Wills, John. Gamer Nation: Video Games and American Culture. Johns Hopkins UP, 2019. ISBN 9781421428703. $34.95 (paperback). 296pp.
Published on the cusp of a new console generation and reviewed, here, in a context when gaming, technology, and online engagement have never been more relevant, John Wills’s Gamer Nation: Video Games and American Culture (2019) has enhanced meaning for a 2021 audience. Indeed, given the close attention that has been paid to video games in both scholarship and popular culture as of late, Wills’s study is particularly pertinent. Alongside academic works such as Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (2010) and journals such as Games and Culture (2006 – 2020), the last decade has seen online documentaries (High Score, 2020), semi-fictionalised histories (Console Wars, 2014), and countless websites, YouTube channels, and Twitch streams devoted to the appraisal and discussion of video games. At the same time, the U.S. is embarking on a new era in its culture, ushered in by the election of a new president. This follows, however, a divisive “battle for the soul of the nation,” one which—if not for Trump’s refusal to participate in a remote debate—would have been fought virtually, with both opponents competing via video conferencing calls. In 2021, Wills’s twin concerns—gaming and American culture—seem ripe for debate.
However, while Joe Biden’s relatively close victory in the 2020 presidential election raises questions as to whether the nation is predominantly Republican or Democrat, Wills suggests an alternative answer in this volume: that the U.S. is a “Gamer Nation” of around 185 million players (3). But rather than provide a simple history or origin story for this “national pastime” (3)—even if his study is broadly chronological in structure—Wills seeks to explore “the versions of America produced by programmer imaginations, computer chips, and joystick twitches” (9), as well as “the ability of video games to speak to American myth, culture, and society” (6). Aware of the fact that “games are basically operas made out of bridges” (Lantz), Wills uses a wide range of literary, cinematic, and video game texts to reveal the potential of gaming technology to reflect, satirise, and sometimes even accentuate contemporary American concerns. Indeed, by the end of the book, the close association between the gaming industry and U.S. culture has become strikingly apparent—even if the cover image, a pixelated Super Mario in Uncle Sam clothing, may have offered an early clue.
In his Introduction (“A New Realm of Play”), Wills also emphasises that his concern lies with “imagined worlds and stories,” rather than the binary debates that video games often attract, such as “Do games lead to violent behavior?” (14). In his—largely successful—attempt to understand these ‘imagined Americas,’ then, the author chooses some diverse but apposite examples. The Oregon Trail (1971), an educational game developed at Carleton College, Minnesota, is paired with Sid Meier’s ground-breaking Civilization (1991) in “Chapter One: Games and New Frontiers”; meanwhile, “Chapter Two: Playing Cowboys and Indians in the Digital Wild West” compares arcade classic Gun Fight (1975) to Red Dead Redemption (2010). Wills’s analysis of these games—which, altogether, encompasses almost six decades of software—is also dictated by three guiding principles: “the power of immersion, the ‘magic circle’ blur, and the motion of ‘reframing’” (16). Games provide the player with an ‘immersive’ experience as they draw the user into what has been called the ‘magic circle’: a simulated place, or a rendering of a real place, that includes everything from Seattle in The Last of Us Part II (2020) to Los Santos in Grand Theft Auto V (2013). However, this ‘magic circle world’ is not created in a vacuum, coded as it sometimes is by U.S. programmers in a specific U.S. place, and thus both worlds can “influence each other, bleed into one another, and co-create one another” (17)—hence the notion of ‘blur.’ Finally, video games deliver a highly visual, interactive perspective on past, present, and future Americas, as they are ‘reframed’ and repurposed within the gaming world (18).
