- Playing with Feelings: Video Games and Affect by Aubrey Anable
"Start in the middle"—that is how three characters in the cerebral video game Kentucky Route Zero (Cardboard Computer, 2013) decide to begin listening for clues in a strange audio recording they find. It is also a phrase that resonates with Aubrey Anable's approach to video game studies in Playing with Feelings: Video Games and Affect, which looks for a middle ground between computational and representational analysis. For years the field has been mired in a kind of multiplayer battle royal between two factions, one that sees representation (and with it, identity) as incidental to this essentially computational medium and one that believes representation plays as important a role as code and hardware in creating the meaning of video games. When I say that Anable finds the "middle," though, I do not mean an ideological middle ground (she quite explicitly supports the latter point of view), but rather a middle between computation and representation whose analysis can make clear their profound interdependence. That middle layer is affect.
Skillfully addressing this computation-representation binary—alongside other big-picture questions confronting video game studies—Anable asserts that this polarized thinking prevents us from exploring what the experience of playing video games actually feels like. Pointedly, she asks, "What analytical frame best encapsulates [video games'] complex interplay of bodies, hardware, code, aesthetics, affect, and cognition?"1 If the response of affect theory that her book plays out does not strike the reader as the answer, even asking the question this way and including as many elements as Anable does is a step forward for the field. Her book joins a bold new [End Page 175] wave of video game studies scholarship that reinvests in representational analysis but takes a more holistic approach to the medium. Furthermore, Playing with Feelings reorients the field by using casual, indie, and art games as its case studies (rather than big-budget console and PC games) to demonstrate the usefulness of affect theory to video game studies—to illuminate the ways video games are "structures of feeling" and "affective systems."
Anable's first chapter, "Feeling History," relies on a well-chosen metaphor of cave exploration to tease out hidden truths of video game history—in which real-world and in-game cave exploration appear, improbably, at multiple significant moments—and to burrow deeply into affect theory. For video game studies readers less acquainted with affect theory (and I do think the book is pitched more to them than to affect scholars), this chapter provides a lucid introduction to the analysis of affect, which she helpfully distills as the "forces that inform our emotional states."2 But it also delves into a more granular sifting of affect's disciplinary figures (Gilles Deleuze, Silvan Tomkins, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick) and tensions than may be of interest to those readers. The chapter does not, for me, make fully clear its case for "how video games might affectively reorient us toward history and how particular histories of video games create limits to what we can know and feel in the present."3 But it performs the important work of acclimating the reader to valuing the "phenomenologically imprecise encounter[s]" of a spelunking in history, of grasping in the dark for partial understandings.4 This feminist approach, borrowed from games scholar Laine Nooney, resonates powerfully with affect theory, whose oft-critiqued imprecision is, as Anable gradually convinces the reader, a feature rather than a bug. There is a humble charm in admitting and even celebrating theoretical imprecision; in truth, what theoretical model of any use in the humanities can really lay claim to unimpeachable precision? Anable's application of affect theory to video games throughout the chapter (and the book) creates purposefully and generatively imprecise encounters that muddy the binary distinctions troubling video game studies—computation-representation and machine-human—by attending to bodies, sensations, and feelings. This chapter's close reading of the indie adventure game Kentucky Route Zero strays just...