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In 'Critical Hits,' writers gets personal about video games

Illustrations of Carmen Maria Machado and J. Robert Lennon. (Courtesy)
Illustrations of Carmen Maria Machado and J. Robert Lennon. (Courtesy)

Heady discussion of video games thrives online — I’m personally hooked on YouTube videos that dissect canonical and obscure titles or offer wide-ranging comparative analyses.

But such essays rarely end up in slick trade paperbacks. A new anthology, “Critical Hits: Writers Playing Video Games,” bridges the gap and delivers a unique spin on the format by viewing games through the lens of self-reflection and social commentary. 

“I feel like the ideal game does for me what an ideal novel does, which is the medium itself begins to disappear,” says co-editor of the anthology J. Robert Lennon. “You feel yourself completely subsumed in the imagination of the writer or the world that the game developers have created.”

The cover of “Critical Hits: Writers Play Video Games.” (Courtesy)

A novelist by day, Lennon dwells on the pandemic connections he forged through the post-apocalyptic sandbox “Fallout 76” in his own essay. 

“I found that being in this kind of broken world and commiserating with strangers, it became this surprisingly pleasurable outlet,” says Lennon. “I would, you know, be waiting for a battle to start with a bunch of people in their outlandish costumes, talking about our lives and just waiting for the buzzer to go off so we can go shoot some ghouls.”

Co-editor Carmen Maria Machado, author of short fiction and the memoir “In the Dream House,” also relied on games to get through dark days. 

“I feel like it helps distract me from anything I don’t want to be thinking about,” Machado says, “which during COVID, for example, was quite helpful.”

Beyond providing much-needed solace, Machado also appreciates how games present stories and emotional experiences: “I have played games and have incredibly gorgeous writing and narrative structures and I’ve found myself really moved in the way I would be if I was reading a novel or watching a movie.”

Essays in the anthology use games to explore a wide spectrum of topics, ranging from gender identity to family trauma to radical politics. Machado and Lennon hope the book opens minds to the possibilities that the medium holds. 

“I think if this book can give people new and different ways to think about not just games, but how artists or creative minds might approach the experience of playing a game — that would be great,” says Machado. “I would absolutely love that.”

James Perkins Mastromarino produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Perkins Mastromarino also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.