The Art Form People Like You Never Took Back
The Videogame Zinesters
by Martin Hare Michno
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Back in 2004, a woman who goes by the name of Anna Anthropy published a book with a rather striking title: Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form. In this book, Anna shares with us her vision of the future of videogames. She dreams of a day where videogames cease to be merely about ‘men shooting men in the face’ and become instead a much more intricate art form, whereby humanity’s sorrows and joys can be explored in ways that other arts do not. She envisioned a culture of videogames ruled by the common people; a decentralisation of the industry. She imagined the housewife as a game developer and foresaw a world of small, yet worthy games which shared the experiences of every individual. For Anna, the creation of videogames was to become as easy as writing, and all people would become authors. It has been 15 years since she published her dream, and videogames are as popular as ever before. But a crucial question still lingers – has Anna’s dream come true? Has there really been a ‘rise of the videogame zinester’? Well, no. Not really.
First of all, we must understand what the author really meant. When Anna wrote of ‘videogame zinesters’, she referred to the homemade and handcrafted magazines popularly known as zines. Usually cheap to make and cheap to buy, zines commonly consist of topics which larger, commercial and corporate-backed magazines do not bother with. The videogame zines which Anna advocates for are, in her mind, games which can be easily developed and played in one sitting, yet share a unique experience and tell an untold story. The game would then be distributed cheaply or freely.
One of Anna’s own games, Dys4ia, illustrates her vision of a videogame zine. Dys4ia is an 8-bit flash game about 15 minutes long which shares her personal experience with gender dysphoria and undergoing hormone therapy and as a trans woman. Dys4ria is not ‘fun’ in the conventional sense. It isn’t challenging, it isn’t attractive, and it doesn’t submit itself to the player’s taste. But it tells an overtly intimate story, Anna’s story, which she feels is best told through the medium of games. Anna illustrates an example of the capacity of videogames to tell stories in a unique way with a level in Dys4ria, where the player takes control of a Tetris-like block with the aim of sliding it into a wide gap in a wall. When it is revealed that the block is too large for the gap, a text pops up and reads, ‘I feel weird about my body’. Such intimate experiences and intimacy can only really exist within videogames as Anna defines them: handcrafted and cheap, like an independent fanzine. But videogames have yet to take the form of zines.
This is not to say there isn’t an admirable amount of ‘zine’ games, or that there hasn’t been a significant growth in indie developers. From Newsgrounds.com to Steam Direct, and from Flash to Unity, a myriad of tools has been gifted to the world in the attempt to universalize videogames. But although it is true that indie games have prospered in recent years, and videogame development has become more significantly more accessible to the common person, we cannot identify a ‘rise of the videogame zinester’ in the history of the digital art form – at least not yet.
For such a rise to happen, we need to rethink the videogame from its core. The videogame zinesters will have risen once they have become normalised. It is true there’s been a slight shift towards different experiences and some developers are beginning to explore the untouched potential of videogames. But for now, we have just gone from ‘men shooting men in the face’ to ‘women shooting men in the face’. The discourse hasn’t changed, the digital arts remain centralized. The giants of the industry still hold a firm grasp on their monopoly and squeeze out every penny. The housewife remains illiterate. It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine a different kind of game. The rise of the videogame zinester began in the undergrowth of the industry and never surpassed it.