Book Review by Sapphire Ng
Game Love: Essays on Play and Affection
by Jessica Enevold, Esther MacCallum-Stewart
Copyright January 2015
Paperback, 284 Pages
A mostly interesting and decent book exploring the theme of love in videogames. This book compiles a miscellany of material in varying styles and approaches in service to the subject matter of the book. The inclusion of moderate amounts of descriptive and general content makes the book seem most useful to non-gamers; The Sims and the Mario franchises are examples of well-known games approached rather ordinarily in the book. Gamers familiar with the Dragon Age series on the other hand might find the abundant descriptions in the book somewhat redundant.
Whilst not an ideal resource for scholars—this book fluctuates between somewhat scholarly to more casual works—those who peruse this book with academic intent will still stand to gain and be inspired by nuggets of valuable and interesting concepts. Considering that this book is mostly easy to read and generally entertaining, interested gamers of course could pick up the book; the gamer will be engaged intellectually and critically on occasion and possibly be acquainted with a wider repertoire of games.
The better chapters in this book are especially fascinating. The essay discussing the virtual pet game Kinectimals and the function of its Kinect natural user interface is one of the most riveting chapters in the book, also bolstered by intriguing citations including that which referred to games as “iOpiates” for “emotion junkies.”
One of the most entertaining chapters in the book spotlighted a darling of the Mario franchise, Princess Peach. Reading about the various romantic narrative angles featuring Princess Peach in the realm of fanfiction—specifically ‘het’ fiction—was certainly enjoyable, be it a narrative setup reminiscent of the “beauty and the beast,” that which deals with the idea of class disparity, or most interestingly the notion of Peach exercising meta awareness by “complaining about her in-game life.”
The chapter examining “Suspended Fulfillment in Fallout: New Vegas” is an absolute gem. The dexterous, creative expression and candid exploration of internal conflicts arising from romantic attraction to a non-existent in-game entity is beautifully complemented with analytical considerations of and intriguing distinctions made between ideas of “vicarious love,” “fictional love,” and “love in bad faith.” The reader can only imagine the depth of self-awareness the author possessed that facilitated such a nature of self-discovery. Amidst the discourse, the author also seamlessly interjected a citation of a really fitting analogy relating to the psychological state of one upon reaching the ending of a game—unemployment. Some avid gamers might find this chapter especially relatable and even comforting to a certain extent through mutual understanding of the emotional complexities associated with the bittersweet phenomenon of “pixel crush.”
Other rather remarkable content in the book includes an analytically fascinating essay which explored the seeming pathology of game addiction from the intriguing dual perspectives of ludophilic versus ludophobic, and 2 chapters which investigated the games Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2 respectively in terms of in-game narrative and Non-Player Characters, and ideas of “romantic bleed” and the contrasting identities of “projected” versus “explorative.”
One of the chapters in the book rather laudably furnished an interesting taxonomy of hearts as found in videogames, namely Regenerative Hearts, Emotive Hearts, Consumptive Hearts, Narrative Hearts, and Decorative Hearts. This chapter falls short however with its rather brief descriptions of each type of Heart which only sufficed in helping the reader differentiate between each; the dramatic lack of depth and detailed exploration or more extensively elaborated examples arguably failed to do justice for such a supposedly promising theory.
The very last chapter of the book “Bad Romance: For the Love of ‘Bad’ Videogames” generates mixed feelings on the part of the reader with regards to its appeal, relevance and overall fit with the rest of the book. As the title might imply, the chapter spotlights substandard videogames otherwise known as kusoge. Considering that an appreciation of kusoge could be a cultivated taste and necessitates progressive immersion, the brash start to the chapter in extolling the “beauty” of abysmal games coupled with successive name-dropping of such an assortment of bad games potentially turns off the typical or even serious gamer.
The unpropitious positioning of this chapter with such a negative and eccentric outlook as the very last chapter of this book seems only to further reinforce negative parallels between kusoge and the book itself, thereby perpetuating a less-than-excellent impression of an otherwise already flawed book. Whilst the discussion of kusoge followed by a decent critical treatment somewhat justifies its inclusion in this book, this chapter along with a few other chapters in the book however gave the impression of being forcefully molded just to appear relevant to the overarching theme of love. The mere declaration of appreciation and pleasure in engaging with bad videogames to be equitable to the manifestation of “love” for these games is not convincing, and only further draws attention to its tenuous link with and thus general irrelevance to the theme of love in the book.
The chapter “NPCs Need Love Too: Simulating Love and Romance, from a Game Design Perspective” is particularly flawed. One’s feelings of eager anticipation at the onset of the chapter gives way to mild disappointment. The reader is titillated with promises of being let in on privileged, or at least targeted, content geared toward game designers—“we,” inclusive of the reader, were addressed as game designers—only to be inundated with multiple superficial repetitions of the idea of “as game designers, we should be cognizant of our own mental model of what falling in love involves, and how we want to communicate that model to the player.” The glaring lack of in-depth analyses or apt illustration furnished in support of the statement is disappointing, and that was before taking into account possible expectations of more vigorous treatment in a chapter that purportedly attempts to address practitioners in the game industry.
This chapter is unfortunately also problematic as a whole. Another seemingly promising subsection assuring the reader of a “Case Study” on the game Redshirt fell short with its rather brief coverage and lack of in-depth analyses and work. On a probably more minor note, there was no reference as well to the screenshot image “Redshirt Relationship Code” to explicitly tie it in to the prevailing discussion or to better assimilate it into the established context.
This lackluster chapter could have seized its final chance to redeem itself, but opted instead for its modus operandi in presenting its final point before the conclusion. The idea of a “diverse” game development team not being able to preclude the occurrence of “subconscious decisions and assumptions” that “undermine that diversity” is an interesting finding that surely could be further fleshed out. Such fleeting treatment of multiple great ideas in a chapter lacking in a unifying focal thesis or study merely fortifies the impression of the chapter as being incohesive.
As for a separate chapter discussing Tabletop Role-Playing Games (TRPG), the reader unfamiliar with a specific game might experience some difficulty making sense of several minute details. The tabletop format of these games do make it slightly more challenging to find “gameplays” of them on online platforms such as Youtube in contrast to digital games.
This book is unfortunately additionally flawed, for being guilty of one of the publishing sins of poor editing. Examples of misspellings include “customization” spelled as “custimization”— “custimization of one’s avatar”—and “appreciation” spelled as “apprecation,” in the phrase “express their apprecation of.” Other editing mistakes present include that which “where” occupied the rightful place of “were,” as in the following, “long before the pervasiveness of digital games, concerns where raised about the computers on which they run.”
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.