Cultural Code: Video Games and Latin America by Phillip Penix-Tadsen (review)
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Reviewed by
Penix-Tadsen, Phillip. Cultural Code: Video Games and Latin America. Cambridge: The MIT P, 2016. 333 pp.

Phillip Penix-Tadsen's outstanding and much-needed Cultural Code: Video Games and Latin America pays serious critical and theoretical attention to video games and the ways in which they are not only shaped by Latin American culture, but how video games shape that culture as well. Drawing on Uruguayan game theorist and designer Gonzalo Frasca's use of the term "ludology" in reference to the study of games, particularly video games, Penix-Tadsen develops the concept of cultural ludology, expanding Frasca's focus to consider the reciprocal impacts and interplay between culture and video games. The book's structure is as cyclical and interactive as its theoretical arguments. The first half, "How Culture Uses Games," examines and analyzes various game-related practices in Latin America from the earliest video games to the present. The second half, "How Games Use Culture," examines cultural representation in various popular games set in Latin America and explores the ways in which sound elements, visual iconography, and other signs are used to create meaning in video games.

The first chapter, "Play," uses the Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga's fundamental 1949 text Homo Ludens as a springboard into an analysis of the relationship between play and human civilization, delving into theoretical questions of what motivates players in a game. Here Penix-Tadsen offers a preliminary cultural history of video games play in Latin America, including frequent caveats about the myriad cultural, economic, social, and technological factors that complicate or impede the mapping or tracing of consumption, distribution, and other trends in Latin American gaming. Chapter two, "Persuasion," examines two ways in which contemporary culture uses games in a persuasive sense; that is, in ways that have little relationship to actual gameplay. First, he examines controversies surrounding video [End Page 728] games in Mexico, Venezuela, and Cuba in which the games have provoked political and/or legislative responses that strip them of their ludic meaning in order to turn them into political currency. Second, he addresses video games that have been labeled "serious" or "persuasive" in the sense that they are designed with thought-provoking intent that goes beyond commercial or recreational use. The last half of the chapter is devoted to avant-garde projects by Latin American game designers and artists who offer an alternative version of what video games are capable of in Latin America in terms of ethics, politics, and persuasion (63). For example, PenixTadsen analyzes several persuasive games set on the US-Mexico border, among them Crosser and La Migra (Rafael Fajardo 2000 and 2001). The games' players operate as migrants trying to cross (Crosser) and as border patrol trying to prevent anyone from entering illegally (La Migra), arriving at similar ideological critiques on migration and root causes of undocumented immigration (90–93). Penix-Tadsen reminds us that games, as cultural commodities, can be used as instruments of persuasion "even—or especially—when their meaning is divorced entirely from that which is conveyed through gameplay" (94), underscoring the power of games to foment ideological questioning or persuasion in contemporary culture. His account of the politically engaging avant-garde games in the second half is compelling, and I would be very curious to know more about the player reception of the persuasion games analyzed, though such information may not be available.

Penix-Tadsen closes the first half of the book with "Potential," which creates a convincing case for the emergence of a boom in Latin American video games that parallels the literary Boom of the 1960s and 1970s. The twenty-first-century Latin American game design boom has its roots in the late 1990s and early 2000s, "when the region's developers gained sufficient footing to achieve sustainability" through "companies that focused on exportation and the global audience by adopting universally familiar cultural themes, generally based around fantasy or sports" (117). Penix-Tadsen accounts for a wide and diverse range of creative visions and design methodologies under the umbrella of "Latin American game design" to avoid monolithic description or erasure (123), but also narrows his focus to examine long-standing tradition...


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