Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Arianna Gass reviews Playing with Feelings

Aubrey Anable. Playing with Feelings: Video Games and Affect. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. 176 pp.

Review by Arianna Gass

4 March 2019

Aubrey Anable’s Playing with Feelings: Video Games and Affect (2018) excavates affect theory’s relationship to the relatively young discipline of video game studies. Anable views video games as “affective archives,” objects worthy of scholarly attention because they document the entanglements of feeling, technology, history, and culture. Differentiating her work from that of Deleuzian affect theorists such as Brian Massumi, she begins with two statements that undergird her feminist reorientation to affect theory and game studies––“bodies are not machines” and “affect is not virtual” (p. xxi). She asks how affect holds the sensing body and the discursive body together; instead of turning to affect to dig deeper into the processual, precognitive, or computational, affect becomes her methodological orientation towards “the unfinished business of representation in theory” (p. 69).

Anable’s flavor of affect theory is notable because she rejects depth models of affect and code. The first two chapters demonstrate the importance of representation, or what might be called the “surface,” as something available to affect. Borrowing a term from media historian Laine Nooney, Anable “spelunks” into the period described by Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank as the cybernetic fold, exploring history like a cave diver groping in the dark. Following the work of Silvan Tomkins, Anable illuminates the process through which computational metaphors came to subtend definitions of cognition, cleaving cognition from affect. Focusing on Kentucky Route Zero (KR0), a point-and-click adventure video game, Anable offers us a glimpse of a world that works differently; in KR0, interactive technologies recapitulate historic conceptions of humans and computers while also pointing to the limitations of their own historical grounding. She then contemplates how entanglement––among the body and the machine, history and technology, representation and affect––might be meaningfully felt at the “surface” of our games. Karen Barad’s quantum physics-derived explanation of the porosity of touch contrasts with her experiences of touching the touchscreen and being touched by the representational elements of the mobile game Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP.

The final chapters of the book focus on video games as they relate to larger structures of feeling under neoliberalism. Anable explores how the “zany” rhythm of casual games relates to the commodification of affect under capitalist labor models and evidences their role as emotional mediators of a longing for a different relationship to labor. She reaches these conclusions by concentrating on “surfacing affects;” the ways labor is meaningfully gendered; the rhythms of repetitive player actions, like tapping; and how these games recapture and commodify affect through in-game microtransactions. Video games that foreground failure offer a counterpoint to the endless work of casual games. The difficulty or impossibility of reaching a win state catalyzes Anable’s theoretical argument that video games pair affect and aesthetics to generate meaning beyond the scope of representation. This argument opposes Ian Bogost’s “procedural rhetoric,” which places a premium on how games make meaning through beneath-the-surface code. Although proceduralists may balk at her pairing of aesthetics with affect, Anable’s conclusion that these games “use the aesthetics of failure and their affective dimensions to question the logic of ‘user error’” is a compelling and deft read of how games address contemporary culture (p. 129).

Anable gives language to potential discomforts with theoretical approaches that assume a non-Tomkinsian separation of affect and cognition. Her argument for the imbrication of representation and surface in affect comes as a salve to those who care "about what it feels like to be made a legible subject through forms of representation" (p. 8). At times, Anable’s rhetoric feels slippery and her conclusions mundane. However, I think both disorientation and familiarity are productive here. By reorienting readers to game studies through affect, Anable offers more than close readings of media objects; she offers scholars a nuanced position in ongoing media theoretical debates about representation.