The Craft of Turning Video Games into Literary Essays
J. Robert Lennon and Carmen Maria Machado discuss how their anthology "Critical Hits: Writers Playing Video Games" came together
On March 20th, 2020, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released. Just a few days after the majority of the world shut down, marking the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people fell into a virtual world in which sickness was not rampant and you could pay back the construction costs on your home at your own pace.
It felt like more people than ever were playing and talking about video games; it makes sense, then, that Critical Hits: Writers Playing Video Games was birthed from quarantine conversations. But, escapism and playing-in-isolation only scratches the surface of what the eighteen essays in this anthology take on. With refreshing diversity of both form and approach to thinking about games, each piece comes from a place of fact and understanding: video games are art, worthy of both our pleasure and our curiosity. To have comics and stunning personal narratives alongside thoroughly researched critical works makes sense—video games are vast and varied, and Critical Hits complements the enormity of the field.
I spoke with J. Robert Lennon and Carmen Maria Machado over Zoom and e-mail to talk about the crafting of the collection and their own relationships to video games.
Summer Farah: How did this project come together? How did you come to the topic of video games and the partnership with your co-editor?
Carmen Maria Machado: Early COVID, Graywolf was doing these very sweet little Zoom hangouts where we were all catching up. Just talking about what we were doing for our quarantine, stuff like that. For me, that was video games. John is also obviously a big video game person, so we were all kind of just talking about it. And my editor, Ethan, made some comment about it: “has there ever been a video game anthology? Writers writing about video games?“ And then at some point people started following up more earnestly. They told us, “Hey, we actually looked and like there isn’t really anything like it, would you guys wanna co-edit one?”
J. Robert Lennon: Yeah, I recall someone saying in the Zoom, “Maybe we should do an anthology, ha ha,” and us responding, “You totally should, ha ha.” And then before we knew it they were saying, “no, actually, you should do an anthology!” Ander Monson was also in on these conversations, too, and he was an obvious person to ask for an essay—his Predator piece was one of the first that came in. I’m grateful for the Wolves for running with this idea and trusting us to make it a reality.
SF: What was doing the preliminary work for the anthology like, especially as video game writing is a newer creative space?
CMM: I’ve edited anthologies before, but only ever in the capacity of a prize, or Best American Science Fiction Fantasy. But this was a totally different animal. So it involved a lot of us brainstorming a list of other writers we know who are big video game fans. We were also very purposeful about getting a wide representation in this book, not just of types of authors but types of gamers—there’s hardcore gamers, and then there’s casual gamers. (Personally, I feel like I’m somewhere in between.) We were curious what people would have to say about how games fit creatively in writers’ lives. How do video games fit into a creative practice—or, do they? Or is it just like, stress relief?
CMM: Could you speak to the choice of doing a curated anthology rather than putting out an open call?
JRL: An open call was definitely on the table, but there were so many writers who seemed like promising solicitations that we figured we should ask them first and see what happened. Personally, I expected that most the writers we contacted would say no, and we’d spend a lot of time reading through stuff from the call. But the response to our emails was overwhelming. There seemed to be a lot of pent-up desire to write about games, and the majority of people we asked gave us something great.
SF: Eleanor Henderson’s essay “The Great Indoorsmen” was one of my favorites, it was a really refreshing take. There are a lot of tired narratives about video games, unnuanced discussions that make me go, okay, what’s next? Were there narratives you were hoping to avoid or themes that people brought in that you were surprised by?
CMM: We said this early on, that the thing we wanted to avoid was the question of video games being art. They are art. We’re not debating that. “Are video games art?” is a question that reminds me of the literary-versus-genre question. And I fucking hate conversation, it makes me crazy. It’s such a non-issue, it feels exhausting to have it over and over again because it’s settled. Thinking of these things is like being on opposite sides combative of each other… It’s not interesting. It’s not useful. We assume video games are art. We know they are.
JRL: Agree, I think the first person from the literary world who tried to settle that question was Tom Bissell, with his terrific book Extra Lives. That was in 2010. Since then I’ve talked with lots of writers about games, and everyone skips that subject—we all know they’re an important artistic form, and have influenced our writing. There are few faculty members in my academic department creating a scholarly literature about games, as well. That ship has sailed, we really wanted to jump into the next phase of the popular conversation.
