book review

Digital Play
The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing

Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig De Peuter (2003)

Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig De Peuter have delivered an excellent and highly-recommendable history of video games. What makes their approach so successful is that they draw on the work of some giants in the field of communication and cultural studies (Innis, McLuhan and Williams). They use this work as foundations of an insightful and critical account of the development of the medium of the video game.

In the first part of the book the authors outline their materialist media theory. They identify technology, culture and marketing as the main spheres from which intersection the current games have emerged. This approach puts games in a broader context then most games, and takes into account the branding and commodification that have strongly influenced games since their conception.

The history of games proper, presented in the second part, benefits from this approach. Their history follows the same lines as can be found in many books, roughly dividing the history into four eras: the Atari era, the Nintendo generation, the first round of the console wars (Nintendo versus Sega), and the arrival of Sony and Microsoft. The facts can be found elsewhere but the broad perspective makes them better structured and better readable than most accounts I have seen. But most importantly it allows the authors to be more critical of their subject. They manage to refrain from championing certain key figures or companies (although they harbour an apparent softer spot for Nintendo).

The advantage from their approach and scope becomes most clear in the third and final part of the book. Here they present four "critical perspectives" that discuss the games industry's (work) ethics, marketing practices, masculine and violent game content, and the notion of "Sim Capital" respectively. These perspectives are mostly fresh and insightful. For instance they argue that the industry itself is partly to blame for the piracy practice, as they regard this practice as a natural extension of the ideology of technological innovation where the boundaries between work and play are blurred. This ideology is promoted by the industry as it legitimises the long hours and dedication so vital for to keep up production.

The notion of "Sim Capital" expands on the idea that games are the ideal commodity of a post-modern (or post-Fordist) economy, for better or for worse. The idea that games are among the vanguard of cultural and economic progression has many jubilant supporters. However, Kline, Dyer-Whiteford and De Peuter, put this notion into perspective and bring to our attention that despite the claims of interactivity and consumer power, we the gamers are being played and directed by the marketers of the new digital capital companies. It puts a lot of weight behind the authors' claim that games are in many ways the offspring of mass-media and commercial television. Especially the recent MMORPGs are "providing to a large audience a common simultaneous entertainment experience in which, though personal "stories" may vary, the overarching parameters are set according to the technological and marketing logic of profit-seeking corporate sponsors." (page 189)

The field of game studies would be better with more works like Digital Play. Although, to add some words of criticism, the work does sometimes feel a little repetitive. I do not think I have read the phrase 'companies boot-strapping to success' so often, and when I read the same paragraph a twice in a single book (on pages 94 and 142) I do tend to feel a little cheated.