The Dark Side of Game Play: Controversial Issues in Playful Environments
Torill Elvira Mortensen, Jonas Linderoth, and Ashley ML Brown (eds)
London: Routledge, 2015
While it has been out for some time, The Dark Side of Game Play: Controversial Issues in Playful Environments (Routledge, 2015), proved to be such an interesting and thought-provoking collection that it seemed that a short review was in order. Edited by Torill Elvira Mortensen, Jonas Linderoth, and Ashley ML Brown, the book brings together fifteen essays on the subject of ‘Dark Play’, a topic that might immediately suggest Gothic horror but which, it turns out, is an extremely diverse area capable of sustaining arguments across a huge range of topics.
As the editors put it in their introduction, ‘Digital games seem especially inclined to incorporate controversial themes such as war, disasters, human decay, post-apocalyptic futures, cruelty, and betrayal’ (4). Perhaps, even, it is the case, as the editors suggest, that ‘violent themes are associated with digital games to such a degree that it is one of the traits that constitutes them as an independent form of culture’ (4). Certainly, as the games and practices discussed in the volume indicate there’s more than enough to justify such claims. At the same time, as the diversity of the volume’s articles demonstrates, dark play is not something that can be reduced to a negative aspect of gaming (digital or otherwise) however tempting such a position might appear.
Given this emphasis on dark play in video games, and the easy connection to violence and controversy, it is entirely appropriate that the volume begins with a history of media panics. Faltin Karlsen’s level-headed chapter does a fine job of setting the tone for the volume, recognising the significance, and origins, of the kinds of concerns expressed about violence in video games. Karlsen’s chapter is followed by two fascinating chapters exploring the very issues that might spark such panics. René Glas examines the mass killing of ‘generic expendables’ in digital games: ‘In terms of gameplay, killing endless numbers of generic adversaries while playing a hero is recognizable, justifiable, and pleasurable behaviour’ (45). This consideration of players as killers is neatly followed by a chapter on player’s as victims in Emily Flynn-Jones’s discussion of player death in ‘Don’t Forget to Die.’
The book’s next section, ‘Dark Play or Darkly Played’ shifts attention to the activities of game players, who are variously playing darkly, or being played upon. The first chapter in this section tackles the issue of killing children in games, with Björn Sjöblom’s question ‘Why are there no children in Grand Theft Auto?’ (68) in order to introduce the topic of taboos, morality and transgressive (dark) play in digital games. There are, according to Sjöblom’s argument, a number of ways in which game developers respond to the challenge of childhood in games, ranging from excluding them (GTA) to child-on-child violence (Bully), many of which ultimately perpetuate the notion of the innocent child and which provide a useful way of studying the ways in which childhood is socially constructed. The social construction of childhood, traced back to the Romantics, is picked up by Frans Mäyrä’s ‘Little Evils’ which neatly connects our concern with definitions of childhood to our sense of our own (adult) character. This central section ends with Miguel Sicart’s ‘Darkly Playing Others’ in which ‘abusive game design’ is offered as a creative strategy in which dark play emerges from the structure of the game rather than its content.
The book then turns its attention to more specific examples of dark play, exploring game representations of sexual violence in White Wolf’s Freak Legion, Nazism (Medal of Honor), morality (Star Wars: the Old Republic), and ‘feel-bad games’ (So Long Sucker and Intrigue). Connecting these different readings is a sense of the framing work required of players engaged with these games. The result is that the chapters that make up this section, though different in many ways, work together to suggest a productive way of understanding the ways in which players situate themselves in relation to games that explore challenging topics.
Finally the book ends with a section on games designed with the intention of promoting dark play. Marcus Carter, for example, in his discussion of EVE Online, explores the way in which the game, unlike the majority of massively multiplayer online games, has been designed to facilitate dark play (theft, treachery, betrayal). By way of contrast, Alan Meades considers player actions in the book’s final chapter ‘Boosting, Glitching and Modding Call of Duty’, working towards the conclusion that ‘it is natural and pleasurable to occasionally engage with assertive dark play in video games as is it in the flesh, not despite but on account of the very real risks involved’ (258).
To conclude, having barely touched on the contents of the volume (leaving that pleasure to future readers), The Dark Side of Game Play is a thought-provoking book that offers a series of self-contained chapters that are consistently engaging when taken alone, and which, read in sequence, provide a fascinating (and surprisingly coherent) means by which to account for dark play in all of its various forms.