Understanding Video Games text-book
Review of Kline et al’s Digital Play

Date posted: May 11, 2006
Updated: Jan 3, 2007

Reviewed by Julian K�cklich
Review published: January 28th, 2004

Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter: Digital Play. The Interaction of Technology, Culture and Marketing. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press 2003. 368 pp. 24.95 USD. ISBN 0-7735-2591-2

0773525912

Writing about the Web in 1996, science-fiction author William Gibson predicted that it would “evolve into something considerably less random, and less fun” [1]. The same seems to be true for digital games. As the industry tries to minimize the risks involved in game development, it churns out sequel after sequel and licenses everything that appeals to the masses. While this is hailed by some as the way to a broader audience for videogames, and thus more diversity and innovation, others take a more pessimistic view. From their perspective, the games industry is caught up in a downward spiral that leads to a prevalence of violence over variety, spectacle over depth and commodification over play.

This perspective may be deeply offensive to representatives of the industry, as well as critics and academics trying to justify their interest in digital games, but it is hard to deny the kernel of truth in the statement that “[g]aming choice usually remains a matter of tactical decisions executed within predefined scenarios whose strategic parameters are preordained by the designers.” This quote is taken from the introduction of Kline et al.’s book Digital Play, in which the authors study the interaction of the technology, culture and marketing of digital games. The question of choice is thus not limited to the decisions players are offered within games, but pertains to decisions about games as well.

In order to look at these larger contexts in which digital play takes place, Kline et al. build a theoretical model that consists of three ‘circuits’ (the circuits of technology, culture and marketing) embedded within the all-encompassing circuit of capital. Taking their cues from theorists such as Harold Innis, Raymond Williams and Martyn Lee, they regard games as products that are not primarily shaped by their designers, but increasingly by marketing departments and technocrats. Furthermore, Kline et al. suggest that the developments in the game industry at the beginning of the new century are by no means the inevitable result of a historical process, but of an unwillingness to address the medium’s ‘bias’ that has its roots in the military-industrial origin of videogames.

The book consists of three parts: ‘Theoretical Trajectories’, ‘Histories’ and ‘Critical Perspectives’. The two chapters in the first part sketch out the theoretical model used throughout the remaining chapters and position the interactive game as an ‘ideal commodity’ in ‘post-Fordist/postmodern/promotional capitalism’. Despite this ostensible over-use of jargon, these chapters are very accessible and explain the terminology used in plain language. One term, however, remains unexplained throughout the book, although it is used frequently: it is the term ‘interactive game’, which seems unnecessarily tautological, and adds to the confusing multiplicity of terms already used for computer and video games.

Kline et al. argue that the videogame is the ideal commodity of the current ‘perpetual innovation economy’ as it is an experiential rather than a tangible good that is produced by a young workforce for relatively low pay under highly insecure working conditions. ‘Cultural intermediaries’ such as marketers, journalists and researchers play a central role in shaping the product in accordance with the ever-changing trends of this highly volatile market. In effect, these professionals are in the business of making audiences and creating communities that can be kept under close surveillance. This is necessary in order to enable the producers to capture any change in the likes and dislikes of the consumers as soon as it arises.

The second part of the book traces the historical process that has led to this thorough permeation of digital games with the logic of capital over the last forty years. It is to the authors’ credit that they succeed in telling this history in a novel way, despite the fact that they draw heavily on established accounts of videogame history such as J.C. Herz’s, Scott Cohen’s and David Sheff’s. This is achieved by focusing not only on the technical and cultural developments, but also on the advances in marketing and branding that have given the industry its shape.

This is especially impressive in the description of Nintendo’s entry into the American market after the videogame crash of the 1980s. Kline et al. use the term ‘performance play’ for Nintendo’s strategy of introducing proprietary standards, thus effectively locking its competitors out of the market. But as the authors point out, Nintendo also perfected the art of creating brand loyalty through publication of its own magazine and the creation of help-lines for customers. This works as a showcase example for the theoretical model Kline et al. developed earlier on. Nintendo emerges as the first videogame company in history to close the loop between technology, culture and marketing, and it is obvious why others soon followed suit.

This interaction is studied in detail the third part of the book, which attempts to identify the paradoxes, tensions and uncertainties that plague the digital games industry. This is achieved by dedicating a chapter to each of the three circuits that comprise Kline et al.’s theoretical model. According to the authors, each of these circuits incorporates a central paradox, which creates tensions that have negative effects for the whole of the industry.

In their study of the technological circuit, Kline et al. concentrate on ‘workers and warez’ as the main sources of disruption. At the outset, they focus on the representation of the production of games as play. In regard to the workers in the digital entertainment industry, this means that their enthusiasm for games is often exploited, while the industry itself suffers in the long term by recruiting primarily from gaming culture itself, which stifles true innovation. Similarly, the creation of an audience that contributes to the production of game content (’prosumers’) is seen as creating a problematic relationship between producers and consumers.

Piracy is a further source of tension in the global games market. Kline et al. take into account private copying as well as large-scale counterfeiting and file-sharing. Despite the fact that counterfeiters in Russia and South-East Asia have created a virtual ’shadow industry’ based on cracked games, the authors insist that the damage to the industry is overstated, as there is no other way for its products to cross the ‘digital divide’. Thus Kline et al. come to the conclusion that the production of digital entertainment products and piracy are intimately related, as piracy is merely an extension of the industry’s work-as-play ethic. In their view, information capitalism’s dependence on the unpaid labour of fan-cultures directly feeds into the erosion of ownership that the industry laments.