These present and future Americas were amalgamated at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, described at the beginning of Chapter One. Fantastical exhibits organised by Walt Disney, General Electric, and IBM anticipated “a new horizon of technological mastery and prowess: a world of space cars, automation, computers, and play” (21), as well as a world “marked by bountiful electronic energy” (22). However, while some video games of the 1970s and 1980s looked forward to these futuristic landscapes and ‘final frontiers,’ others looked backward: to the widely recognised but heavily glamorised world of the U.S. West. For example, in both Civilisation and The Oregon Trail, the player is expected to act “in a pioneering manner and adopt an expansionist attitude to the land” (48), mapping and settling it like frontiersmen of the 1800s. Thus does Wills reveal the manner in which digital space, and the uncovering of new territory on a darkened screen, has a real-world equivalent in U.S. history. Unsurprisingly, the study of gaming frontiers in Chapter One gives way in Chapter Two to a study of the cowboy and gunslinger, archetypal figures appropriated for games like Gun Fight and Gun.Smoke (1985). Here, authenticity—until more nuanced games like Red Dead Redemption in 2010—was overlooked in favour of the mythologised cowpoke, already popularised in dime-store novels and Hollywood movies of the 1950s and 1960s. Overwhelmingly, the arcade machine “presented the bullet as the maker of the West, sidelining the contributions of the plough and dollar to Euro-American progress” (62). Not for the last time, then, do video games, in Wills’s study, appear to reduce cultural conflicts and shifts to binary oppositions and “win-lose” confrontations.
Having ended one chapter with an analysis of Red Dead Redemption—a game which recently received a sequel in 2019—Wills then cycles back to a title commonly believed to be the world’s first video game: Spacewar! (1962). In the aftermath of the Second World War, and during the earliest days of the Cold War, computers had not yet infiltrated homes and arcades, and were primarily used in calculations and military simulations. The “shoot ‘em up” game Spacewar! was the evolution of those simulations, with “IBCM rockets, spacecraft, and [the] dueling powers of the Cold War [brought] together on a single screen” (84). By the 1980s, then, action-packed, space-themed games, such as Space Invaders (1978) and Asteroids (1979), were extremely popular; however, some hit closer to home than others. In 1980, Atari released Missile Command, a game born out of Cold War tensions and the ever-present danger of total annihilation by Soviet or US technology. In Missile Command, the object is to deflect enemy rockets by firing your own; in other words, according to Wills, the “same technology that threatened death and destruction was also the ultimate cure” (90), and because of this, nuclear war would be “unwinnable” (93). There is no end to the game because the concept of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), in both real life and in-game, guaranteed that there would be no victor. As Wills explains, games and films of the 1960s–1980s were ways in which the Cold War could be visualised or simulated, because the war was “the definitive ‘imaginary war,’” according to Guy Oakes (qtd. in Wills 108). Missile Command is, then, as much of a simulation as the early military experiments conducted in the 1960s, as they both represent virtual imaginings of the Cold War endgame.
Wills continues the theme of apocalyptic Americas in “Chapter Four: 9/11 Code” and “Chapter Five: Fighting the Virtual War on Terror.” These chapters are concerned with the events that defined early-twenty-first-century America: the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001, and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Said chapters complement each other well: while 9/11 was an event mostly censored in video games and by the rest of the entertainment industry (for example, through the removal of the World Trade Center in the Spider-Man  trailer, and from the box art of Project Gotham Racing ), the reprisals against Iraq and Afghanistan took centre stage in most media. Considering the highly visual nature of the medium, it is unsurprising that Wills concentrates in Chapter Four on the “image of 9/11”: “The attacks on 9/11 were part of a global image war and an unfolding iconographic conflict” (112). Prior to 9/11, the Twin Towers were a vision synonymous with New York (and, more broadly, with the ascension of capitalist, urban America), and this metonymy was hinted at in games such as Crazy Taxi 2 (2001), Driver (1999), and Tekken 2 (1995), where the World Trade Center “provided ‘visual placement’ in a digital environment” (117). Together with the Statue of Liberty, the towers immediately located the player on Manhattan Island, when seen on screen. But as the U.S. gaming industry approached the dawn of the new millennium and Y2K, there emerged an increasing appetite for images of destruction and “end-of-days scenario[s]” (123); video games depicted the collapse of the Twin Towers long before they actually fell, in other words, and such images held heightened significance post-9/11. The prominence of the War on Terror in video games, meanwhile, is contrasted in Chapter Five with the relative inattention paid to 9/11 once the event had taken place. Nationalist titles such as America’s Army (2003) and Kuma\War (2004) suggest a tendency of the gaming industry to focus on the U.S.’s successes and military strength rather than its vulnerabilities and losses. Gaming, argues Wills, was complicit with other propagandistic media in its portrayal of the “alluring fight for American freedom and democracy” (149), and provided a liberating catharsis for players in the 2000s.
