In June, the long awaited anthology The Dark Side of Gameplay: Controversial Issues in Playful Environments was published at Routledge. It contains 14 articles by 15 different authors, and an introduction by Jonas Linderoth and I. Editors are me, Jonas and Ashley ML Brown, and it's been a wonderful cooperation that has, I hope, brought you all a great book.
This, however, is not going to be a pre-review by somebody with stakes in the sale. I am not expecting huge sales at all, these Routledge books mainly go to libraries, and there's a limited amount of libraries at University with game/play scholarship. However, if you happen to be at one, do recommend this to your librarian! No, I wanted to tell you about this book, where it started and why it appeared to be so important that we went to all this work to see it written.
At Nordic DiGRA 2012, five game researchers I have liked for a very long time, were gathered for a panel: Ashley Brown, René Glas, Kristine Jørgensen, Jonas Linderoth,
Torill Elvira Mortensen: Waking up at the Dark Side: Difficult Content
in Playful Environments. We wanted to talk about the fact that it is possible to enjoy being the antagonist, the bad guy, without being a bad guy yourself. We wanted to write about the pleasure of sometimes feeling really bad, of losing and struggling. The topic was fear, sadism, aggression. After years of talking about the "the magic circle" as if it was some safe bubble, we wanted to address the fact that games sometimes contain really horrible things, it makes us play with topics, with emotions, with sensations and practices we are all perfectly aware would not be acceptable in real life, and we wanted to point out that this didn't necessarily mean that the persons doing so had to be morally corrupted.
The panel went really well, we were delighted with the reception and the discussion, and we decided to make it into a book. And so what for a long time was called "the dark play book" was born. Kristine and René were advisors, Jonas and I originally the editors, and Ashley the secretary. With the support of Gothenburg University and the IT University of Copenhagen, we got money for a workshop for the authors, and to pay Ashley (at the time still a Ph D student) as editorial secretary. At the end Ashley turned out to be such a force of organisational energy and such a committed partner, that we included her as editor to acknowledge her vital contribution.
But at this point, we were still looking for others to work with. Over the next months we wrote a call for articles which was sent out to select authors and had a meeting with an editor for a respected publisher to discuss if it was a viable topic, while Jonas and I scrounged for the funding mentioned above. The enthusiasm we were received with from other scholars was stunning, and in 2013 there was a great symposium in Gothenburg to discuss the first drafts of the articles. Almost all the authors managed to make their way there, and I think the book reflects the work done over the two days it lasted. The topics were discussed enthusiastically, the questions we needed to explore were clarified, and everybody present learned how their own work fit into that of the others. We all came away from it with a fantastic energy, and some of the participants have written letters of thanks to us, the editors, just for letting them be present, pointing out how vital it is to an academic career to learn the basics of constructive criticism and cooperation from peers. At this point, I was really in love with the project.
The work continued both when we were engaging with the book, and when we were doing other things. Now, 2012 was a year when it was tough to be a game scholar in Scandinavia. The year before gaming, particularly in World of Warcraft, had been viewed as a breeding ground for terrorists and killers. Faltin Karlsen, Kristine Jørgensen and I were all involved in the media discussions of that topic in Norwegian newspapers. Faltin ended up using a lot of the work he did in order to discuss games in public in the book A World of Excesses, where he discusses the effects of heavy gaming. I started edited this book on dark play, as a response to and exploration of the idea that provocative content in games only functions as an outlet for desires that will be acted upon in the future, and Kristine built on this work (and her own brilliant book Gameworld Interfaces) to secure funding for a four year research project on Games and Transgressive Aesthetics. (Yes, I get to hang out with these wonderfully smart people. It's the main upside of being in academia!) None of us studied the actual event in July 2011, but all of us felt the impact and the need to revise our view on games. Personally I needed to question my own love of games through research. And by editing this book, I managed to get a lot of other people to join me in that process!
The conclusion of The Dark Side of Gameplay isn't that games are a safe space, or necessarily always such a good and fun thing to do. It takes seriously and looks at scams, cheats, half-way criminal activities such as breaking game locks of commercial titles, violent and outrageous content, accusations of sadism and the meaning of in-game death. But I got to read a lot of wonderful articles about how this takes the step towards creating a mature medium, how it provokes thought and challenges ideas, the way art is supposed to do. And all through the comments, the proofing, the millions of checks of citations and quotes, the seemingly endless hours of adjusting type setting and writing authors with questions to details, I kept loving the work.
I don't know any more if this is a good book, I have invested too much in getting it out, and I am profoundly relieved. I think it's a book that needed to be written. Dark play, problematic topics, transgressive playfulness, it is currently one of the big buzzwords of game studies, and despite the long process of academic publishing it does feel as if it's on time. And I know I still love the book, three years after it all started.
Now it is your turn to enjoy how others think about games, the parts of games that is so often addressed negatively, when it's addressed at all. Hopefully, it will send you on a small version of the journey it has sent me on.