Review: Rise of the Video Game Zinesters

This is the sort of review to begin with a description of myself, the reader: I am a 24-32 year old white, heterosexual male who comes from a very liberal background (I live in the Portland, Oregon of the East, Western Massachusetts) and, while I write about video games, I do not make them. These are all very important conditions to understanding my reaction to Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Video Game Zinesters, a work of astounding ambition that wants to teach us that “anyone can make games.”

It is part academic history of video games from an outsider perspective. But it’s also a “how-to” guide to making games, an inspirational tool, an autobiography, and a lengthy rant about the state of the industry. Rise of the Video Game Zinesters succeeds at some of these points better than others; a passing familiarity with Anna Anthropy’s previous work, which I lacked, will no doubt inform you, before I even begin to tell you, which parts succeed and which points fall short.

Anthropy’s risen to some prominence lately by being a vocal backer of the Pirate Kart entered into the Independent Games Festival, as well as her recently released Dys4ia, a game about transgendered individuals starting hormone therapy. As a writer she gives the impression of someone passionately convinced that every single person on the planet can, and should, make a video game. Her enthusiasm is infectious. She makes you want to go out, download one of the many, many tools she lists for making games, and make your own games. Her descriptions of the process are immensely helpful, and her inspirational sixth chapter, “Making the Games”, convinces us that it’s something we could do.

It’s something she did, as well, and the autobiographical portions of the text tell a compelling story. Anthropy is at her best talking about herself. Her story is fascinating, well-told, and a nuanced portrayal of what the gaming industry is like. Her sections on her time at the SMU Guildhall in Texas are among the most riveting parts of the book.

Less riveting are the segments on the games industry as a whole. Anthropy takes her experiences with a game design program and extrapolates it to discussing game development studios. While we have some high profile examples of the “crunch” that she rails against, most notably the Team Bondi debacle, she isn’t in a position to comment well on the topic, and it shows. While she may have collected a ream of experiences from her interactions with game designers turned indie, we are not privy to this information. Your appreciation of her argument will be based on your biases: if you agree with her, you’ll be nodding and smiling. If you don’t, or if you have no strong opinion (like I do), then you’ll be scratching your head, wondering which of her ideas are founded in facts.

Her railing at the topics and tropes of video games works a modicrum better, but still suffers from overreaching. Her core argument—a lack of games with nonwhite, nonheterosexual, nonmale protagonists—is an enthusiastically presented, “No shit” argument, and her examples, offered by independent developers, are interesting.

Less convincing is her attempt at an academic history of game design, talking about how things got to be this way. The trouble comes because, while Anthropy is infectiously enthusiastic, her academic writing isn’t quite up to snuff. Her writing about games development is like creating a game for a Jam: it’s quick, it’s fast, and passion will overwhelm everything. Academic writing, meanwhile, is like developing a big-budget game: you need to build. Points need to be foundated on other work. You need to position your argument within the constructions of other writers.

Anthropy is a little too punk to do this convincingly. She’s trying to reinvent games’ history outside the realm of the mainstream, and while I appreciate her enthusiasm I struggle with even the most basic points. She makes claims, for instance, about how the earliest games were developed by people who love Dungeons and Dragons, how computers were only accessible to engineers. These are her most obvious points, but they’re still outside the realm of the given—if I hadn’t read about the design of early RPGs I’d have no idea about the Dungeons and Dragons connection. While the punk might scream, “This information is obvious! They were made by privileged white male nerds!”, it’s not obvious to anyone without a specific skill set. It references by stereotype, rather than with specifics.

So when she claims things like, “The game industry is broken,” or “Video games today come from and contain exactly one perspective,” her proponents are nodding along happily while those of us with a speck of doubt are shouting, “Where are the facts?” They don’t come, and we become increasingly skeptical of her arguments. We’d even buy small, statistically insignificant arguments: the top twenty-five games of 2005 feature producer credits exclusively given to men and feature white male protagonists. Done and done. We’d buy it. It would be more convincing than the founding in enthusiasm we receive.

