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How Pac-Man Eats: Who is it for?

The first reviews have arrived for my new book, How Pac-Man Eats! I’m honored to have people giving the book careful attention. This book is aimed at a wide range of audiences (designers, journalists, technologists, scholars, students, and people who are simply interested in games) and aims to speak to multiple disciplines. Given that, it’s important to have people review it from multiple perspectives, letting different audiences know what it might offer them. In this post I’ll take a look at the first three reviews to appear, each aimed at a different audience: communication scholars, digital media scholars and makers, and game developers.

The first response to appear was Rainforest Scully-Blaker’s review in Critical Studies in Media Communication. This is a journal from the National Communication Association that focuses on “scholarship on mediated and mass communication from a cultural studies and/or critical perspective.” While I used to work in UC San Diego’s interdisciplinary Communication department, this is definitely not my home turf as a scholar.

On a positive note, the review contains passages like this, which made me excited that the book could speak to the concerns of communication scholars and students:

Wardrip-Fruin’s use of logics and models works impressively well at offering readings of what his chosen games are about in ways that a focus on story, mechanics, or rules alone cannot. One of my highlights from the book was when the author used his framework to describe a cognitive dissonance core to the design of Grand Theft Auto IV, suggesting that although the game purported to be about “a war-weary immigrant trying to make his way in an unforgiving city,” the most well-developed logics and models support play that was more akin to an “urban driving simulation” whose open-endedness was undercut by many of the story beats demanding “compliance” from the player (173). This struck me as a helpful method for understanding why certain design decisions “work” for players while others do not, in the same vein that film and literary theorists might diagnose their own objects.

It is in moments like this where logics and models are used to reveal not just a game’s design, but its politics as well that I believe the book most successfully engages the work of both makers and theorists.

On the other hand, the review argues that, while I sought to reach many audiences, “most of the author’s goals, what he argues and, more importantly, what he stops short of arguing make this very much a designer’s book.” In particular, Scully-Blaker suggests, while How Pac-Man Eats works to explain the fundamental vocabulary of games — and the limits and possibilities that flow from this vocabulary — it doesn’t do enough to investigate why we have this vocabulary. The answers to that “why” question are of course political. And I agree with Scully-Blaker that, “Design theory, like writing of any sort, cannot shy away from discussions of politics since anything made by people is necessarily political.”

I hope that the book will help form a foundation on which further work to answer that question can be done, as well as providing a set of concepts through which it is productive to look at existing scholarship in this area. In the end, I’m pleased that Scully-Blaker concludes that How Pac-Man Eats is “an important book, but one that should lead to further reading.”

The next response to appear was Stuart Moulthrop’s review in electronic book review. While ebr is wide-ranging, it particularly focuses on “critically savvy, in-depth work addressing the digital future of literature, theory, criticism, and the arts.” In short, this is much more my home turf — I’ve been working in this area since my self-designed undergraduate degree in the early 1990s, and Moulthrop is one of the scholar/artists who deeply influenced my perspective and work (including helping me understand how it’s possible to be both a scholar and maker).

In this context, How Pac-Man Eats reads as a bridge work, connecting the work of the “primary anatomists” of game studies (“scholars who have named and articulated the components of an emerging form”) and those focused on “tracing interactions between games and culture.” Moulthrop writes that, “How Pac-Man Eats serves both communities, potentially establishing dialogue between them; though its most important contribution may lie in suggesting the limits of both emphases, the formal and the social.” As Moulthrop writes:

Wardrip-Fruin insists that “critical play,” as Flanagan has named it, “rests on a foundation of logics and models. It succeeds when it engages them creatively, and we can only understand it by taking them into account.” … How Pac-Man Eats offers a formal guide to these systems. In this respect it strikes a note of recognition in this reviewer, who is old enough to remember books like Wayne C. Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, and Austin Warren and René Wellek’s Theory of Literature – describing allegedly universal structures that underlie works of imagination. Like the old literary anatomists, Wardrip-Fruin anchors his formal exposition in astute readings, including deep dives into the ur-games Tennis for Two and Spacewar! and illuminating accounts of genre-defining classics like Gone HomeDys4ia, and Grand Theft Auto.

