Book Review: Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form

Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is, like the title says, an account of how games are finally a medium for the masses and no longer the exclusive product of big corporations and strict publisher-developer business models. It's a good thing that this is happening, and it's great that author Anna Anthropy recognized that this movement needs more people to both document and champion it.

anthropy_riseofthevideogamezinesters_150dpiThis book, in a mere 208 pages, is

  • a short history of games and their makers,

  • a declaration of independence,

  • a personal narrative,

  • a sociopolitical discourse,

  • a how-to and resources guide for aspiring game-makers, and

  • a light introduction to noteworthy independent games.

It's a lot of content to cover in a handful of chapters, and realistically, you could fill tens of thousands of pages worth of books just documenting the indie games movement. Anthropy wisely chooses to distribute her focus rather evenly on these topics throughout. The result is a book that feels brief but resonant.

Anthropy's personal story of game creation is fascinating when she deigns to dive into it. Her despairing account of studying at Southern Methodist University's Guildhall program is particularly compelling, especially since that program continues to be ranked among the best game development schools but is so clearly disinterested in empowering individuals.

But there's also a lot that's left out, such as the work she did in the years immediately after she moved to California. There's a pretty satisfying account of her first steps into game making, but I'm sure she has even more valuable insight to share as she worked to refine her skills over the past few years.

Anthropy's perspective as a transgender author and her role as one of the first Newgrounds success stories are noteworthy and help empower her argument against the commercially driven homogenization. Her voice is confident and she makes a compelling argument on her own, but it would have made the book all the more compelling if she'd sought out more voices as well — more of the "freaks, normals, amateurs, artists, dreamers, drop-outs, queers, housewives, and people like you" she's addressing.

There's also the brief history of the games industry, which seems to have included almost out of some perceived notion of necessity. It helps make the book feel more complete, and that context is absolutely necessary to understand the origins and motivations behind the independent games movement, but it's so short and sparing that I found myself wishing she'd simply suggested some other, more comprehensive histories of games to read.

And then there's the do-it-yourself component, which helps illustrate that the path to game development doesn't have to be a harrowing and overwhelming one if you identify your tools (appendix A), study the work of contemporaries (appendix B) and approach the challenge one step at a time. Anthropy wisely relegated this content to the end of the book in order to end with a catalyzing message for her readers. It certainly did the trick for me; moments after closing the book, I hopped online to download a copy of Twine and began looking for a long-abandoned concept I'd drawn out for a Knytt Stories adventure.

The book's greatest shortcoming — and it's an inevitable one — is that it teases so many interesting perspectives on independent game development but merely alludes at the interesting experiences they hold. Then again, this book is the product of an independent individual, almost like a zine that's dressed up in a nice paperback format.

But so what? It's not billed as a comprehensive history or a step-by-step instruction book that guarantees the reader a lucrative and satisfying career as a dapper, roguish indie developer. What it is, beyond any doubt, is the book Anthropy wanted to write to spread the message she felt needed to be shared. And the fact that her message is contained in a deeply personal and refreshingly frank book that doesn't sweat all the details is exactly the way a zinester would do it.

This isn't the last word on bringing independent games and game development to the masses; it's a call to action. With any luck, it won't be the last.