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Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games

Editor: Zach Whalen, Laurie N. Taylor
Publisher: Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2008
Review Published: August 2009

 REVIEW 1: Carly A. Kocurek
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Zach Whalen

In Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, editors Zach Whalen and Laurie N. Taylor and a team of scholars take up the complex task of picking apart the way that the past -- both "real" and remembered -- influences video games and gaming practices. Growing out of a gaming studies conference held at the University of Florida in 2005, the essays in the book display a substantial amount of interplay while avoiding redundancy and overlap. The general theme of the book, "that video games help us think about history and nostalgia in profound and important ways" (vii), should appeal to readers in a variety of fields, including cultural studies, history, popular culture studies, and video game and digital media studies. While the collection is explicitly focused on "video games" the theoretical issues raised in a number of the essays about how we discuss the past and its effect on contemporary culture have implications for many fields of study. Opening the book is Whalen and Taylor's thought provoking introductory essay, which offers some compelling commentary on the potentially constructive nature of nostalgia and explains that video games, tied as they are to childhood, technology, and earlier media forms, offer a particularly useful context for the study of nostalgia. Throughout, the collection presents scholarship from diverse disciplinary perspectives addressing three key themes: classic gaming and nostalgia (covered in Part I, "Playing in the Past"), gaming's place in a broader media history ("Playing and the Past"), and the way nostalgia and history are treated in contemporary games ("Playing with the Past").

The first section, "Playing in the Past: Negotiation Nostalgia and Classic Gaming," discusses classic gaming, broadly defined. In the first essay in the section, "Why Old School is 'Cool': A Brief Analysis of Classic Video Game Nostalgia," Sean Fenty explores the multiple levels of nostalgia that have helped revive classic games as desirable cultural objects. Fenty points to straightforward factors like the scarcity of certain games, but also argues more complexly that certain games have become "digital homes" for players who desire, again and again, to return to them. Natasha Whiteman's "Homesick for Silent Hill: Modalities of Nostalgia in Fan Responses to Silent Hill 4: The Room" in some ways picks up where Fenty leaves off, analyzing fans' postings about Silent Hill 4 and defining the multiple types of nostalgia she sees expressed by disappointed Silent Hill fans. The next essay in the section, "Playing the Deja-New: 'Plug it in and Play TV Games' and the Cultural Politics of Classic Gaming" by Matthew Thomas Payne takes on the retro-game-packed plug and play (PNP) consoles, arguing that the toys engender certain types of gaming practices and create a limited version of what classic gaming might mean. Among the more compelling essays in the collection, Wm. Ruffin's "Hacks, Mods, Easter Eggs, and Fossils: Intentionality and Digitalism in the Video Game" argues that the study of games requires an approach that understands not only cultural studies, but digitalism. This essay in particular has interesting implications for scholars of video games and other interactive media. Finally, Terry Harpold closes the section with "Screw the Grue: Mediality, Metalepsis, Recapture." Harpold grapples with the technical elements of the technological and semiotic entanglement that makes up games, focusing in particular on Zork I: The Great Underground Empire, Virtual Valerie, and Bad Mojo.

Part II, "Playing and the Past: Understanding Media History and Video Games," features essays that work to position video gaming in broader narratives of media history. In "Unlimited Minutes: Playing Games in the Palm of Your Hand," Sheila C. Murphy assesses mobile phone and handheld gaming, engaging in particular with the games' technical limitations and the ways that these games, like the Sony Walkman and other portable music players, allow users to construct zones of privacy in public space. Andrew E. Jankowich's "Visions and Revisions of the Hollywood Golden Age and America in the Thirties and Forties: Prince of Persia and Crimson Skies" suggests that contemporary games steeped in classical Hollywood cinematic traditions broaden the scope of gaming as a medium and allow games to address potentially controversial topics. Like Jankowich's piece, the next essay in the section, Thomas E. Gersic's "Toward a New Sound for Games," has interesting implications for game development. Gersic works toward a theoretical framework for sound design for games, suggesting, among other things, that all sound in games, including music and other audio elements and sound effects, can function as a single musical composition. In "Remembrances of Things Fast: Conceptualizing Nostalgic-Play in the Battlestar Galactica Video Game," Anna Reading and Colin Harvey offer a historical perspective on nostalgia and stage an intervention not only into current approaches to game studies, but also into the dominant conceptions of nostalgia invoked by scholars, which means that the essay should be of use to anyone interested in the cultural function of nostalgia.

The book's final section, "Playing with the Past: Nostalgia and Real History and Video Games," offers a handful of essays focused primarily on content issues. This section is the one most likely to appeal to a general academic audience. The first of these essays is James Campbell's "Just Less Than Total War: Simulating World War II as Ludic Nostalgia." Campbell suggests that first-person shooters set in the historical landscape of WWII demonstrate substantial nostalgia for earlier wars, in that they are necessarily "limited" by the rules of the game -- unlike the "real" WWII, which was an absolute war. These WWII FPSs, then, are nostalgic in their displayed longing for limited, ludic warfare, and also in their reconstruction of WWII as a limited war. Next in the section, Scott Magelssen writes about the "virtual environments" presented in living history museums in "Playing the (Virtual) Past: Online Character Interpretation as Living History at Old Sturbridge Village," discussing a program at Old Sturbridge Village that allows classrooms of students to conduct online interviews with "villagers." While Magelssen's essay does seem a bit afield from the bulk of the essays in the book, he makes a compelling argument about the role of virtuality in public discourses of history. Tracy Fullerton's contribution, "Documentary Games: Putting the Player in the Path of History," is a compelling discussion of the potential and pitfall of documentary video games. Last in the section, and in the book, is an interesting consideration of adventure games, titled "Of Puppets, Automatons, and Avatars: Automating the Reader-Player in Electronic Literature and Computer Games" by Robert P. Fletcher.

While the essays in Playing the Past touch on a wide variety of gaming genres and discuss games from the classic to the contemporary, the collection's thematic focus is enough to give some cohesion and provides much food for thought about the function, uses, and abuses of nostalgia and history in and around video gaming. Although some essays are ultimately more successful than others, all provide useful jumping off points and demonstrate interesting avenues for further research. The collection is at its weakest when the connections are the most tenuous and the definition of play or gaming being deployed is not clearly articulated. For example, Magelssen's essay on the online character interpretation service provided by Old Sturbridge Village is interesting, but ultimately out of place. His argument is sound, but he does not provide a compelling justification for considering the service he describes as being ludological in nature. Similarly, the essays by Gersic and Murphy, while well written and compelling, seem a bit afield from the anthology's central thematic thrust.

While the diversity of pieces included in Playing the Past works against the cohesion of the collection at points, it also suggests the vast amount of work there is yet to be done in the field of game studies, and also how fruitful more theoretical considerations of the form and content of games can be. In this collection, video gaming proves a useful avenue for serious thought not only about the cultural practice of gaming itself, but also about history, nostalgia, and narrative meaning making. Additionally, the essays suggest some interesting and innovative use of video games in and around the classroom, particularly in fields like history and documentary studies which may not be particularly inclined to seek out the instructional potential of video games.

Carly A. Kocurek:
Carly A. Kocurek is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and a former senior editor at Flow, an online journal of television and media studies. Her research focuses on gender and digital culture, and she is completing a dissertation on masculinity and video gaming in the "golden age" of the arcade. She blogs at SparkleBliss.  <carlykocurek@mail.utexas.edu>

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