Paul Martin

Paul Martin is an Associate 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 educational games for language learning.

Contact information:
paul.martin at

Review: Player vs. Monster: The Making and Breaking of Video Game Monstrosity

by Paul Martin

Given the centrality of monsters in gaming culture, it is perhaps surprising how little game studies has reckoned with monstrosity. Game scholars have, of course, discussed monsters in their work, and sometimes make use of concepts and theories from monster studies (or teratology, if you prefer) but, as Jaroslav Švelch argues in the introduction to Player vs. Monster: The Making and Breaking of Video Game Monstrosity, the field has been slow to fully engage with the concept of the monster. Švelch’s book addresses this gap.

The book is the latest in MIT’s excellent Playful Thinking series -- now in its tenth year -- a series that, in the editors’ words, publishes “short, readable, argumentative books” about games (Švelch, 2023, p. ix). Player vs. Monster qualifies on all three counts, and while its short length necessarily leaves out much that needs to be said about video game monsters, it is highly readable and its argument is lively, interesting and persuasive.

The term “monster” comes from the same Latin root as “demonstrate,” and, as with much writing on monsters, the book’s starting point is that monsters are particularly potent ways in which anxieties and tensions in contemporary culture are revealed or demonstrated. Over its 150 or so pages, the book argues that video game monstrosity emerged in the context of the Cold War and an already established US and Japanese monster (popular) culture. The Cold War’s contribution was an anxiety about the other as enemy and an approach to threat and risk in terms of statistical probabilities. In parallel, monster culture of the 50s and 60s was creating an economy of monsters as collectible items. Game designers, starting with those behind Dungeons & Dragons (Gygax and Arneson, 1974), combined this background with the need to transform monsters from something you read about, watch or collect into a simulated plaything -- an object for the player. According to Švelch, it was these intersecting forces that forged the player-versus-environment logic that dominates gaming. The monster, as an antagonist that can be multiplied indefinitely at appropriate levels of challenge, fit perfectly into this logic. But the book also demonstrates how alternatives to the monster as PVE enemy can also be found in video games, indicating room for the videogame monster to demonstrate anxieties different from Cold War paranoia; anxieties around climate change, global terrorism and other post-Cold War threats.

The book’s author is an excellent guide through this argument. Player vs. Monster represents new research, but much of Švelch’s thinking draws on pieces he has already published or presented on video game monsters, for example on the alien antagonist in Alien: Isolation (Švelch, 2020). His work on the history of European games also sets him up well to work with the historical material that adumbrates the development of the game monster since the early 1970s, and even before in the context of electromechanical carnival games. The book will take an important place in the growing group of “monster scholars” discussed in the conclusion who are beginning to reach a critical mass in the field.

The book begins with an overview of one area in monster studies that will underpin the entire argument: the tension between monsters as sublime and as contained. The sublime argument sees monsters as radically other (Sarah Strang, 2018, drawing on Julia Kristeva, 1982) or cognitively disorienting (Noël Carrol, 1990); hybrid creatures that somehow escape the symbolic order or our capacity to reckon with or understand nature. On the other hand, all manner of bestiaries and visualizations over the years have sought to (and succeeded in) taming and containing the radical difference that monsters represent. The trajectory from sublime to contained is, of course, familiar in video games, where game designers are careful to ensure that the seemingly incomprehensible and undefeatable dragon can be understood (perhaps with the aid of a strategy guide) and, with a little practice, bested. On the one hand, this containment of monstrosity merely rehearses the database logic of the monster culture of the second half of the twentieth century in which, like compilers of medieval bestiaries, children were encouraged to collect miniatures such as Monster In My Pocket. On the other hand, it echoes the development in Cold War thinking of what Peter Galison (1994) calls the ontology of the enemy, where everything that moves is read by anti-aircraft artillery as hostile. Videogames drew on both tendencies: gathering monsters together for collection, and casting them as a priori hostile; creatures whose sole reason for existing was to be overcome (most likely destroyed) by the player.

This argument is largely convincing, and Švelch draws on a good stock of evidence from textual analysis and designers’ blogs and interviews to support it, but I found the final chapter, in which alternatives to this general paradigm are sketched out, to be the most interesting. Here, Švelch describes ways in which some games have refused to distance the player and the monster (Shadow of the Colossus (2005) and Undertale (2015) are his examples here) or refused to make the monster engageable as a hostile force (the Grue in Zork (1977) and the swarms of A Plague Tale (2019)). This chapter represented, to me, extremely fertile ground for a more developed analysis, and I felt it was a pity that the book ran out of road just as these alternative forms of monstrosity were being developed. A longer book could have delved into these alternatives at much greater length, but perhaps this is waiting for a future project. In particular, I found the lack of engagement with games where the player took on the role of the monster to be unfortunate. There are a couple of paragraphs on this in terms of the posthuman turn, but it seems to me a very important way in which the meaning of the monster in video games is unsettled or questioned, and deserves a more sustained treatment. In a longer book, no doubt it could have received its own chapter, but perhaps it is churlish to criticize a book for not being longer when its concision is also one of its strengths.

Player vs. Monster mounts an interesting, engaging and perhaps overdue argument about what video game monsters reveal about games and about contemporary culture more broadly. The argument will be of interest to those already familiar with monster theory, both in game studies and beyond, but the book also serves as an excellent entry-point for game scholars more broadly, with the introduction serving as a very nice overview of some relevant aspects of monster theory. The book is well-written, outlining relevant theory without off-putting jargon, and as such will be readable for people outside of academia.



Asobo Studio (2019). A Plague Tale: Innocence. [Sony PlayStation 4]. Digital game directed by David Dedeine and Kevin Choteau, published by Focus Home Interactive.

Carroll, N. (1990). The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart. Routledge.

Creative Assembly. (2014). Alien: Isolation [Microsoft Windows]. Digital game directed by Alistair Hope, published by Sega.

Fox, Toby. (2015). Undertale [Microsoft Windows]. Digital game, published by Toby Fox.

Galison, P. (1994). The ontology of the enemy: Norbert Wiener and the cybernetic vision. Critical Inquiry 21(1), 228-266.

Gygax, G. and Arneson, D. (1974). Dungeon & Dragons Volume 2: Monsters & Treasure. Tactical Studies Rules.

Infocom. (1977). Zork. [PDP-10]. Digital game designed by Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Dave Lebling and Bruce Daniels, published by Personal Software.

Kristeva, J. (1982). Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. European Perspectives. Columbia University Press.

Stang, S. (2018). Shrieking, biting, and licking: The monstrous-feminine and abject female monsters in video games. Press Start 4(2), 18-34.

Švelch, J. (2020). Should the Monster Play Fair?: Reception of Artificial Intelligence in Alien: Isolation. Game Studies 20(2).

Švelch, J. (2023). Player vs. Monster: The Making and Breaking of Video Game Monstrosity. The MIT Press.

Team Ico. (2005). Shadow of the Colossus. [Sony PlayStation 2]. Digital game directed by Fumito Ueda, published by Sony Computer Entertainment.

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