Paul Martin

Paul Martin is an Assistant Professor in Digital Media and Communications at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China. He has degrees in Psychology and English Literature, and his PhD was on space and place as means of expression in digital games. His current research areas focus on textual analysis, expression in games, Chinese esports and the formation and development of game studies as a field.

Contact: paul dot martin at nottingham dot edu dot cn

How to create different differences in game culture: A review of Future Gaming.

by Paul Martin

Who writes video game culture? Who defines its boundaries? Who normalizes its values? Who constructs its subjects? These are the central organising questions of Paolo Ruffino’s 2018 monograph Future Gaming: Creative Interventions in Video Game Culture. For game scholars interested in the practices, discourses and meanings around gaming these are important questions to consider, being central to many studies of this kind. But they also have a special significance for the field. Game scholars are, after all, one of those writers of game culture, and so the answers promise--or threaten--to reveal game scholars’ own relationship to the culture they study and their own complicity and responsibilities in its development and transformation. The monograph asks this set of questions, puts forth a well-argued strategy for their solution, and sets off a good way down the road to tackling them. On the way, Ruffino makes several insightful and surprising observations about game culture, breaking ground in areas highly suggestive of future research projects. Ultimately, I don’t think we get an answer to these framing questions of the text, and by the final page the subject position from which the book is being written remains somewhat generalized and undertheorized. But the posing of the questions will itself be valuable for anyone interested in game culture, and particularly for those who write about it.    

The main contribution here is the development of what Ruffino calls “Creative Game Studies.” The nebulousness of the term “creative” is potentially problematic. On the one hand, it is likely that most game scholars think, or at least hope, that their work is creative in some sense. On the other hand, “creative” has accrued negative connotations within critiques of the creative industries, where creativity is reduced to an individualising and hypercompetitive mode of work. The introductory chapter deals with both horns of this dilemma with admirable clarity, distinguishing the use of the term here from how it is employed in the creative industries discourse and also clearly laying out seven criteria for what constitutes creativity in the present definition. Ruffino describes his analyses of game culture as “interventions” that are distinguished from other approaches by being “intuitive, timely, performative, ethical, anti-authoritarian and anxious” (p.12). He claims that this approach allows a scholar to fundamentally question prevailing discourses in gaming culture by offering alternative ways of structuring differences, identities, and temporalities in gaming. Rather than being solutions-oriented, the project is intuitive, in the Bergson-Deleuzian sense (Deleuze, 1988). Its aim is to state new problems and make new “creative cuts” in a constantly evolving culture that the writer and the intervention are both a part of and apart from.

Future Gaming develops and updates many of the arguments Ruffino first published in his 2015 doctoral dissertation, Gamers’ games: Narratives of conflict, independence and engagement in video game culture. Ruffino has been developing the case studies from that dissertation in research articles and conference presentations in the intervening years, and this monograph synthesizes his approach very well. As the author acknowledges, gaming culture moves fast, and the pace of the academic publication cycle means game scholars are always in danger of being out of date in their examples. It is good to see that new additions to Ruffino’s analysis--a more in-depth engagement with GamerGate and a new consideration of Pokémon Go--demonstrate the continued relevance of his approach. Creative Game Studies is brought to the fore and clarified in this monograph, making the text a succinct and persuasive introduction to this potentially fruitful way of doing game scholarship.

After its introduction, the book focuses on five interventions to do with, in turn, gamification, independent game development, the boundaries of game consoles, game history, and GamerGate. The features of Creative Game Studies outlined in the book’s introduction run through these five chapters, which are each concerned in their own way with, in Ruffino’s words, “making different differences” (p.119). In each chapter, Ruffino avoids the usual questions, striving to find alternative configurations for a topic. He defines independent game development not in terms of business structures or game styles but in terms of the constant demands to define independence that independent game developers are subject to. In the following chapter, he redefines the PlayStation Network as a network in the Latourian sense, making room for forms of hacking--including his own writing--that reconfigure this network’s immaterial as well as material nodes. The chapter on history argues that even the most sophisticated histories of gaming tend to adopt a problematic view of the present as a safe destination from which to write, and suggests an alternative way of doing history in which the present is destabilized. Finally, GamerGate serves as an example of the value of academic game scholarship situating itself as simultaneously a part of game culture and outside it. Such a position, Ruffino argues, allows for new vectors that unsettle the “us versus them” discourse around GamerGate.

