making games requires specialized programming knowledge. Once games became consumer products, investors, and publishers were needed to manufacture and distribute the material necessary to play the games.

Anthropy frames these familiar facts in a way that highlights and explains the homogeneous mainstream game scene: relatively privileged white, male software engineers made games that reflected their interests and skills. Once games became a commercial business, they were marketed towards a similarly homogeneous audience. Success and the profits that came with it incentivized publishers to continue making the same kind of game, which in turn lead to the hiring of demographically similar designers. Seen this way, it’s no wonder that the mainstream video game scene is dominated by traditionally masculine hero stories, tales of swords and sorcery, and a glut of shooters.

The goal of the book is not to eradicate these types of games but to bring balance to the medium by integrating a host of diverse experiences. Anthropy’s message is one of pluralism: people of all backgrounds can and should make games so that the medium represents traditionally marginalized groups (whether this be gender, sexual orientation, race, age, class, etc.) Rather than dwell on scoring mechanics or epic plots, she devotes two full pages to game ideas that range from “your dog” to “jumping into the sky and never coming down” (p. 137-139).

Anthropy cautions us against looking for external validation in the search for artistic legitimacy, reminding us that “to concede the right to decide what is and is not art to any authority outside the artist… is a dangerous trap,” (p. 10). It’s the kind of trap that derails budding designers and keeps dominant interests ensconced in arbitrary positions of authority. “Creation is art,” Anthropy declares, and “it doesn’t need validation beyond that” (p. 10). Much of what is created will undoubtedly be niche or mediocre, but as sites like YouTube and Newgrounds demonstrate, people are very good at finding hidden gems. Thanks to the Internet and new game making tools, people don’t need permission or approval; they can start creating games immediately.

The book is an excellent roadmap in this regard. Anthropy explains the relative strenghts of tools like Gamemaker, Twine, and Inform 7, tools that don’t require programming knowledge to learn. She describes basic game design, explaining how interaction can be used to convey themes and messages. She boldly decries the Valve’s much-lauded Steam service and Apple’s App Store in favor of truly independent game distribution. In the spirit of traditional zines, she calls for “new, inventive ways to distribute games” (p. 161), which include hosting them on file sharing sites, spreading the word with social media, or handing out CDs at your local coffee shop.

The distribution and economic discussion is one of the few parts of the book that could have benefitted from a more detailed explanation. Making a game is difficult, time consuming, and hard to balance against all of life’s other demands. One of the reasons that people dream of working in the traditional game industry is the hope that they can spend their days doing what they love: making games. However, it’s hard to make a living when you’re working outside the publishing system, making little or no money from your endeavors. After the video game zinester revolution, are we all going to be working unfulfilling day jobs in order to pursue our true love of game making? Clearly, Anthropy has figured it out. She’s a successful designer that supports herself through her work. It’s an extremely personal subject, but I think hearing the specifics about business agreements, contracts, deadlines, and simply paying the bills as a zinester would have been helpful for the more practical minded reader.

Of course, it’s not Anthropy’s job to figure out how to reconcile the information revolution with the traditional economy. The Internet is radically changing the way that all creative endeavors work (just ask writers or photographers), so it’s no surprise that we’re still trying to find the right balance when it comes to games. Whatever the drawbacks may be, it’s hard to argue with the democratizing benefits. Acquiring the means to make and share games has never been more accessible. Today, we can create, distribute, and play games without first filtering them through cultural gatekeepers. Games that would have never existed years ago, those that with political, cultural, or simply personal topics and those made by traditionally underrepresented social groups, are freely available.

This sudden freedom, the world of possibility is almost overwhelming. Thankfully, Anna Anthropy offers a road map. She helps demystify game creation and provides a starting point for those just beginning their creative journeys. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is full of encouraging, practical advice but never gets bogged down in conventions or rules. Anthropy’s mission to inspire people to create games is always at the forefront; even her description in the “About the Author” section ends with “She wants you to stop reading this and GO MAKE A GAME.” After finishing the book, I couldn’t help but think that it sounded like a great idea.