Online games, social narratives, by Esther MacCallum-Stewart

Nicolle Lamerichs

[0.1] Keywords—Audience analysis; Celebrity fans; Game history; Games; Indie games; Webcast

Lamerichs, Nicolle. 2015. Online Games, Social Narratives, by Esther MacCallum-Stewart [book review]. In "European Fans and European Fan Objects: Localization and Translation," edited by Anne Kustritz, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 19.

Esther MacCallum-Stewart. Online games, social narratives. New York: Routledge, 2014, hardcover, $115.68 (208p) ISBN 978-0-415-89190-5.

[1] The game industry is rapidly growing and developing. While game communities used to be studied in relation to role-playing games and vast virtual worlds, this no longer suffices. Game cultures are rapidly changing with the growth of independent games, the variety of online games, and the diversification of the platforms that they are played on. The communities constructed around digital games are becoming more diverse in terms of demography and play styles. While previous studies have focused on virtual worlds and role-playing games, today's online games are more diverse, including social games such as FarmVille (Zynga, 2009) or console titles such as Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar Games, 2010). Communities can be formed within these games, but players also connect outside of the game. They express their engagement on forums such as Reddit or broadcast their in-game actions on YouTube. Esther MacCallum-Stewart's Online Games, Social Narratives (2014) is a timely intervention that traces how player communities are constructed by players and by the game industry, and how participation is motivated in these media. The work is positioned at the nexus of fan studies and game studies, offering rich insights in the lived culture of video game players.

[2] This systematic study offers a well-argued and critical overview of recent developments in the game industries and game studies. Drawing from different disciplines, MacCallum-Stewart seeks to understand the social aspects of play and how players interpret the game narratives around them. Rather than relying on a large data set, this cultural study contextualizes specific tendencies in game culture through careful analysis and historical positioning. MacCallum-Stewart draws from analysis of games and primary texts, but also from interviews with fans and her own insights in game culture.

[3] Broadly speaking, three emerging phenomena have informed this book. First, the author examines increasingly popular fan creations, such as "let's play" videos—that is, game footage with commentary that players upload on broadcasting channels such as YouTube. These Webcasts are an increasingly popular way to share game experiences and to reshape single-player games into a community experience. Second, she assesses the role of local celebrities in game fandom, which include designers such as Markus "Notch" Persson, the developer of Minecraft (Mojang, 2011), but also big name fans, such as the members of The Yogscast (, who upload game play videos to YouTube. Third, the author is interested in the recent rise of indie games and casual games that are played on social media. Her critical views on game communities rely on case studies that center around these three topics, which are all closely related and which have redefined game culture.

[4] The book is divided in seven chapters. After a short introduction, the first chapter offers a history of online games that positions these media in relation to traditional role-playing groups and live-action role-playing. Traditional games, after all, heavily influenced the structures, mechanics, and role divisions of computer-mediated games. Gamers themselves are not always aware of these developments. Today's adolescents often find their way to digital games first and may move to board games and role-playing games later on. In the history of gaming, a genre or medium is not a point of closure, but board games and computer-mediated games exist together and propel each other forward. In the second chapter, MacCallum-Stewart discusses previous research on game communities. Unlike the stereotypical gamer, who is often depicted as adolescent and male, the demographics of gamers range widely. Previous game studies have often categorized gamers according to their activities, with various play styles that included competitive play, collecting, and socializing. MacCallum-Stewart insists on viewing players as individuals and emphasizes the diversity and ephemeral nature of game cultures.

[5] In the following chapters, the author provides various case studies. The third chapter discusses the fan culture of Webcasting, while the fourth discusses the creativity of game fans and the role of influential fans. The fifth and sixth chapters tackle the emerging economy and communities of indie gaming, where fans also have the roles of producers, funders, and gatekeepers. MacCallum-Stewart helpfully expands on these new consumer/producer roles by examining cases such as Minecraft. The final chapter interrogates free online games, which include virtual worlds for children and teenagers, such as Habbo Hotel (Sulake Corporation, 2000), but also "freemium" games. The latter are often casual games on social media that are free to play but monetize via add-ons such as status boosters or extensions. FarmVille is characteristic of this genre.