Chapters Six and Seven are devoted almost entirely to discussions of GTA V and Second Life (2003), and are a highlight of Wills’s study, given their tight, singular focus. In “Chapter Six: Grand Theft Los Angeles,” the author delivers an opening meditation on the significance of LA in American culture, citing its cinematic history, car culture, and the “distinctive light of Southern California” (165) as elements that developers Rockstar sought to incorporate into GTA V. However, the world of Los Santos is a satirical, pointed counterpart to the City of Angels, revealing the “emptiness behind the beauty of Los Angeles’s bodies, beach, and sand” (169). While it may be a virtual playground—players can visit strip clubs, steal cars, and order fast food—it nonetheless reveals the failure of the American Dream, due to the ubiquitousness of crime, economic disparity, and disenfranchised men. Similarly, the world of Second Life, explored in “Chapter Seven: Second Life, Second America” and developed by Linden Lab in San Francisco, was initially conceived as an online utopia. Framed not as a game but as a “new experience” that was, “in many ways, better than the real world” (192), users could create a new virtual self in a new virtual landscape. Such an experiment, according to Wills, “resembled an exercise in nation-building—a virtual re-enactment of the processes that fashioned real-life countries” (196). As U.S. companies like Amazon and Apple established in-game stores, and real-life tourist attractions were replicated wholesale within the game, Linden’s platform became—at least, temporarily—a second America. However, by the 2010s, the simulated realm had been all but retired, due to archaic graphics and an overreliance on “invisible transactions” (214). Overall, both GTA and Second Life demonstrate the hollowness of U.S. rhetoric regarding the American Dream, the frontier, and commercialism.
In his Conclusion (“Converging Worlds”), Wills muses on the ways in which video games have “offered playful, sometimes subversive, commentary on social, political, and cultural issues” (224). Whether with regards to Cold War anxieties, the moral decay of Los Angeles, or the enduring appeal of westward expansion, the examples he chooses do exactly that, as they speak to, reflect upon, and even sometimes anticipate changes in contemporary American culture. In an industry that owes much to Japanese culture and companies—Nintendo, Sega, and Sony, primarily—Wills demonstrates the influence of American culture and innovation on the gaming world; and vice-versa, as games “contributed to a pivotal shift in American life” in the last half-century (232). Due to the variety of texts discussed, there are some that are inevitably short-changed, and the work is at its best in the later chapters, where in-depth, chapter-long analyses prove most compelling. However, Gamer Nation: Video Games & American Culture is well-written, informative, and wholly original. In Wills’s assumption that video games—a medium, which, until recently, was viewed with some suspicion in the academy—are worthy of scholarship, he succeeds in taking the study of American gaming culture to the next level.
America’s Army. United States Army, 2002.
Asteroids. Atari, 1979.
Civilization. MicroProse, 1991.
Columbia Pictures. “Spider-Man – E3 2001 Teaser Trailer.” YouTube, uploaded by
SuperSpideyGearTHOUSAND, 21 July 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ozz8uxW733Q.
Costrel, France, creator. High Score. Netflix, 2020. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/ie/title/81019087.
Crazy Taxi 2. Sega, 2001.
Custer’s Revenge. Mystique, 1982.
Driver. GT Interactive Software, 1999.
Grand Theft Auto V. Rockstar Games, 2013.
Gun Fight. Taito, 1975.
Gun.Smoke. Capcom, 1985.
Harris, Blake J. Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation. HarperCollins, 2014.
Kuma\War. Kuma Reality Games, 2004.
Lantz, Frank. “Hearts and Minds.” Game Developers Conference, 20 Mar. 2014, Moscone Convention Centre, San Francisco. GDC Vault, https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1020788/Hearts-and-Minds.
McGonigal, Jane. Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Penguin Books, 2011.
Missile Command. Atari, 1980.
Project Gotham Racing. Bizarre Creations, 2001.
Red Dead Redemption. Rockstar Games, 2010.
Second Life. Linden, 2003.
Space Invaders. Taito, 1978.
Spacewar! MIT, 1962.
Tekken 2. Namco, 1995.
The Last of Us Part II. Naughty Dog, 2020.
The Oregon Trail. MECC, 1971.
Image credit: IJAS Online believes that the use of the image above of a book cover to illustrate a review of the book in question is excepted from copyright under fair dealing or fair use.