THE VIDEO GAME THEORY READER Mark Wolf and Bernard Perron, eds. New York: Routledge, 2003, 331 pp.
The Video Game Theory Reader serves as an excellent introduction to video game studies, the history of video game studies, the current positions in the field, and the current problems with video game studies. The Reader manages to argue for and present several important points while avoiding the pitfalls of homogenizing new or existing media forms, and it manages to analyze video games in their own right. In the introduction, after briefly covering the history of video game studies, editor Mark Wolf states that:
The video game is clearly a unique medium and worthy of attention and forms of theory that can address it specifically, narrative elements and conventions taken from other media are still present to a great degree in many games, and a spectrum of positions exist combining ideas and terminology from various movements, even as the terms and definitions are not always agreed upon (11).
Following Wolfs comments, the book is a productive attempt to present the most popular of these current positions and to tentatively define video game theory within the contexts of existing scholarship, while also declaring some of video games' unique and significant attributes. The fourteen essays approach video games from various positions in order to clarify both the nature of the games as a medium as well as current theoretical arguments over them. While the majority of these articles are well written and fruitful, some showcase the current problems with video game studies.
The most useful chapters are those that attempt to establish a critical vocabulary for video game studies; those that study video games for how they operate and the effects of these operations; and those that focus on current critical discussions. Wolfs introduction and his essay "Abstraction in the Video Game" serve to establish some critical vocabulary while connecting his delimitation of terms to the emerging critical vocabulary of theorists such as Lev Manovich and Janet Murray. Likewise, Alison McMahan's "Immersion, Engagement, and Presence: A Method for Analyzing 3-D Video Games" argues fora method of analyzing video games using presence as part of an aesthetic criteria. McMahan's essay draws on the critical concepts of immersion and engagement, both of which, among video game scholars, are hotly debated in connection to interactivity. McMahan's essay also highlights the significance of interface and perspective as components of video game play and theory. Similar to McMahan's essay is Bob Rehak's "Playing at Being: Psychoanalysis and the Avatar," which addresses player perspective and player representation within the field of the game space. Other essays also address identity formation in massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs), embodied experiences with video games, cyborg relationships with technology and entertainment, and war games and visual rhetoric.
In order to investigate the nature of video games as a new medium, The Video Game Theory Reader addresses the complex production and interplay of game designers and theorists; the essay by Walter Holland, Henry Jenkins, and Kurt Squire specifically addresses the need to communicate between game designers and theorists and the need for game theorists to study game design to adequately approach game studies. The Video Game Theory Reader also includes two essays by noted game industry professionals: Warren Robbinett, the famous designer of Adventure, and Chris Crawford, game designer and theorist. Robbinett's foreword helps situate The Video Game Theory Reader as a bridge between designers and theorists, and helps to establish that video games and video game theory, though recent inventions, are not without important histories. This effort is furthered by Crawford's "Interactive Storytelling," which addresses the important arguments in the field about interactivity and narrative. Both Robbinett and Crawford illustrate the complexity of studying video games, with their swift evolution and their many components, from the interface and gamelike portions to the significance of narrative and player response.
Video game studies are currently focused on many of the issues addressed in the book, including the importance of narrative, which is directly addressed by Crawford and mentioned in other essays. Other issues include the importance of narrative versus game play, or the ludic elements of video games. The book presents an argument for ludology, Gonzalo Frasca's "Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology." Another side to this argument is addressed by Markku Eskelinen and Ragnhild Tronstad in "Video Games and Configurative Performances," which situates video games outside of traditional games and narratives in orderte position them as remediated games or ergodic art. This move follows Espen Aarseth's argument in Cybertext and in various articles on video gaming. The argument over the significance of game play versus narrative may seem unimportant to those unfamiliar with video game studies, but included in it is an important argument against allowing current theories to colonize video game studies without first addressing the significant aspects of video games in themselves.
While the book provides a well-rounded introduction to video game studies, it also introduces the prevalent problems in the field, one of the most notable being the fact that video game theory is often unoriginal, unexamined, and drawn from convenient, preexisting theories for other media. The most blatant example of this is Mia Consalvo's "hot Dates and FairyTaIe Romances: Studying Sexuality in Video Games." Consalvo attempts to discuss video games through the romantic relationships within game diegetics, but her investigation is based on inaccurate information. For instance, she refers to the Princess in the Mario games as Zelda, instead of the Mushroom Princess (172). And she refers to the homosexual aspects of Final Fantasy IX because the male characters have "long hair... [and] clothes with lace" (178). A traditional analysis might view these as homosexual characteristics, but any involved study would note that the Final Fantasy games are made in Japan and that they reflect a particular art style, where all men, including the heterosexual macho men, wear lace and have long, flowing hair. Consalvo also attempts to establish an erotic triangle using the characters in Final Fantasy IX, failing to recognize that the most significant relationships in the Final Fantasy series are between siblings rather than romantic partners. While these may seem minor, errors of this type occur too frequently in video game studies. They suggest that existing theories are being dropped onto video games, that the games themselves are not actually being studied.
The Reader also includes an "Appendix of Home Video Game Systems," which includes their release dates. This appendix is a valuable research resource and it proves the need for further works that study and archive important information about video games. Overall, The Video Game Theory Reader excels in not overreaching and not attempting to overdefine video games. While the essays certainly do establish critical terminology and the central arguments in the field, it is assumed throughout that video games are a new media and need to be studied as they are. This central theme avoids simply comparing video games to other media forms, as happens in the problematic essays in ScreenPlay, another recent book on video game studies, and in The Language of New Media, which seeks to situate video games within all new media instead of as theirown medium. The Video Game Theory Reader is a useful, necessary introduction to video game studies; yet, precisely because the field is emerging, and because this is one of first texts to study video games as their own medium, the book stumbles, setting flawed and ultimately failed arguments side by side with well-analyzed and -argued points.
University of Florida…