Video Games Around the World
Defining video games involves a bit of fuzzy science these days. Arcades of the 1980s or home consoles such as the Nintendo Wii and Sony PlayStation may immediately spring to mind, but games on smartphones, social networks, and (soon) a new wave of virtual reality devices are constantly evolving the medium and expanding the player population to just about everyone you know. There is no one element that makes a video game a video game, but Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani attempts to capture the medium’s essence: “Video games differ from other manufactured goods in that they are the rare product to simultaneously be electrical, mechanical, and works of art; they aggregate a range of ideas from the fields of engineering to literature to art to psychology, and they provide society with a necessary cultural tool of ‘play.’”
As the possibilities of those fields change and flourish, so grow video games, and so grow the world and economy around them. Video Games Around the World, a new collection of essays edited by Mark J. P. Wolf of Concordia University, arrives at an ideal time for surveying the remarkably dynamic—and, importantly, global—landscape of digital gaming.
The Internet has dominated video game discourse with so-called “new games journalism,” a term coined by writer Kieron Gillen (derived from Tom Wolfe’s essay collection The New Journalism) to describe the non-academic, very personal style of journalism where game-playing experiences are described and embraced almost entirely through the first person. Recent book-length examples include Extra Lives by Tom Bissell and Gamelife: A Memoir by Michael Clune. This kind of writing about video games is perfectly entertaining, often informative, and nostalgic, befitting a medium that spread across the monoculture of suburban American life over the past four decades.
As good as this new games journalism often is, its omnipresence tempts fatigue, with similar themes and memes appearing again and again, and all of this shared individualism ultimately raising the question: What about everyone and everywhere else? Although video games have managed to find a home most places on the planet, the English-speaking continents of the Internet inevitably remember and recount only their own limited experiences. Video Games Around the World provides a glimpse beyond this bubble by commissioning writers from Africa to Asia to South America to offer an objective retelling of their homeland’s gaming past. To provide a comprehensive picture, the usual suspects such as Japan and the United States are included as well, but the allure of this book is the experience of less-traveled digital landscapes.
Both the pitfalls and the value of this impersonal investigation are evident in the first chapter and its singular attempt to cover the entirety of Africa. Popular regional games whose names have never before been uttered by Mario Bros.-filled mouths here get a chance to at least present themselves as existing. It is difficult to understand a game purely in words—especially when those words are directed toward the volume’s more overarching archival aims—but it is almost enough to know that they are out there. The gaming community often complains that developers overtread the same battlegrounds—World War II being a particularly popular setting—yet there already exist virtual worlds with fresh environments, if not always fresh ideas. Do you want to relive the early Islamic conquests of North Africa or the 1814 Peruvian Rebellion in Cusco? These games have already been created on the periphery and could perhaps succeed in English-speaking markets with the slogan, “It’s still war, but different!”
Many games documented in the book do offer truly different experiences that extend beyond warfare, in part simply due to their having been created outside dominant markets. It may not always be possible to play them due to technical or bureaucratic barriers, but we’re nearing a world in which such unavailability is anachronistic. Although a lack of industry access is a factor in countries less versed in traditional consumer delivery methods, the PC and smartphone ecosystems are developing to a point where established games publishers hold significantly less influence. A game put on a smartphone app store by a guy in Vietnam can make tens of thousands of dollars per day, as with the Flappy Bird phenomenon, which is revolutionary regardless of your opinion on the merits of Flappy Bird. It remains to be seen whether a new dynasty of publishing conglomerates capitalizes on this situation, but for now these peripheral video game markets are a dynamic “Wild West” of game development and distribution.
That said, there are still significant gaps in the global accessibility of game development. This is a technical field that requires up-to-date training. Even when skilled outsiders do overcome the odds to create a deliverable product, marketing skills are required to navigate the “all-access” environment. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Wolf’s book is the compiling into a single source the various support pipelines available to aspiring game makers. Many countries subsidize game development, and many more feature trade organizations akin to medieval guilds and conferences purposed toward professional progress. The transitioning landscape makes this a confusing time, to be sure, but the book’s individual authors typically conclude their chapters optimistic of this “Gilded Age.”
The chapters of Video Games Around the World are arranged alphabetically, which is appropriate, benign, and concedes the fact that this is ultimately an encyclopedia in form and function. This leads to flow issues for those seeking to read the work cover to cover, but the arbitrariness serves complex issues such as piracy well. There are few moral conclusions offered (as perhaps none exist), so the piracy discussion takes a disjointed path through international history. Corporations will be happy with cases such as Mexico, where longtime video game fans fostered during eras of piracy are now likely to spend money on their favorite franchises via legitimate pathways. However, traditional pay structures are being undermined by online subscriptions and microtransactions in any case, so piracy itself is morphing into shapes this tome cannot and does not seek to predict.
The individual authors are both the strengths and weaknesses of this book. Excellent introductions by the editor and the above-quoted Iwatani aside, the writing consists of (mostly) local voices describing local game history. Yet how many different voices can a reader entertain before intrigue becomes exhaustion? All authors were given the same assignment by the editor (to describe the past, present, and future of video games in their countries, with added focus on local game companies and academic endeavors), and although there is some stylistic variety to the response, the book as a whole feels a bit rote. All of the authors are qualified and knowledgeable, and all certainly care about and are personally invested in the topic at hand, but writing skill is sometimes lacking or has been lost in translation.
The chapters with personality inevitably become the most memorable. Hungarian contributor Tamás Beregi provides a couple of interesting anecdotes, one involving Yegor Ligachev, an official of the former Soviet Union who requested underground Commodore 64 software for his grandson, and another describing a hungover gonzo journalist in a bomber jacket wandering the halls of Hungary’s Ministry of Education, demanding permission to publish a game magazine. Thomas Apperley does an excellent job giving life to the Venezuela chapter as well, but here we have the case of a non-native ethnographer telling the national tale. The book never promises exclusively local authors, and it would be naïve to study a single nonfiction essay with the expectation of understanding the entire history of a country’s gaming past, so credentials providing the author’s bona fides should satisfy. However, these credentials are aggregated in the back of the book rather than alongside the numerous other appendices contained within the chapters—a legitimate formatting choice, but one that makes the reader work harder to discover the qualifications of their local tour guides.
Is it wrong to ask for more personality in a work like this? The opposite complaint might be leveled against new games journalism and all its self-centered style, so studiously avoided by the experts of Video Games Around the World. The truth is, though, that traveling the world is tiring without a good companion. The breadth of coverage amassed by Wolf is impressive, but the format makes a murderers’ row of virtuoso writers unlikely. Too often the games are presented in facts and lists rather than an engaging discussion of the tangible, vibrant, important entertainment video games offer. The book accomplishes its mission of delivering history. However, in so doing, it surrenders readability for completionism, transmuting along the way into a repetitive experience akin to playing too many first-person shooters, and making it unlikely many readers will see the mission through.
Harry Brammer is a video game tester turned international public policy researcher, who currently works for a research ethics board in Milwaukee, WI.