Ruffino’s great strength is in identifying new intellectual avenues through a lively and engaging play with the materials at his disposal. Drawing on publicly available documents, documentaries, forum threads, social media posts, published interviews, and personal experiences, Ruffino is ever alive to the possibilities of new interpretations of familiar concepts and arguments. For example, the re-interpretation of “engagement” as a kind of romantic attraction leads to a fascinating conceptualisation of the relationship between players and games; moving from a subject-object relationship to one based on kinship and dwelling. This move illuminates gamification discourse, but also has potentially far-reaching applications on other questions to do with players’ relationships with games. Similarly, Ruffino’s creative response to a forum thread accusing game academics of being “parasites” leads to a wonderful discussion drawing on Michel Serres’ (1982) identification of the parasite as at once a liminal figure and one that is central to transforming the systems it lives with and on. By re-appropriating this term as a positive metaphor for the work of the scholar, Ruffino makes an excellent theoretical case for the importance of the situatedness of the scholar in relation to the cultures they write about.

The book, then, argues persuasively for situatedness in game scholarship, but this does not always come across in the actual interventions. The author does insert himself into the analysis by asserting in each chapter that the intervention itself is a part of the culture it responds to and critiques. This is most fully accomplished in the chapter on the NikePlus Fuel Band, which dwells extensively on the author’s personal relationship to this product. In other chapters, the author enters the text quite late, and sometimes this has the feeling of an afterthought. More importantly, though, even when the author features centrally in the intervention, we learn little about the subject position from which the writing is actually taking place. The subject position is that of “the game scholar” and this tends to flatten differences across academia. It would be interesting to delve more deeply into these differences and how they influence the kinds of interventions that are produced. Furthermore, there is nothing said about the institutional forces that continually shape and re-shape the game scholar subject, or those who write about game culture in other spheres. Ruffino rightly cites game designer Anna Anthropy as someone who actively creates alternatives to taken-for-granted assumptions about games and game history. But a lack of engagement with how Anthropy’s own position is subjected to power is missing, leaving a rather naïve characterisation of her work as existing outside power. Ruffino writes:

Anthropy’s history of gaming is a history with no fathers, no mothers, and no parents. She asks herself and takes responsibility for what to make and which games to preserve. Her history has no teleology; it has unknown solutions and takes multiple personal directions, as it involves her as curator in the process of its own writing (p.117).

I take Ruffino’s point that Anthropy’s work is capable of opening up alternatives to standard game history and I share some of his optimism about this sort of work. But to understand fully Anthropy’s interventions it is important to also account for her situatedness in networks of power that determine the sorts of things she can write and produce. The same goes for game scholars. The game scholar is a presence in Future Gaming, but what is missing is a deep analysis of the institutional incentives, rewards and norms that structure the writing of game culture differently for different scholars. The game scholar may be a parasite, but it is a parasite whose transformational potentials are structured by the economics of academia, tenure and promotion rituals, publication norms and a host of other considerations that define the scope and impact of academic game writing. Perhaps such considerations are the topic for another book, but it seems to me that Creative Game Studies, if it is to flourish, must reckon with the subjectification of the game scholar.

Future Gaming will be of interest to game scholars interested in any of the five topics it treats, as the individual chapters stand alone as important contributions to these topics. But the book should also be read by game scholars more generally. Indeed, anyone interested in making interventions in game culture will benefit from thinking of their own relationship to this culture through the lens of Creative Game Studies. The book defines an approach that is clearly suited to development in a number of areas, and this makes it fertile ground for new research in games. The book focuses very much on anglophone game cultures, and it would be particularly welcome to see Creative Game Studies applied in different regional contexts--a task that Ruffino’s ongoing involvement with DiGRA Italia could facilitate. I have suggested that the approach needs to reckon with how different academic contexts constitute the game scholar subject in different ways, and it is perhaps only through the taking up of Creative Game Studies in these different contexts that such variability can be properly taken into account.



Deleuze, G. (1988). Bergsonism. New York: Zone Books.

Serres, M. (1982). The Parasite. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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