Understanding Video Games text-book
Review of James Newman’s Videogames

Date posted: May 11, 2006
Updated: Oct 24, 2006

Author: James Newman
Full Title: Videogames. Routledge Introductions to Media and Communications
Publisher: London and New York: Routlege 2004
List price: £9.995
Pages: 198
ISBN: 0-415-28192-X

A Review by Julian Kücklich

041528192X
In some respects, James Newman’s book Videogames is like a crate of wine – it is deceptively plain-looking, contains some drops of delicious writing, and is filled to the brim with packing material whose only purpose is to make the package seem larger. Therefore, the reader of this book is advised to not bother with the first four chapters, and start reading on page 71. The remaining 100 pages are well worth the price of this slim volume and without the aftertaste of wood shavings, they will be much more palatable as well.

While the book is clearly intended for an audience not familiar with the subject, and is therefore at liberty to gloss over some of the finer points of games criticism, this does not justify the somewhat superficial treatment of questions such as “Why study videogames?”, “What is a videogame?”, “How are videogames made?” and “Who plays videogames?” that Newman presents in the first four chapters. Statements such as: ”To the untrained eye, videogames are as incomprehensible as abstract art or experimental music” (2), are bound to alienate a novice reader in search of an accessible introduction to videogames.

Similarly, Newman’s assertion that “we will follow Frasca in using the term videogame in its broadest possible sense,” (27) that renders moot the whole previous chapter, is likely to frustrate a reader who has just struggled to ingest a wealth of taxonomies, classifications and terminology that now appear superfluous.

The following two chapters are no less full of redundant statements – “What is important to note […] is that, as a direct consequence of the investment required for the development of a contemporary videogame, the contemporary industry is markedly different from even ten years ago” (47) – and some factual errors: “They [Sony] have dubbed the [PlayStation 2’s] graphics chip the ‘Emotion Engine’” (64).

Readers familiar with Newman’s previous writings will be reassured by the noticeable shift in voice in chapter 5, which is dedicated to ‘videogame structure’. If there is something akin to a ‘new criticism’ movement in games studies, Newman is clearly one of its champions, and thus he triumphantly returns to his own turf in his discussion of levels, breaks and intermissions.

Especially interesting is his analysis of the ‘save-try-fail-restart cycle’, which is posited as one of the major sources of pleasure in digital games: “As the desire to explore […] alternative worlds constitutes a major motivation for play […], it follows that the save-try-fail-restart cycle is important in enabling rather than undermining the integrity of the videogame.” Newman is quite aware of the important questions this assessment raises in regard to the possibility for ‘serious’ games, as he points out “the save point’s tendency to trivialize player’s choices” (86).

Turning to analytical methodology in the study of videogames, Newman takes the ludology vs. narratology debate as his starting point. He is clearly at pains to reconcile the two schools, although his criticism of narratological approaches is reminiscent of Aarseth’s accusation of narratology’s ‘theoretical imperialism’: “The key difference seems to be that the player/practitioner’s experience of videogames demonstrates a sensitivity and awareness of the variegated structure of gaming that narrative theory can, at best, indicate, and, at worst, completely neglect in its impulse to reduce videogames to mere narrative structures” (92). However, he fails to address the theoretical problems resulting from an over-reliance on the player/practitioner perspective that is implicitly posited as an antidote.

Nevertheless, Newman’s analysis of the process of ‘reading’ a videogame ‘text’ is intelligent and multi-faceted. Striving to transcend the binary opposition of interactive and non-interactive, he presents a model of varying levels of engagement, and points out that “narrative sequences can necessitate their own level of interactivity” (97). He also challenges the rhetoric of immersion, asserting that “the desirability of ‘immersion’ and the experiential dissolution of mediation has become a taken-for-granted trope in writings on technology” (104).

His concluding statement – “All the possible elements that could be presented by the game could be seen to constitute its ‘story’, while ‘plot’ or causation is created through the performance and activity of the player in dialogue with the simulation” (105) – evokes the Bakhtinian model of dialogic interaction, which might well allow for an integration of narratological and ludological concepts.