From there Moulthrop’s review takes on the discussion of metaphor in How Pac-Man Eats and connects it to the many examples of simulated embodiment in the book (from the famous Pac-Man to obscure versions of Tetris) and simulated embodiment (especially eating) in media more generally. Moulthrop also, as the book does, connects this investigation of metaphor to urgent questions of how game makers can address the injustices of our world. I’m happy to say that, for the audience Moulthrop represents, this seems to work. His review concludes:

The creative form of the video game has entered a phase of development that is both fraught and promising, attracting notably intelligent designers and scholars. How Pac-Man Eats should figure prominently in the way these makers take on a catastrophic world.

The most recent response is Robert Zubek’s review on his Gamasutra blog (which they then promoted to the front page). Gamasutra‘s mission is “to inform, empower, and inspire our game developer readership,” both through articles written by their staff and through the community they have long fostered for communication between developers. I’m a Gamasutra reader and I cite pieces from them in the book — so I was excited to see a review reach this audience, which doesn’t hear a lot about books from academic presses. And I’ve been a fan of Zubek’s work from his dissertation (on AI dialogue systems) to the recently-announced City of Gangsters.

Like Moulthrop, Zubek focuses on the bridge work the book aims to do. But he does so from the perspective of practicing game designers. For them, the interesting question isn’t whether the perspectives of two groups of scholars can be brought together in productive ways. Rather, it’s whether reading this book might help them and their collaborators in thinking, making, and mentoring as a studio. Zubek suggests it can, because of the book’s focus on the connections between the operations of game systems and what is communicated to, and experienced by, players. He writes, “We don’t have explicit techniques for analyzing interaction between mechanics and meaning, and yet they happen all the time, and as designers we just internalize them and how to make them work. But implicit knowledge is hard to talk about, explain to others, and teach to students.”

Zubek turns to the example of Pac-Man and explains how it could be re-skinned to be a game about Godzilla smashing buildings — it affords that meaning — but it’s hard to imagine a re-skinning that would be about creating, nurturing, or praising. This shows that we need to think and talk about mechanics and systems not just in terms of how they’re made and how they work, but also about their potential to communicate, both about game worlds and our everyday world. He then describes my concept of operational logics and writes:

This is the heart of this book – a new abstraction, a new tool for discussing something that we’ve always felt was there, but didn’t have a good way to identify. This tool lets us broaden our conversations as we discuss game design: we can talk about mechanics and systems not just in terms of what they do, but also what they will mean to the player.

Zubek argues that the concepts, vocabulary, and examples in How Pac-Man Eats are potentially useful not just for understanding the intertwined aspects of operation and communication in games — but also for turning the intuitions that experienced game developers already have about these issues into explicit goals to be pursued. I hope that this proves to be the case. And I also hope that some of the more critically-focused scholarly work I cite (from folks like Soraya Murray, Bo Ruberg, and Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux) might inspire the further reading that Scully-Blaker rightly advocates.

But returning to the question that I began with, I should note that Zubek, like the other reviewers, explicitly addresses the question of who this book is for. Scully-Blaker, as a scholar, sees it as primarily a book for designers. Moulthrop, as a scholar/artist, sees it as a book for “designers and scholars.” Zubek, as a game developer with a PhD, writes, “The material is clearly written for multiple audiences – practicing game designers, game studies scholars, and students of game design, will all find relevant information there.”

When you write a book that you hope can speak to people with different interests, there’s the risk it won’t speak enough to anyone’s interest. Happily, from these reviews, it looks like How Pac-Man Eats might avoid that fate. But I’m eagerly looking forward to further responses to help me understand better what works, and what doesn’t, for different audiences.

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