SF: Do you feel like your relationship to games changed over the course of editing anthology?
CMM: Early on, we decided John would contribute a reprinted essay. And then [the team was like], do you want to do your own essay? Do you want to reprint something, or write a new thing? And I was like, I’ll do an intro. It’s fine. I had some small theories and ideas about gaming, but nothing I was really ready to develop into a full essay. I decided to take more of a survey approach; thinking back to my own life, my own childhood, my adolescence. It ended up being a deep dive into my own [history] and where certain games were pegged to event in my life. Like all media—like with a book or a movie an album—you might be like, oh yeah, I remember reading that during a bad breakup or whatever. So I used games as a way of organizing my life. It was an interesting feeling—really nostalgic and fun and sad.
JRL: With books and literature, I always felt like my impressions were part of a worldwide conversation. I read book reviews, I went to school, everyone around me was talking about books–there was an established literate culture to be a part of. My interest in games always felt more private, maybe because no one in authority ever rewarded me for talking about them. It was always more like, “Okay, John, that’s enough about Ms. Pac-Man.” Reading these essays made me feel, for the first time, like part of a community of people thinking and feeling things about the art form, and has made playing games seem more like a communal activity, even when I’m doing it alone. Now, when I kill twenty minutes in the Spiral Abyss in Genshin Impact, I’m thinking of Larissa! When I dip back into Red Dead, I’m thinking of Hanif.
SF: Are you interested in writing on games more in the future?
CMM: Oh yeah, for sure. I mean, honestly, to be able to work on a video game, writing for a game, is definitely a big goal.
JRL: Yeah, it’s funny that Carmen vaulted right over the question of writing about games to writing games themselves. I feel the same way—I’ve got a lot on my plate, but if somebody asked me to write a game I’d put everything aside to take a crack at it.
SF: Does the act of playing games contribute to your writing practice? I mean, I guess it can also hurt.
JRL: My last novel, Subdivision, was definitely a direct response to a few years spent reimmersing myself in games after a long drought. I absorbed a lot about how puzzle games and open-world games are structured, how a game defines the boundaries of its world and evokes emotion, what imaginative control a player or reader gets to have over the work. Subdivision is essentially a gamification of the concepts of trauma and loss. I’ve also retroactively realized how much the games of my youth influenced my earlier work, as well and more broadly made me think a lot about how many of my literary influences aren’t literature.
CMM: Sometimes, it’s like watching a movie or reading a book. It’s not quite exactly the same, but I am engaging with a narrative. Some games are more artistically stimulating than others. And sometimes I’m just playing a game that’s not very narratively interesting, but pleasurable in some other way. Sometimes they help with my practice, sometimes they don’t. But either way, I do really love playing them. I have to be careful not to fall into a hole. It’s easy to lose time.
SF: What kind of life do you hope for this anthology?
CMM: The crazy thing about being a writer—and also an editor—is that you just have no way of knowing what life a book will have. So I don’t know. I mean, I hope that gamers read it. I hope that people who aren’t gamers read it. I hope people teach it.
JRL: Game journalism for gamers has existed for decades, and game scholarship is an active and exciting field, but literary essays about gaming for a general readership have been kind of a subgenre without a home. Like, where else would you have put Nana’s essay processing his father’s death through Disco Elysium, or Elissa’s about playing The Last of Us while pondering the question of parenthood? It’s been a pleasure creating the space for these great writers to say things they might not otherwise have done.
SF: What are you playing right now?
CMM: Tears of the Kingdom. What’s the one that’s coming from Xbox everyone’s freaking out about–Starfield? I don’t own an Xbox, but this game looks really cool. I’m considering getting an Xbox.
JRL: Oh man, yes, my reward for finishing the novel draft I’m working on will be buying an Xbox and playing Starfield. It’s probably good that I won’t be done on launch day, though, I’ve been burned by Bethesda before! Best to chill until the bugs are gone. Since we started working on Critical Hits, I got a Steam Deck, and have been playing lots of little games by indie developers: Meredith Gran’s Perfect Tides, Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn, Sam Barlow’s Immortality. Kind of a parallel anthology of small, great things.