That is Rise of the Video Game Zinesters principle problem: in a book trying to prove video games a legitimate artistic medium open to everyone, it itself lacks legitimacy. It takes punk a little too close to the heart: instead of building up on the works of others, it’s trying to burn everything down and strike out in a brand new direction. It feels like a stranger cross between an enthusiast giving the reader a pep talk and an orphaned academic text, unable to comfortably situate itself in the history of video games writing despite spending half its length on history.

That said, Rise of the Video Game Zinesters makes me want to make video games. The parts I’ve quibbled with are the appetizer, and its main course is unsurprisingly solid: Anthropy will tell you you can make games, and you will believe her. Mission accomplished.


  1. Ava Avane Dawn

    It is a thin line to walk when perhaps writing for a specific target audience and wish to be economical with space. And even if one writers to people that are already aware of certain things, and therefore need no references, it still might be a good idea to actually give references. Be in that mindset of punk-academics, rather than just punk.

    That said, I haven’t read the book and I am looking forward to it.

  2. Matt Dodd

    I haven’t read the book, or even heard of it. Heck, I hadn’t even heard of the author until Dys4ia was featured on Penny Arcade Report’s The Cut a little while ago.

    But I can definitely vouch that anyone can make a game. Assuming the book is advocating using various engines, I’ll go one farther, and say that anyone can make a game from scratch.

    A year and a half ago, I sat down and made a functional, if ugly, Tetris clone with AI from scratch in Action Script 3, in 2 weeks, with no previous Action Script experience and little previous programming experience (just some college classes years ago, of which only the basics were applicable). Fast forward, and after teaming up with a friend of mine for art, I’m pretty close to finishing a commercial project, again from scratch. All using free online tools also, and on a desktop that’s ancient, I should mention.

    Now, whether it’ll be at all successful (not exactly following the tried and true–it’s War (the card game) plus Poker and Rock Paper Scissors meets Street Fighter as historical figures debating one another, sort of (I have to think of a better way to describe it)) is another question, but anybody who wants to put in the time can make a game.

    • Matt Dodd

      I suppose I can’t edit my comments here. Anyway, I realized after posting that Dys4ia wasn’t featured on The Cut, they were the subject of an editorial. Ah well.

      • Perhaps you should register such that you can edit comments and also have an avatar instead of just a name! 😀

        • Matt Dodd

          I’m embarrassed to say this, but I can’t seem to figure out how to register. After scouring, I see where I could log in with an existing WordPress account, I think, but I don’t have one of those. Is one mandatory?

          • Dylan Holmes

            You’re right, Matt, it is a serious pain. I believe you do need a WordPress account; the good news is you can (usually) use these on any WordPress blog, which is quote a lot of gaming sites these days (Rock Paper Shotgun, for instance).

  3. Please inform me where I can buy hard copy of this book ? It is very interesting for me to try out perform some smal video games.

  4. Summers

    You keep on bringing up that it is not academic enough, but is it even trying to be? Maybe it is just suppose to be a punky emotional rant, which does have its own value. Not everything about video games has to be a stuffy high brow jargon filled formal academic essay. Besides, academic papers are mostly made by white heterosexual guys and while examining what they say has some value there is a saying “don’t destroy the masters house with the masters tools” for a reason.
    I would advise you to reread but this time just to try and focus on the emotions instead of looking for academic footnotes. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. 🙂

    • Dylan Holmes

      As someone who’s read the book, I agree that it has its own value. That said, citing your sources doesn’t mean you have to load your book with “stuffy high brow jargon.” It just means your claims are that much more secure. To be blunt, Anthropy makes some claims that are objectively wrong; citing your sources also forces the writer to do the research to back up their claims.

      There’s a value to the shot-across-the-bow approach, and I think Zinesters really contributes to the larger discussion about the future of video games even in its weaker moments. But it’s sort of like The People’s History of the United States; an excellent companion, but not very good as a stand-alone title; it’s just not complete enough. Perhaps, as you argue, it’s not intended to be; but nevertheless I would hesitate to recommend it to someone who was otherwise unfamiliar with the field.

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