In the summer of 2004 I was halfway through a degree in Economics and losing all interest in the subject. I still enjoyed many of my classes, but I felt like my main career options were to become either an investment banker (despicable) or an analyst for the civil service (politically neutering). After a long-overdue period of soul-searching I remembered that I had always wanted to make games for a living. This was something I had dreamed of as a child, but dismissed as a naive fantasy during high school; I had always been told it was impossible to break into the games industry, so I resigned myself to do something else for a living and just enjoy playing other people's games instead. During my sophomore slump, I realised that the intervening years of play had equipped me with an extremely broad knowledge of games. At the time, I was deep in the clutches of internet forum addition, and I would often look back over some of my longer posts and think they were more intelligent and insightful than most mainstream games journalism. I had discovered a talent outside of data analysis: I knew stuff about games!
My career goals shifted towards doing something game-related, but in order to reach them I would need a plan. Naturally my first step was to gather some data to analyse. I downloaded a ton of papers from the DiGRA archives and joined a couple of left-field games forums, mostly kept my nose out of the social side of things, and occasionally posted stuff about game design and analysis. I paid attention to posts from industry insiders who provided snippets of information about how the industry worked, slowly putting these pieces together like a sociocultural jigsaw to build an image of the games industry's inner mechanisms and thinking. As a result I became quite cynical about that whole career path as well, but it seemed preferable to gambling with people's pensions on the futures market, or providing politically-biased forecasts for a minister who wants to privatise the NHS.
During this time I was linked to a hip new website called The Gamer's Quarter, home to a quarterly gaming zine that was like nothing I had ever read before. A few bright souls had come together to write articles and comics and stuff that weren't about pushing the messages of corporate PR departments, or tedious, attention-grabbing articles about sex or violence or how wacky Japan was. The Gamer's Quarter was brilliant, and I ordered physical copies of every issue I could (nb. old issues are still available as a free download and are worth checking out). In the meantime I joined their forum and tried to join into the discussion when I could, but often felt like I had nothing worth contributing by the time I had caught up on each thread. I was embarrassed by the scale of my own arrogance - after months of convincing myself that I was an expert on games, I found myself intellectually outmatched at every turn. It was here that I first met Anna Anthropy.
I always felt like I could relate to Anna more than the other TGQ writers. We both made a lot of references to the consoles and games of our childhoods, we had similar tastes, a shared interest in whatever passes for auteurism in games, and her observations about design often sounded like concepts I felt I was already aware of but had never put into words. She was about my age and had equally uncertain life goals and seemed to share my blurred mix of fear, hate and woe about the state of the world. We both wanted to make games for a living, but neither of us had the prerequisite skills to do so. Also she was a girl, and that was kinda hot! Years passed. I graduated, got a job, and used most of the money I saved up to enroll in a postgraduate course in game theory and design; the rest of the money was spent on a summer trip across the US, including an afternoon spent hanging out with Anna in Manhattan. I continued to read TGQ and post on their forums. Then one day something happened which broke down a psychological barrier that I had been building in my mind since high school: Anna made a game.
Invader is a moody exploration game about a Space Invader who is shot down over a hostile alien world and must escape the crash site while evading enemies. The heroine - Invader Sammy - resembles a floating octopus armed with a pair of pistols, who can drift around her enclosed environs in any direction but can only shoot horizontally. The central shaft of her crash site is blocked by thin layers of rubble, which Sammy could blast through quite easily if only she could get close enough for her horizontal shots to find purchase. Because of these given restrictions, Sammy must instead detour through caves, temples and factories leading off from the shaft, circuitously slogging her way past every obstacle until she reaches the planet's surface and flies away to freedom. I enjoyed the game so much that I made it the subject of my first paper on the postgrad course. But the deepest questions raised by Invader were much more personal to me, and didn't make it into my essay. How did Anna create something like this? What witchery gave her the power to make games all of a sudden? And how could I learn to do it too?!
It's because of Anna that I bought a copy of Game Maker and began teaching myself how to make games. It's because of Anna that I write about games the way I do, focusing on positive learnings, constructive criticism, encouraging people to create their own games and experiment and express themselves. It's because of Anna that I keep making so many interesting new friends at GDC - she is often surrounded by talented, unknown developers who you never read about in the news because they don't have distribution deals with Sony or Microsoft. In many ways I still feel like I'm crawling in her shadow, learning from her experiences before I commit to new ideas and activities; Recall that she helped to create The Gamer's Quarter eight years before Midnight Resistance c-sectioned itself out of the bowels of Hell.
At the same time, I sometimes feel like my position as a white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgendered male working for a commercial developer makes me an embodiment of everything she rails against in her writing. Over time I've become more aware of the darker ways our lives have mirrored each other - the way she dropped out of two universities while I graduated twice, the way she struggled to make a living by pursuing her dream while I lived quite comfortably by repressing my own, and the way she found a enviably loving relationship with Midnight Resistance's own Daphny David while I got over my last girlfriend and spelunked new depths of solitude. At times I feel my relationship to Anna resembles that of a misshapen, mentally deficient, failed clone, championing the same causes while following a perversely different course of action.
I wanted my first article on this site to be something interesting and meaningful and positive, so last December I got on a train to Cambridge, hung out with the CB2 Indies crowd during Ludum Dare, and bashed out How To Make A Game - an apparently tongue-in-cheek (although actually not at all) guide to making games for virgins - to try and pass on some of the lessons that I had learned while following Anna's lead. In the months between writing the article and publishing it, Anna released a book that covers all of the same topics in a far more cogent and developed format. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives And People Like You Are Taking Back An Artform is a condensed guide to the basic elements of games, the history of videogame development, the philosophy of modern game design, and good jumping-off points for making your first games. It is written with complete novices in mind - people who may not even have played a videogame before, let alone made one - yet is still a refreshing read for people who know stuff about games. Again, I find myself hopelessly outmatched.
This article was originally supposed to be a review of the book, but I couldn't decide where to begin. There is no such thing as an objective review, and for me to write subjectively about Anna's work really requires you to understand the nature and history of our relationship. Here's your review: This is a good book. OF COURSE I think it's a good book - half of my opinions on game design and culture have developed in parallel with the author's! With each passing year I watch with envy and admiration as she continues to bring bigger and better guns to my pathetic knife-fight, circuitously slogging her way past every obstacle quicker than I can navigate the direct channels my priviledge permits. If you want to understand why I would reccommend reading this book, then I submit this tale as a review of the author; my inspiration, my rival, and my friend.