After this tour de force through his area of expertise, Newman once again intrudes into foreign territory – space. Taking his cues from theorists such as De Certeau, Lev Manovich and Aarseth, he contrasts space and cyberspace, introduces spatial typologies and speculates on means to increase the legibility of space. Despite his efforts, however, space will remain an abstract concept for most readers of this chapter.

Only towards the end of the chapter does he start to raise questions that go beyond the simplistic treatment of space that is so common in games studies: “[I]t is [videogames’] deviation from the patterns of real space that enables them to function as games” (122). As so often in this book, the reader is left with the impression that Newman is unwilling or unable to elaborate on a point that would well warrant some further consideration.

However, the following chapter – ‘Videogame Players and Characters’ – makes up for the rather weak one that precedes it. Drawing on his previous work, particularly his article “In Search of the Videogame Player” (New Media & Society 4:3), Newman presents a succinct analysis of game characters, pointing out that they “are not distinguished or identified with in terms of appearance but rather […] in terms of gameplay-affecting characteristics” (129). This is supported by data about longitudinal changes in player preferences, which show a distinctive shift from representational to functional aspects.

This process of ‘demystification’, which according to Ted Friedman is characteristic of gameplay in general, challenges common assumptions about the relationship between player and gameworld. While Friedman has pointed out that in simulation games such as SimCity, “[p]layers see themselves as the whole screen” (137), this might have important implications on character-based games as well: “Perhaps the concentration on Mario […] masks the complexity of the player’s perspective. Perhaps the manner in which the Super Mario player learns to think is better conceived of as an irreducible complex of locations, scenario and types of action” (138).

This statement seems intended to ruffle the feathers of some of the more positivistic theorists in games studies, whose dominance is acknowledged but not necessarily accepted by Newman. This refreshing boldness also characterizes his assertion of the corporality of digital play as well as his attempt to problematize the “taken-for-granted visualism prevalent in the academic and developer communities” (141). It is this boldness that allows Newman to challenge the dogmas of games studies, arguing, for example, that it is an act of embodiment rather than identification that creates the bond between player and gameworld.

Similarly, in the second-to-last chapter, Newman challenges “the myth of the solitary gamer” (145), pointing out that while many games offer multi-player functionality, even single-player games are often played in teams. Furthermore, the social networks created during play extend beyond the act of playing itself, manifesting themselves as fan communities, clans, discussion groups, etc. According to Newman, one of the most important functions of these social networks is the sharing of game knowledge, whether it is in the living room, chat room or through walkthroughs and FAQs.

Thus, the boundary between media producers and consumers is blurred, and Newman gives a wealth of examples of consumer-created products such as fan fiction, digital artefacts and music. However, it seems peculiar that The Legend of Zelda: The Great Adventures is the only example of a mod in the whole book and Newman further marginalizes it by claiming that “the creation of an entire game built around, and extending, an extant franchise, is uncommon even in fandom” (161). Similarly, Newman either ignores or is oblivious of cheating, as this wide-spread practice is only mentioned in passing, despite Newman’s apparent interest in ‘resistant’ strategies of play.

The last chapter of the book promises a look into ‘future gaming’, but the trends that Newman lists – online, mobile and retro-gaming – seem quite well-established in gaming culture. For a book published in 2004, the statement that “[o]nline gaming […] has met with mixed fortunes and while popular among some PC users, attempts to bring similar connectivity to the mass-market via videogame consoles […] have been largely unsuccessful to date” (164) seems remarkably out of touch with reality, as does his naïve treatment of intellectual property rights in regard to ‘abandonware’.

His final conclusion that “the future of videogaming will not be distinguished by its uniformity, but by its diversity” (169) seems overly optimistic in the light of the increasing dependence on licensing and sequels that blights the digital game industry today.

Without doubt, Videogames contains some of the best writing on this subject currently available. Unfortunately, it also contains quite a significant amount of redundancies, sweeping generalizations and inconsistencies. But readers willing to dig through the wood shavings and Styrofoam pellets will most certainly be rewarded with some delicious gems of insight.

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