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Compulsion, Triumph, Regret, and Unease

Annie Schlechter

Gabriel Winslow-Yost

Annie Schlechter

Gabriel Winslow-Yost

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.


The New York Review of Books expanded its purview beyond books almost immediately, with a pointed review of “non-books” by John Hollander in the very first issue, but while the Review has covered paintings, music, photography, film, theater, and television for nearly sixty years, it wasn’t until 2012 that we published a review of a video game, albeit one based on an Andrei Tarkovsky film. That essay was written by Gabriel Winslow-Yost, who would go on to write for our pages a consideration of video-game culture in 2015 and, in this year’s Summer Issue, a review of the game The Stanley Parable.  Winslow-Yost, a contributing editor for the magazine, may very well be the resident video-game critic.

“I think let’s maybe wait until I manage to write another one before declaring my residence,” Winslow-Yost told me this week over e-mail, where we discussed what makes a video game art, what Martin Amis might have written about Mario, and the possible pleasures of obsession.


Daniel Drake: What is the first video game you ever played? And what was the first time you remember loving—or becoming obsessed with—a video game?

Gabriel Winslow-Yost: I’m not sure about the first one I ever played—there was a computer in the house from about as early as I can remember, because of my dad (who taught computer science for many years at the University of New Hampshire). So it would have been something on that: a freeware Centipede clone or some text adventure or something. I was definitely playing something or other, because I have a vivid memory of demanding my dad make me a computer game, when I was about five or so. We got as far having a spaceship move slowly across the screen before giving up.

Dating these things is very hard, though—hazy memories of video games are just sort of interwoven with the rest of my childhood, and it’s not clear what comes in what order. I think the first game I was really devoted to was Shadowrun, for the Sega Genesis, which I earned by completing a half-year of clarinet lessons in elementary school (and not a day more). It had a kind of proto–open world structure that was, in hindsight, very simplistic, but felt incredible: you could take taxis to different parts of a little 2D future city and just wander around hassling pedestrians, or you could talk to seedy dudes in the backs of bars or get slaughtered by corporate security. I think that was the first game I played all the way to the end of, though I did a lot of cheating because I didn’t have the attention span to make money in the game or figure out puzzles.

Are there any games you wish that the NYRB had covered in the past? What should have been written about Mario in 1985?

I do wish I could read, say, Martin Amis on Mario from back then. (He did write a whole book on arcade games back in the early 1980s, which is very out of print but still pretty interesting.)

But the period I wish had gotten some serious attention from the Review is the 1990s: that first decade of first-person shooters, from Wolfenstein 3D (1992) to about Halo (2001), is endlessly interesting, both as an era of relentless formal and technical one-upmanship—as programmers raced one another to work out how to virtually represent three-dimensional space, movement, and interaction—and as a sustained unselfconscious exploration of American gun obsession. It was probably the most important video game genre of its time, and it was entirely about seeing the world down the barrel of a gun—some of the games are works of genius, some are absolute garbage, but the whole period amounts to something that still feels deeply strange and important. But I have no idea what it means.

Surely John Leonard or someone could have been pulled away from fiction for a second to explain it to me.

Who are some critics—and what are some publications, for that matter—you like to read on video games?

Ian Bogost has written several of my favorite books on video games—especially Racing the Beam (cowritten with Nick Montfort), which demonstrated a kind of code- and hardware-based close reading of games that I hadn’t realized was possible. And there’s Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture by Alexander Galloway, which has become one of the foundational academic texts for gaming studies, and does an eloquent job of trying to pin down some of the basic ideas around what games are and how they work, in ways that I can never force my brain to do. I also just finished another academic book, Playing with Feelings by Aubrey Anable—an attempt to apply affect theory to games that I found surprisingly convincing, including a long chapter defending and analyzing casual games like Candy Crush, which I have long had basically just contempt for (and still do, though it’s become a little more complicated).

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The publication I read the most these days is probably Eurogamer. It’s the best-written of the game outlets, I think, along with maybe Kill Screen. Although, also, though it pains me to admit it, a lot of the most interesting games criticism these days is happening not in text but on YouTube: channels like Errant Signal and Jacob Geller and MandaloreGaming and Game Maker’s Toolkit. It may just be a quirk of algorithms and ad revenue, or it might have something to do with how much easier it is to explain a game to someone who can see and hear what you’re describing, but for whatever reason there seems to be a lot more space on YouTube for longer considerations of stranger—or just older—games than there generally has been in print (or even online “print”).

I’ll sidestep the question, as you do in your essay, of whether or not video games are art to ask instead: What dimension do video games act along that elevates them above other games, or makes them an art? I typically find, after playing a game, even my favorites, that I come away less interested in the world and more interested in the game and the obsessive reward-seeking it fosters.

I didn’t mean to sidestep it so much as take it for granted: they are obviously art! But I also think that making arguments about why they are is kind of a mug’s game—if you believe they are, you’re better off by just demonstrating it, taking games seriously by talking about them the way you would any other artwork.

I do think playing many of them can feel all-consuming, and sometimes that can be pretty gross. Video games have access to compulsion—that kind of deep-seated slot-machine feeling—and the mindless cleaning-up-the-kitchen zone-out in a way that other art forms don’t. But I think that’s also one of the things that makes them especially interesting, when it’s deployed well. A good game can turn compulsion and mindless acquiescence in interesting directions: forcing you to disobey, as something like The Stanley Parable does, or forcing you to go along with something obviously objectionable, as a number of games have done. (Things like Spec Ops: The Line, say, which pretended to be a run-of-the-mill macho military shooter, but then made “your” character commit a war crime and descend into madness.)

More generally, video games are better than books or movies or whatever at depicting feelings related to your own actions: compulsion, triumph, regret, unease. They’re also, maybe even more interestingly, capable of depicting complex, changeable systems in a way that I think no other form can: the way the contours of something like Sim City (or, even more so, Dwarf Fortress) emerge as you play it, and change in response to you. It’s a form of artistic depiction that isn’t static or narrative, but procedural—I think that’s more or less unique to games.

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