As Anna Anthropy explains it, ZZT is a strange videogame. Its screens, known as “boards” in ZZT’s parlance, are spatially organized symbols where a player character, almost always a smiley face, lives its life of talking, moving and solving puzzles. It is in the combination of these things that you can find the heart of ZZT’s odd gameplay, but it is also exacerbated by a second side of ZZT as a content-creation tool. Every copy of ZZT shipped with the tools to proliferate ZZT. Anyone can make more of it. Anyone can take the strange game even further than the towns or zoos that it shipped with.
This dual nature of ZZT as a game and as a platform is the value and the hook that Anna Anthropy’s ZZT, the latest book from Boss Fight Books, grabs onto. ZZT is Anthropy’s second book after 2012’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters and like that book it has a strong ethical desire to make the underground cultures and hidden histories of videogames visible and palpable to contemporary audiences. In Zinesters this ethic was a larger and more abstract concept, and it makes that book feel almost like a manifesto. Anthropy peppered personal history, design analysis and readings of her own games in order to create a comprehensive picture of what it means to be an independent creator of media stuck in the alienating nexus of contemporary capitalism.
ZZT is a continuation of a similar theme but with a much tighter focus, and as such it feels like a case study addendum to Zinesters. This is the highest possible compliment that I can pay to it, as Anthropy’s fine-grained analysis and reporting of how users both played and created with the ZZT platform is astounding. These separate modes of analysis require writing in different modes, and the book oscillates between interviews with people who played and created with ZZT to introspective readings of how Anthropy herself played with ZZT as a teenager without ever feeling stunted or forced.
I have critiqued previous Boss Fight Books for trailing off into strange versions of literary fiction where videogames become ciphers for emotions that have little to do with the games themselves. In these books, games are often storehouses for meaning that seem to have little value as objects in themselves; they exist to be implanted with significance. Anthropy offers the exact antidote for this. Drawing from both her experiences and interviews with developers and players, Anthropy makes a strong case for ZZT as a political machine that opened up possibilities for her in her life. It was not simply there to be politicized. Instead, the malleable universe of text on a screen, ready to mean anything, was and is openly political in and of itself. Combined with the fledgling internet, to which Anthropy devotes almost an entire chapter, and you have a tool that can incorporate and make real anything you can imagine. ZZT is not there to be given significance. Instead, it is an excess of it, and the job of the designer or the player is to tap into it and drink as deeply as possible.
For all of its strengths as a text that drives home the important aspects of ZZT’s social and personal importance, there were moments that I struggled through the book. While I am a huge fan of writing about games that takes the technical elements of a platform seriously, I had a very hard time turning Anthropy’s sections about how ZZT actually works into something I could understand. However, these technical moments are brief, and someone who is a little more capable (or familiar with ZZT’s systems) than I am might get more out of them.
Anna Anthropy does the near-impossible in ZZT’s 130 pages. She makes you comfortable with ZZT as a system, explains its value at the time it was released, shows several angles on it, and then makes an impassioned argument for why ZZT was, and continues to be, incredibly valuable for game players by giving them the simple tools necessary to understand how games work and can be made. Anthropy has set the gold standard for book-length studies of games with ZZT, and I would strongly encourage anyone even thinking about writing about games to start here.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com.