The central paradox of the marketing circuit is the antagonism between commodification and play. Indeed, Kline et al. argue convincingly that the marketing circuit, which has come to dominate the industry, effectively forecloses innovations in gameplay, as the immense amounts of capital needed to advertise their products leads to ever-decreasing product-cycles and a reliance on the tried and true. Thus marketing emerges as a force that is detrimental to the creativity and diversity of games.

According to Kline et al., the increasing dependence on licensing, spin-offs and sequels as well as exploding marketing costs push smaller companies out of the market, thus contributing to the consolidation of the industry. However, as there is still no recipe for sure-fire success and a bestselling game usually has to ’support’ less successful games, synergistic marketing increasingly influences game design itself. In trying to appeal to the broadest audience possible, the industry incorporates the characteristics of several distinct game-genres into one first-person-shooter-puzzle-platform-driving ‘meta-genre’. In their conclusion, the authors assert that the commodification of play is deeply problematic, as players are redefined as consumers. However, they also see reasons for hope in the increase in networked (i.e. social) play.

Finally, Kline et al. turn to the cultural circuit, which they see increasingly dominated by ‘militarized masculinity’. Although the authors are worried about the predominance of violence in digital gaming culture, they are far from suggesting that media violence has a direct effect on the consumers. They see the roots of militarized masculinity in the games’ origin in the military-industrial complex, which was never overtly addressed by the industry. It was not until the ‘console wars’ between Sega and Nintendo, however, that graphical violence became a major selling point for videogames. Higher processing power was also a key factor in promoting a photo-realistic representation of blood and gore. Thus, the circuits of marketing and technology are also involved in the promotion of violent content.

But who is responsible for the rising levels of carnage in videogames? The industry claims that they only cater to a demand expressed by the consumers. Kline et al. argue that this is a half-truth, as the industry still focuses mainly on male ‘hardcore’ gamers, largely neglecting casual and female players. According to Kline et al., these market segments are seen as high-risk sectors, as it would require significant R&D effort to create games that appeal to these target groups. The authors review the most important attempts so far to include female gamers into the target demographic, among them the infamous Barbie games and Brenda Laurel’s game company Purple Moon. They come to the rather sobering result that the games industry has never really broken free from its military roots and its male bias, and that it is thus in danger of becoming a mono-culture.

In their closing chapter, Kline et al. undertake an in-depth study of The Sims, focusing on the various contexts that they see as indispensable to understand the activity of playing. In regard to the marketing circuit, the authors see as the highly active player communities as the most interesting feature of the game. They usefully point out that these communities do not develop independently, but are the result of extensive marketing activities of its producer, Maxis. This integrates The Sims seamlessly into the online strategy of Maxis’ parent company, Electronic Arts. In comparison, the analysis of the technological circuit in regard to The Sims is rather weak. Ultimately, it is not very conclusive that users require a computer with certain specifications as well as access to the internet to play the game.

More to the point is Kline et al.’s analysis of the cultural setting of The Sims. They point out that the suburban middle-class world of the game closely mirrors the world of the intended audience, thus reinforcing these identities, offering, in effect, ’simulator training for yuppies’. However, it does not escape the authors that there is a tongue-in-cheek element to the game’s blatant consumerism which can be interpreted as a criticism of the real world’s blatant consumerism. But according to Kline et al., this is a ‘no-lose gambit’ as affirmation and negation co-exist peacefully in such a thoroughly post-modern setting. In a final twist, the authors point out that the players of The Sims experience one of the purest forms of electronic capitalism, a capitalism that relies increasingly on technologies, marketing strategies and cultural trends of simulation.

In their conclusion, Kline et al. depict The Sims as a game that successfully breaks out of the tradition of militarized masculinity, attracting a large amount of female players, and emphasizing variety over violence. The industry’s paradox position in regard to enclosure and access is highlighted by the fact that Maxis gives the players unprecedented access to production tools for virtual items, while retaining the copyright for these artefacts for themselves. The commodification of play is illustrated by the fact that items from the game can be bought and sold for real cash on eBay. This seems to indicate that play does indeed attain a new status in late capitalism. Quoting Jeremy Rifkin, the authors assert that the commodification of culture is an attempt to colonize play.

Despite this rather gloomy outlook, Kline et al. remain cautiously optimistic in regard to the future of digital gaming. This seems justified in regard of the contradictions that remain at the centre of the different circuits of the game industry, guaranteeing the continued existence of a necessary element of instability. The authors’ analysis of the interaction of technology, culture and marketing is a remarkable achievement and is likely to be of lasting importance to the field of game studies. But while the authors must be lauded for their keen description of this interaction, they sometimes tend to lose sight of the process of playing itself, a cultural practice which is capable of subverting the promotional bias of digital games. In any case, Digital Play is bound to provoke some strong reactions, promising to contribute to an interesting debate about the state of play in the 21st century.

Note:
[1] William Gibson: “The Net Is A Waste of Time � And That’s Exactly What’s Right About It.” New York Time Magazine, July 14, 1996. Quoted from http://www.voidspace.org.uk/cyberpunk/gibson_wasteoftime.shtml

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