In a loose worst-to-best order, here are some random thoughts about books on video games I’ve been reading recently. Most are worth reading but if you can only read one, the best of them, “My Tiny Life,” is also the most free.
Synthetic Worlds by Edward Castronova
Synopsis: A professor examines the social and economic impact of MMOs.
An entire book about the economic impact of online games? I was keyed up to read this. He then proceeds to spend the first half of the book introducing online gaming (or as he inexplicably renames them, “synthetic worlds”) in much the same way you might carefully introduce pride parades to that uncle of yours keeps talking about about starting a KKK chapter.
His insights? That people use real money in video games, and that violence is widespread in online worlds but different in context than real world violence.
In other words, the kinds of things that would only be news to the kind of people who refer to Second Life as a “synthetic world.”
Game On! by Simon Byron, Ste Curran, and David McCarthy
Synopsis: Three authors highlight their favorite games
Two-thirds of this book’s authors host two-thirds of the world’s greatest video game podcast that doesn’t talk about video games all that often, One Life Left. Unfortunately the magic of their shows doesn’t really translate into an engaging book.
It’s interesting mostly to see what games they like you may never have played (I need to play Animal Crossing sometime) and what games you agree are unfairly overlooked (Bangai-O is indeed genius).
However, the book fails to really convey anything meaningful for those in-between games. For example, when I saw they devoted several pages to the joys of Super Mario 64 I was thrilled as I was hoping someone could explain what it was I missed in this game everyone else seems to adore. But instead they describe it in generic terms of freedom, authenticity, and the likes. Sadly, that’s the same style that most of the book takes.
Masters of Doom by David Kushner
Synopsis: A surprisingly frank look at the history of id Software.
If you can stop worrying about the historical accuracy of this book long enough, you’ll discover a great read inside. Written as a novel detailing the histories of John Carmack and John Romero, the creators of classics like Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM, it tells a pretty interesting tale. Sure, it’s the standard themes of young talent turning into over-inflated egos, but Carmack and Romero are unique enough characters to keep things engaging.
My only gripe about the book would be the large amount of time devoted to the Romero meltdown, but he still generates such an amount of controversy even today that I can understand why it dominates the second half of the book. Nonetheless Masters of Doom is a quick, entertaining, and surprisingly personal look at the birth of modern video gaming.
Trigger Happy by Steven Poole
Synopsis: Games are important.
“Games are worth paying serious attention to.” This is the central thesis of Poole’s ground-breaking 2004 work. Yes, four years later and already bits of it haven’t aged so well. Yes, he talks about Tomb Raider. All. The. Time. But these are minor complaints in comparison to the wealth of new ideas contained within.
In 240 pages, he touches upon questions of gender identity, gets a rough understanding of how 3-D rendering works, and tries to identify the common elements that make both Resident Evil and Defender effective games. All while keeping it light, understandable, and engaging.
This Gaming Life by Jim Rossignol
Synopsis: Gaming is changing our world in unexpected ways.
Full disclosure: I am a Rossignol fanboy. That said though, I was still caught of guard by how much I enjoyed this book. Ostensibly divided into tales of three cities (London, Seoul, and Rekyjavik), Rossignol covers the spectrum of current trends in gaming. He examines the many (and surprising) ways that games can go from entertainment to employment as well as really delves into ethics and behaviors of online gaming.
Perhaps most telling is his experience in South Korea. Everyone likes to write about how big games are there, how unbelievably huge Starcraft is there, blah blah blah, and so as soon as I saw “Seoul” I rolled my eyes. However, he really digs into the gaming culture there and investigates not just the professional gaming we hear so much about, but each step of the way between that point and the “baangs” or internet cafe that dominate youth culture.
Each of these stories within is told in terms of the human impact upon the gamers, and reading it, you’ll be left with new thoughts and questions regarding their impact upon you too.
My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World by Julian Dibbell
Synopsis: A year in the life of the vanguard of online gaming in `93.
Before there was Second Life and EverQuest and even DOOM, there were online text-based worlds that allowed people to be anyone and create anything, as long as they could describe it in words. Worlds were created, love was found, and friends made.
Then someone was publicly assaulted in one of these worlds. Or maybe they weren’t, depending on where you stand. In response there was mob justice, or actual justice, or the deletion of a simple record in some database far away. I’m still not sure what I think, it’s tough to sort out.
Years before most people even heard of the Internet, Julian Dibbell was exploring one particular online world in depth. He chronicled his own personal friendships as well as the larger problems of the world. This means you’re right there with him as anarchists and socialists have to come to uneasy settlements on how much virtual government they need, as well the first time he explores the meaning of cybersex and its impact upon his real-world relationship.
It’s heartbreaking, enthralling, and unlike anything else you’re likely to read. And thanks to the magic of expiring copyright, it’s also free, although there’s a marvelous print version available for purchase as well.
Soon I Will Be Invincible is a work of fiction that has nothing to do with video games other than the author used to make them. But it’s quite good and it recently came out in paperback. If you ever wanted to be a super-villain, check it out.