by Peter Rubin

Some childhood sense memories emerge unbidden; others resist excavation, no matter how hard you dig. And my first video game, whatever it is, lies safely interred in that latter category. Sure, I could tick off the titles I loved, the ones I tithed with whatever quarters I could scrounge — Centipede, Bump ’n’ Jump, Moon Patrol — even the smells and sounds of the arcades I played them in. But the origin point of my fascination is nowhere to be found. Not that it matters, at this point. Even if the bulk of my game-playing these days happens on my phone, the activity is one of the few true constants in my life. That hasn’t always been for the best, as anyone familiar with such attachments can tell you. Video games manage to be possibility and punishment, outlet and opiate, either or both. Thankfully, as games have evolved and grown — as experiences, as art, as a field — so, too, has the writing about them. Criticism, essay, profile; there’s no one type of story that feels particularly right for games, largely because games have drifted as far from their own origin point as I have from mine. The best writing about games is as vast and varied as games themselves.

If I had to, I could give you some contrived reason why now is the right time to compile some of my favorite pieces of writing about games. It’s the 40th anniversary of Tempest! Hey, when did we all get so old? But honestly, I’d rather do it just because. Because these pieces, from various points over the past decade or so, all moved something within me. Because they help underscore the fact that no other narrative media is quite as personal as a game. And because if we’re not thinking about games as a valid muse for joyous, staggering, important writing, then it’s no one’s fault but our own.

1) Voicebox 360 (Tom Bissell, New Yorker, August 2011)

Like any great writing, the best pieces about games transcend the game itself. That’s on display in this profile of Jennifer Hale, a voice actor recording her breakthrough performance as Commander Shepard in the blockbuster sci-fi game franchise Mass Effect. Bissell, who has since moved into writing games and screenplays, penned a number of seminal gaming pieces during his journalism career, this among them; his portrait of Hale is as welcoming to gaming know-nothings as it is to Mass Effect superfans. That’s in large part thanks to Hale herself, an avowedly outdoorsy person whose talent seems somehow inversely proportional to her (lack of) interest in gaming — a vocal powerhouse able to emote seemingly without cue or context. It’s a fascinating look into both the intricate sprawl of a game’s construction and the process of a truly gifted performer.

Michael Abbott, a professor of theatre at Wabash College and the proprietor of an influential gaming blog, told me, “You’d expect players to be tired of hearing Jennifer Hale’s voice after dozens of games, but she’s made herself untraceable. She’s played everything from a love-struck English schoolgirl to a stoic, battle-tested soldier. She’s a chameleon. It helps that she has a knack for making exposition and technical language sound like dinner conversation.”

I noticed that when Hale performed as Shepard her lush, dulcet speaking voice hardened somehow, as though edged in concrete. “Shepard’s a military person,” she told me later. “Military people do not get what they want by being emotional.” Indeed, during the session Hale stopped a few times because she knew she had gone “too emotional.” It was not merely Shepard’s martial bearing that constrained Hale. Because of the nonlinearity of the dialogue, she had to be vigilant about letting feeling from one line spill over into another. Hale performed with an intensity that she could, apparently, summon at will. She seemed to immerse herself, often looking around maniacally, her teeth bared in primate agitation. Then, as the context of new lines was explained to her, she would pace, picking at a cuticle or rubbing her arms or looking intently at her screen.

2) He’s Still Alive (Jenn Frank, Unwinnable, April 2013)

There’s no reason to sugarcoat what’s coming, since Frank’s astounding piece doesn’t either: the game That Dragon, Cancer stems from developer Ryan Green and his wife’s experience after their 4-year-old son was diagnosed with terminal cancer. And when Frank played an early version of it, set in an ICU, she had just lost her own mother to cancer. All of which is to say, this is not a light read. It’s difficult, tender, disorienting, beautiful — just as the game would go on to become, and just as life itself can be.

Ryan tells us, in an early in-game voice over, how at first this whole medical odyssey was “an adventure.” He was, he imagined, “a hero.” I heard him say that, and I thought how brave it was to just come right out and say that, and my stomach folded in on itself.

The very first time, my mother was supposed to die. She was supposed to die, and we succeeded instead. She survived several times after. For just under a year I was needlessly cavalier. I do remember what it felt like to be the hero. I also remember what it felt like to get so, so tired, which was a long time after I’d stopped being afraid.

(The story of the Greens didn’t end there; a few years later, Jason Tanz wrote a remarkable feature about them and That Dragon, Cancer for WIRED.)

3) The Natural: The Trouble Portraying Blackness in Video Games (Evan Narcisse, Kotaku, October 2015)

Despite all the technological advances made in game design over the years, a few things still seem to elude developers. The way mouths move when people talk is a big one. Hair is another big one. Well, that’s not quite true. Black hair is really the issue, as Narcisse points out.