[6] Central to MacCallum-Stewart's book is the claim that online games are rich texts that have unique places in the individual lives of gamers. Game communities are not cohesive communities but rely on multiple media platform that upcoming research needs to explore more fully. Game communities are fractured and heterogeneous—"too disparate to exist in cultural cohesion." Her research claim addresses this explicitly: "I argue that although gamers have become too large a group to be examined as a cohesive whole, they are becoming hugely influential in modern cultural practices" (3). While game communities are not coherent, they appear that way through spokespersons such as game critics and through a shared subcultural capital that creates a sense of unity. As MacCallum-Stewart shows, fan producers and developers, such as Webcasters on YouTube, can become powerful spokespeople for the game community. She asserts, "Fans and fan producers are not a powerful elite but an active, influential part of gaming societies" (50). Designers and fans, however, also come into conflict with each other. The author illustrates this by a heated debate among the creator of the popular game Minecraft and his fan following, which escalated at the Minecon convention 2011. In this case, the game community had a toxic effect and fueled a heated debate. The study shows that relationships between audiences and producers can be difficult. The promise of intimacy and participation, which is often framed in a positive light in fan studies, can also lead to animosity.

[7] While gamers can self-identify with a larger community, they are not cohesive groups. Through Sherry Turkle's concept of "alone together," MacCallum-Stewart addresses the idea that a gamer can operate individually but still feel connected to others. Inherent is the idea that gamers are a diaspora. They operate on various media; they may also perform differently in the environments in which they play. A hardcore World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004) player may not bring the same attitude to his casual playthrough of Minecraft. Moreover, game communities are not only formed in a game but may also depend on a variety of existing platforms that range from official forums to Reddit and YouTube. While gamers are often categorized according to their memberships or activities, MacCallum-Stewart suggests that they need to be examined as individuals.

[8] A valuable contribution of this book to current debates in game studies lies in how the author corrects dominant views of online play in game studies. MacCallum-Stewart understands that the game or text itself should be understood as a large social environment: "Online games and rich texts cannot exist without players to bring them alive, and this is probably the most exciting, exuberant aspect of studying them" (15). With her unique approach, which also includes traditional games, she redefines views on online games as being solely about virtual worlds and role-playing. Her cases include social games, but she is also skeptical of their supposedly social nature. While these Facebook games are often framed as communities, since their mechanics motivate connecting with others, they do not necessarily imply bonding or togetherness. In games such as FarmVille, a gamer may even feel a false sense of community through simple mechanics, which allow him or her to gift items to other players. The gamers do not connect here in a meaningful way that propels game play and creates a social community: "The Facebook gaming structure encourages a large web of weak ties between players that are used to form social capital. During play, the player is constantly reminded that others are taking part in the same activities" (156).

[9] While game communities are often believed to be participatory cultures, MacCallum-Stewart reveals their limits. Clever game design can contribute to a false sense of community. By allowing gamers to experiment and appropriate their characters and game play, gamers get the sense that they are heard and that they can potentially address the media industry. Nonetheless, this dialogue is uneven and often false. The trend of unfinished games that are "always in beta" allow users to help co-construct the world, but at the same time, game designers shamelessly exploit gamers through such free labor, known as playbor. MacCallum-Stewart has a keen eye for the regimes that ground game cultures and the hierarchies that emerge in them. Moreover, these game communities may sharply restrict self-expression and participation, creating a false sort of socialization. In particular, online games for children mask the individual player through, for instance, censorship of language.

[10] This book's contribution to the field of fan studies resides in the fact that gaming is redefined here not only as a form of play or experience but rather as a complex social phenomenon. Often we find a sense of community where we least expect it. Webcasting includes viewers who are not playing but who are spectators of the game play of others. Such videos redefine game culture through commentary. In her poignant case study of The Yogscast, MacCallum-Stewart shows that such videos are more than walkthroughs. They are new narratives and parodies of the game that allow new meanings to emerge. These videos are best understood by those that have the necessary gaming capital to make sense of the references and in-jokes, thus rewarding game literacy.

[11] For fan scholars, this is an ideal and timely handbook to learn about game cultures and the social aspects of online gaming. The study is well written, extensive, and insightful. Methodologically, fan scholars might expect more from the book. While MacCallum-Stewart relies on mixed methods, we hardly see the outcomes of her autoethnography, which is briefly mentioned, or read a reflection on her role as a researcher and player. The case studies are contextualized well, but the results are often brief and explorative. While the study could have demonstrated more methodological and analytical expertise, it stands out in its contextualization of emerging phenomena, its clarity, and its finesse.

[12] Online Games, Social Narratives demonstrates the power of game fans as critics and producers. Scholars will gain more understanding about the formation of game communities that can easily be translated to their views and approach to other media audiences. MacCallum-Stewart's plea to examine online games as rich texts will undoubtedly also resonate with many fan scholars, who have to face daunting transmedia landscapes and a vast array of fan creations. These rich texts are best understood through their players, but a researcher must be wary not to categorize or label their activities and needs. The relationship among the players, the game, and the industry comprises a complex social network. We can only fully understand a virtual or traditional community when we realize that it is composed of individuals.