Rise of the Videogame Zinesters Review: A How-to Book on Taking Back an Art Form

Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is the declaration of an independent game maker that we, the common people, can take back game creation from the overworked developers and overpaid publishers. Anna Anthropy has a plan, and that plan is to change the world and make it so that anyone can create a video game. Much like the printing press changed the world of reading and writing, there are tools today that will change video game design and bring about a renaissance of creation and distribution.

Author: Anna Anthropy
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
Release Date: March 20, 2012

Anthropy has a great argument against the mainstream video game development system. She describes the way the developers and publishers operate – how schools that train video game designers do so with long hours of hard work in mind. They immediately put their students through the grinder, preparing them for the infamous “crunch time” that is so prevalent in the industry. Anthropy says that it doesn’t need to be like this – that the very fact that people allow themselves to be mistreated in this way is what propagates this kind of behavior.

The main problem, as she sees it, is that the tools needed to make mainstream video games are very specific. Knowing code is imperative if you want to build games, but she learned at a young age that coding was not for her. Not one to get discouraged, she tried to find alternate ways to make video games. But her main question was: what can be done to break out of these conventions?

Video games – the huge, triple-A hits, anyway – are made with males in mind. Those males grow up, go to school for game development, and make even more games geared towards a niche group. As a result, according to Anthropy, the games in the spotlight tend to not evolve in any way. Sure, they look nicer, hit detection and collision get better, multiplayer is improved, but all in all, they’re still the same games being reskinned over and over. She wants to break free of this and make it so that not only are video games made for different types of people – they’re made by different types of people, under better conditions.

How does she propose to do this? She describes, in detail, the many tools that can be used, where to find them, how to get them, and where to get help if you need it. (All of these are listed, with details, in Appendix A. Even if you have no interest in this book, it’s worth the money just for this section if what you want to do is make video games.) She also goes into detail about her own experiences – what drew her to games, what drove her to make games, and how she got started. It’s been a long and hard road for her, but she’s doing what she loves, and that’s commendable.

One thing that confused me about the book, though, is that her argument is against the exclusion of people from video game playing and development. So I was surprised to learn that what ends up happening is the development of a community of independently made games, mostly that are played by other independent game makers. As she says on page 130,

“When a small and isolated community consolidates around a game-making tool, creators start to create more and more for each other (because who else is playing?). Their target audience becomes other creators who possess a detailed mechanical understanding of the game they’re working with. As a results of authors creating for one another (and challenging one another), their creations become harder and require players to have more mechanical knowledge in order to play a game at all, until most experiences are too hard for most players.”

I don’t understand how creating another group of people who make games that exclude other people fixes any of the problems she’s mentioned throughout the book. If anything, it seems like this just makes things worse – creating games that you can play for free that you don’t even want to play. While I understand that this is the cream of the crop of independently made free-to-play games, it seems strange that this is where such an open-source idea has lead to (though, logically, it does seem perfectly natural).

This exclusionary attitude seems to permeate the book. Instead of discussing the idea of creating a world in which anyone can make and play games, she seems focused on just talking about her own group of people she knows making and playing games, and is very dismissive – and even derisive – against the mainstream video game industry and the people who play those games. I found the book to be almost offensive at times, because I feel like I don’t fit the target audience of triple-A games – I’m a 33-year-old woman – yet I love many of those games, and also enjoy games that aren’t focused on shooting things. She ignores much that I thought would be paramount to her discussion: the rise of Rooster Teeth with Red vs Blue in her section about Machinima (they seem like the obvious choice, even if they are a company mostly comprised of men), the story of thatgamecompany and their amazing game, Journey, or the interesting deviation from convention that is Sleep Is Death. Her argument doesn’t make room for the fact that no audience is more important than another, and that it seems that her goal is to show that the independents are superior, which creates exclusion, isolation, and alienation.

In spite of this, I did enjoy the book. I appreciate Anthropy’s unique perspective on the video game industry, and I applaud her success in getting this book out. This is a great resource for people who want to get into video game creation without getting into the actual video game industry or getting a degree in game development. She has a vibrant enthusiasm that goes beyond encouragement. In the chapter in which she discusses the creation of her game Calamity Annie, she talks about her relationship with her girlfriend:

”But the game is also about love, and how passion finds love… I’m writing this, three years later, from the apartment where I live with [my girlfriend] in California. The theme of Calamity Annie is that being driven will drive you to love, and that passionate people are attracted to passion.”

Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is a book about passion. Passion to play, create, and love video games. Passion to get involved with the games you love and make games for other people to love. For anyone who wants to make video games but doesn’t know how, or who wants to know more about the underground video game development world, this is a book you’ll want to read.

Review Disclosure: A review copy of Rise of the Videogame Zinesters was provided by Seven Stories Press for the purposes of this review.

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Nicole Kline is Warp Zoned's Senior Editor. She first began preparing for the job by climbing a milk crate to play Centipede in an arcade. You can find her on PSN under the name toitle or you can email her at nicole AT warpzoned DOT com.

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