Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture and Marketing- by Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig De Peuter. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal 2003 ISBN 0-77-35-2591-2
Reviewed by: Jeremy Hunsinger, Center for Digital Discourse and Culture
Digital Play sounds fun and in the end it is. The book is both a fun read and a serious critical study of the social, economy, political, and cultural systems surrounding the computer game industry. Computer games are a significant part of many young people’s lives, they form a significant part of their informational environment, and over time have transformed from being simple graphic abstractions like space invaders to approximating real life through simulations such as The Sims(tm), Rainbow Six(tm), VirtualU(tm), and others. The variety and substance of these games provide experiences for their users, and as such, we need to understand them, but like the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and books we read, we have to be concerned about how games are produced and are producing cultures, markets, and social change.
The authors of Digital Play are beginning to provide an account of computer games for people interested in the larger social issues. However, that is not all they do in the book. Using a critical perspective derived form the plural sources of Harold Innis, Marshall McCluhan, Raymond Williams and the regulation school of political economy, the authors provide an extended theoretical presentation of the issues surrounding computer games. They develop a theory of media analysis based on “three circuits of interactivity”, which they illustrate with successive diagrams showing the development of their theory (p. 51). By adding theoretical complexity and flux to their model, they develop an analytical, through which they can then examine the computer game industry as it develops through time, and attempt to match the evidence to the theory.
The evidence in the book is extensive. The authors provide us with a critical history of the computer game industry that covers over one hundred pages, going into some detail examining the changes surrounding the technical infrastructure, the economic implications and the games themselves. They use this history and open up some of the central questions of the computer games industry, such as who produces the games, for what reasons, and what kind of labor do the players perform in the games? By introducing these questions through the historical analysis, the authors can later seek some answers by analyzing how their theory fits the reality when providing the answers.
By asking these questions, the authors also open up the third section of their book which centers on critical perspectives. They analyze how certain brands are formed and how those brands commodify play, not just for adult games, but more seriously for children’s games. Children’s games are much more brand oriented then the games like Oregon Trail(tm) that I played when I was in school. However, I should note that the authors are primarily focusing on commercial games and not necessarily taking into account the wide spectrum of educational games, serious games, and critical games that are beginning to make their presence known to gamers online and off. Also in this section, the authors deal with the question of gender stereotyping and capitalist structuring provided in many computer games. They provide an insightful chapter on “Designing Militarized Masculinity” which delves into some serious questions about the media ecology that certain games produce.
Overall, if you are seeking to familiarize yourself with the computer game industry from the perspective of critical cultural theory, then “Digital Play” is a must read. While other books are more narrowly focused on gender construction in computer games, or developing a computer game, this one is focused more on the system, the governance, and the effect of computer games on society as a whole. It however is not an indictment that some might be looking for in a critical analysis, instead following the tradition of Innis and McLuhan, it is a probing, historically based, theoretical analysis that brings to light questions and provides some interesting answers and explanations.