- Videogame Criticism and Games in the Twenty-First Century
1. Introduction: Videogame Criticism
It may seem an extraordinary and unlikely fact that videogame criticism has developed into a vibrant area of serious academic study. As Ian Bogost, one of the field’s most important contributors, observes, “Like a toaster, a game is both appliance and hearth, both instrument and aesthetic, both gadget and fetish. It’s preposterous to do games criticism, like it’s preposterous to do toaster criticism.” Yet Bogost quickly adds that games are hardly unique in this respect. Indeed, nothing has entirely escaped cultural criticism in our time: “Not literature, not film, nor theater, art, food, wine. We just stopped noticing that the criticism of forms like these are just as bonkers as critiques of toasters or milk or videogames” (xii). For all of the inherent absurdity of game criticism, it is also increasingly evident that what a “game” or “videogame” has become in 2017 is more diverse and complicated than whatever we might call a toaster—even if we allow for the considerable differences, for instance, between standard toasters and toaster ovens.
Fueled in part by the enlarged parameters of the term “game,” the field of videogame studies has expanded considerably in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Among scholars, if not journalists, we are no longer in a moment in which it is still noteworthy merely to trumpet the economic success of the multibillion-dollar videogame industry that now outpaces book publishing, music, and even film. Similarly, it no longer seems adequate to express wonder at the possibility of videogames operating as an art form—even if the New York Times still publishes headlines, in 2016, that make [End Page 205] declarations such as “An Exhibition That Proves Video Games Can Be Art” (Reese). In his 2015 book Works of Game, game designer John Sharp notes, “The status of games is on the rise, if for no other reason than their ubiquity” (115). Yet within this “ubiquity,” there is also a growing diversity of aesthetics, histories, applications, design approaches, and sociopolitical orientations. Even if we restrict ourselves to the two years prior to this essay, the field has yielded a broad range of publications. Even a fraction of these books and edited volumes runs the gamut topically from play and aesthetic theory (Upton), to the role of emotions in videogames (Isbister), to the history of American arcades and their production of masculinity (Kocurek), to transnational differences in videogame production and consumption (Wolf, Consalvo, Penix-Tadsen), to histories of war games (Harrigan and Kirschenbaum), to real-world uses of gamification (Gilbert, Schrier), to varied forms of artistic games (Maizels and Jagoda, Sharp), and even to the self-reflexive project of game criticism itself (Bogost).
Even as both gameplay cultures and videogame studies are developing on a transnational scale, I will limit my focus in this essay primarily to the US context. Since the 1960s, videogames in the US have been shaped by forces ranging from counterculture to military R&D. The cultural form of videogames emerged during the Cold War, beginning with Steve Russell’s 1962 game Spacewar!, and expanded with arcade games and Atari-led home videogame consoles in the 1970s. After rebounding from the videogame industry crash of 1983, an interest in videogames grew in the mid-1980s through the 1990s, reenergized in large part by Japanese developers such as Nintendo, Sega, and Sony. During this period, videogames remained a largely niche market, with most products targeted at a homogeneous, if extremely enthusiastic, group of so-called hardcore gamers. By the twenty-first century, videogames had evolved into an increasingly heterogeneous form with a more diverse audience. While videogame criticism was not the primary factor in enabling this diversity, tracking this field’s recent developments may help us better understand the significance and meaning of digital games in our time.
2. Videogames in the Early Twenty-First Century
Through the late twentieth century, videogames were still largely an entertainment form. Myriad factors in the early twentyfirst century—cultural, aesthetic, and technological—have precipitated a multiplication of what is now meant by “videogame.” While there are various histories that offer...