A hairstyle like mine just grows how it grows. Sure, I get it cut a certain way. But it’s still pretty conservative. Boring. Common. Like I said before, millions of black men have been letting their hair grow like mine since time immemorial. Sidney Poitier. Morgan Freeman. Kofi Annan. Nintendo of America COO Reggie Fils-Aime. Chiwetel Ejiofor. My dad. The people making video games probably see it a few times a day, even if it’s just on TV or the internet. That’s what makes it so puzzling that a good-looking version of the basic natural has proven to be such a rare beast during my travels through hundreds of video games.

Yet, that’s only the table-setting. The real fun comes when Narcisse goes top-down, pivoting from gaming’s tonsorial shortcomings into a scathing critique of the many ways gaming has flattened and distorted Blackness into a parade of funhouse archetypes — and tying that to a flippancy he sees as endemic to the gaming industry:

The modern era of video games—let’s call it the last twenty or so years—has barely seen any black lead characters in big-budget or independent small-team video games. Oh, there’ve been sidekicks and boon companions aplenty. Too many of those have relied on tropes and stereotypes that are embarrassingly retrograde.

If we were really post-racial, then putting a black lead character in a game wouldn’t matter, right? Nary a second thought would be given. But every time the issue comes up, an ugly response meets it. I work in a position that lets me see these responses up close, and there’s nothing post-racial about them. They’re filled with a dismissiveness about the past injustices that black people have borne.

Given that this piece is from 2015 (and later adapted for the 2017 anthology The State of Play), there’s been some progress — some thanks to Narcisse himself, who moved into comics and games writing, and whose work on the recent game Spider-Man: Miles Morales helped establish the Afro-Latino protagonist as anything but flattened and distorted. But that doesn’t make this piece any less urgent, accurate, or needed than it was six years ago.

4) Clash Rules Everything Around Me (Tony Tulathimutte, Real Life, June 2016)

It’s easy to condemn the endless micromanipulations of modern mobile games like Clash of Clans. These are engines of extraction, designed not just to keep us tethered to our devices, but to entice us to pay for the privilege. What’s far harder is to dive into their machinations with the intellectual honesty that novelist Tulathimutte does. If we’re prepared to call this a waste of time, writes the unabashed Clash aficionado, we should do the same with reading, or sex, or any one of the pursuits that we deem intrinsically more valuable. It’s a keen, funny, discomfiting look at a pattern that sits somewhere on the dark swath between pleasure and compulsion.

The suggestion is that virtual life is an immersive escape fantasy, one in which your humdrum assigned existence is exchanged for other, more interesting, powerful, or liberated ones. This is no more true of Clash than it is of Tetris or Bejeweled. As your village’s Chief, you have no backstory or identity, your troops don’t speak or have relationships with one another, and there is no motive to destroy other than destruction itself; your adviser, a concerned-looking brunette, is all business, and so are most of the other human players.

But more often, video games, in the way they structure our behavior and obtrude into our lives, are less escapes from reality than they are metaphors for it. If modern life often seems like it’s about making money for large corporations just to pull in enough resources to buy things, collect experiences, form good connections, have fun, and improve yourself, all against a backdrop of nonstop worldwide violent conflict and plunder (especially in the Middle East), then Clash is more lifelike than life itself.

5) Pokimane Has Done Enough—and Has So Much Left to Do (Cecilia D’Anastasio, WIRED, August 2021)

Even after YouTube changed games forever, its endless video playthroughs rendering strategy and hint books obsolete, it was hard to imagine the rise of the livestreaming superstar. Yet, that cottage #content industry has become an inextricable part of gaming — and no one has unpacked it with the empathy or nuance that D’Anastasio did this year with her profile of 25-year-old Imane Anys, known to millions as Twitch gaming celebrity Pokimane.

Anys, sitting as she does at the intersection of two notably toxic megacommunities (gaming and Twitch, both of which have experienced racism- and misogyny-fueled upheaval over the years), has seen her own success weaponized against her — along with her personality, her skills, her appearance, and virtually everything else.

There is, then, a large swath of the gamer internet that views Anys as if she were the Twitch AI she jokes about—a human brand optimized for success. There has been a considerable and concerted effort among nobodies and e-celebrities alike to prove Anys is fake. Not fake as in “fake nice,” or fake as in “fake pretty,” or even fake as in “fake gamer girl.” Fake as in trying to be the most palatable and likable version of herself at all times. That trait seems like a natural byproduct of the modern entertainment industry, only exacerbated by the livestreaming business’s suggestion of total authenticity and Anys’ particular drive toward perfection. Regardless, YouTube creators with followings ranging from tens of people to millions have accused Anys of violating some unspoken rules of digital influencer morality.

The accusers are overwhelmingly men. Calling her “not a real person,” they rate her attractiveness on a scale out of 10, argue that she’s not funny, not good at games, that she’s lying about her relationship status. They hashtag their unfounded theories into Twitter’s trending bar. They also accused her of filing copyright claims against YouTubers who criticized her, trying to take their videos down. The caricature of Anys as a buttoned-up internet idol—balancing relatability with professional opacity—has taken on its own narrative.

Yet, as D’Anastasio chronicles, the drive to feed the maw trumps all. Whether these creators can step away from the machine that they once thought they’d tamed is one question; whether they can do so in a way that leaves them intact is another, far less certain one.