Gaming

How a game about making zines helped me recapture my creativity in lockdown


When I sit down to play games, I am always more drawn to peaceful, low-pressure environments than high-pace adventure. I like those where I get to make a difference but not necessarily through violence. I spend time on my lush island in Animal Crossing and am rewarded for the aesthetically appealing organisation of my furniture. In the stylised windows of Super Mario Maker, I own the very tools that composed some of the defining games of all time and can do whatever I want with them. The play is in the making.

Creation games aren’t new; they go way back to the original SimCity and beyond. But in autumn 2019, during a period of intense, life-altering burnout, I came across Nathalie Lawhead’s Electric Zine Maker and it redefined what I thought I knew about play, creation and the art that can emerge from video game interfaces. Zine Maker is a clever, accessible tool in the disguise of a joyful toy. I had become sick from overwork and had resigned myself to transitioning careers, leaving writing fiction entirely to move into a more practical realm. I was convinced that the connection between the part of my brain that makes art and the part that produces joy was fried forever. But this game sparked it again.

A clever accessible tool in the disguise of a joyful toy ... Electric Zine Maker.
A clever accessible tool in the disguise of a joyful toy … Electric Zine Maker.

A zine is a handmade, most often photocopied, short-run publication. The form emerged from correspondences and critiques between readers of sci- fi fanzines in the 1930s, but skirted closer to the mainstream in the time of punk and, later, Riot Grrrl. Zines were a place where fans could chat outside of the editorial gaze of music publications, away from cultural gatekeepers. The medium encourages spontaneity, scrappiness, impulsiveness. Their collaged-together aesthetic was the product of necessity and limitation, but became iconic over time.

With the rise of the internet, personal websites and blogs offered a digital alternative to the zine – as did video games, in their way. In the 2012 book, The Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, author and game designer Anna Anthropy posits that zines and games are intrinsically linked: “It’s the creation of an author and her accomplice, the player; it is handmade by the former and personally distributed to the latter. The video game is a zine.”

Electric Zine Maker gives us a playful way to design and create real, print zines once more. The software streamlines the creation of a one-page zine: an A4 page folded into an A8 booklet. The tools are simple: text boxes, image pasting, some paint brushes and filters. A folding guide tells you how to turn it from a flat page into a 3D object once you print it off. It’s all laid out in bright, roaring neon, reminiscent of a CD-Rom from the mid-1990s. It feels like a piece of time travel, a return to childhood tinkering in The Simpsons Cartoon Studio in 1996.

A return to childhood tinkering ... Electric Zine Maker.
A return to childhood tinkering … Electric Zine Maker.

In the background of the homescreen, a school of goldfish swims by, ambient. A pixelated gif of a potato lives in a corner of the window, chirping encouragement at you if you click it. On some of the creative tool pages, tiny emojis are hidden, offering silly dialogue when you find them. A bacon brush lets you paint ribbons of rashers. A button lets you offer your zine to The Void, scrambling the screen and spewing back a piece of randomly generated glitch art. The software’s bright layout and playful text is disarming – and when our guard is down, we can really make interesting things.

My first run of zines made through this software were printed on bright yellow paper, and featured images of bananas cut to look like dolphins. There was some text inside, detailing a little of how burned out I felt, how exhaustion had drained the laughter out of me, and how these dolphins had brought some of it back.

I was spending hours sitting up at night, planning my route out of the industry I had spent my entire life breaking into. I thought that telling the truth, and juxtaposing it with the pictures I found along the way, might result in something that would connect with people. It was low risk: I only printed 30 copies. Thirty A4 pages, which were laid out according to Lawhead’s structure, with folding instructions. I then sent them out in the post to people who expressed interest on Twitter, covering just the cost of the stamp and the printing. They were silly things, but they felt like reaching out into the world outside digital conversations. On paper, it all feels more real, somehow. Writing a novel and working within the cycles of publishing generally takes years. This moment of tiny connection took a couple of days. So, I kept doing it.

I began to track my experiences under Covid ... Electric Zine Maker.
I began to track my experiences under Covid … Electric Zine Maker.

Last year, I sent almost 2,000 envelopes full of zines to people who wanted to read them. Something else happened, too: people I didn’t know sent zines back to me. Their children made black-out poetry from encyclopaedia descriptions of birds. They wrote about their favourite television shows, or their struggles in lockdown. They folded the pages, stapled them, and put them in the post. These were intimate envelopes: tiny pieces of people’s lives, distributed with intention to a select few. Slowly, zine by zine, my burnout began to heal. It was fun: something I think I had forgotten how to have.

During the first lockdown of the pandemic, I began to track my experiences with the world under Covid, compiling them into zine “reports”. They have acted as a semi-public diary for the people who read them. I have been using zines as little lifelines: each frivolous piece of paper has become a record of this deeply strange time.

Ghost bottle, The Exit, Abhaile, wordfury ... a selection of Sarah Maria Griffin’s zines.
Ghost bottle, The Exit, Abhaile, wordfury … a selection of Sarah Maria Griffin’s zines. Photograph: Lauren Watkins

Lawhead developed and designed Electric Zine Maker as a solo project – it is available to download from itch.io. In this spirit, the Electric Zine Maker is in itself a zine: a personal project, created and shared outside of editorial and studio confines. It feels ad-hoc, and joyful. Its limitations only invite further experiments, much like the first zines, photocopied and stapled and written on typewriters, or by hand. I use her deftly crafted tools to perk up the photographs I take of my locked-down life: to stylise the deeply mundane with inverted colours and layered patterns. It makes me feel as though the experiences I am having are worth sharing.

The arrival of this software into my life restored a sense of play to my creative practice and brought back a flame I thought had dimmed for good. It gave me the courage, too, to send scrappy, earnest writing to the people who wanted to read it, without the intense pressure of online publishing or the quick-fire takes of social media. Further, it alleviated some of the loneliness of the long and immersive path that writing a novel demands. This new energy allowed me to relax back into my regular work: every zine a balm.

In a time in history where the definition of playing games is growing and expanding to cover all corners of creation and making, Electric Zine Maker is a bright jewel, hidden just out of sight. It is a booklet full of instructions tucked away behind the counter at a record store: an invitation to make something gorgeous, all of your own, and a call to share it with others.



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