One of the books I read on my holiday in Pembrokeshire was Jim Rossignol‘s This Gaming Life. I’d been meaning to get around to it for quite a while, and finally did so once it was revealed that the (beautiful) hardback edition was nearly at the end of its print run.
It’s an interesting book, if perhaps somewhat flawed. This Gaming Life is games writing filtered through the lens of travel writing; the “three cities” of the title being London, Seoul, and Rekjavik. “London” feels a little weak, and disjointed; the focus on Splash Damage is reasonably strong, but is perhaps not connected enough horizontally. It is also a reminder of the book’s strong leaning (understandably, given Rossignol’s expertise) towards PC gaming. As a result, certain PC-centric aspects of games such as modding cultures are praised perhaps a tad more highly than I think is reasonably within the bounds the text sets itself.
Seoul is more interesting, if only because it’s much more alien to most readers. There’s some strong insights and good anecdotes here, and it stands alongside Rossignol’s original PC Gamer article on gaming in Korea well (available in PDF form here).
The strongest section of the book is the final half, which is set in Rekjavik and focuses on CCP and their massive online game EVE Online. Rossignol is well versed in EVE and a keen player of the game, and it really shows – there are so many good stories, personal anecdotes combined with objective criticism, that the book leaps to life in this section. Part of me would love to have seen the other two thirds as long, and as strong, as this; the other part of me would love to see Rossignol just drop 300 pages on EVE, because it’s obvious he could, and it’d be an essential piece of criticism and historiography. Maybe that’s on the way.
But, despite its flaws and occasional ponderous prose, I really liked the book. There’s lots of good stuff in here, and I was pleased with the notes I came away with (see below).
It feels a little out of place in a book so fixated on PC gaming, but the “playlist” Rossignol provides at the end of the book is fantastic: a list of games that, whilst obviously never going to be conclusive, represent a good way into games for the uninformed. His selection is strong, and his writing about each of the titles is joyful and unpretentious; most of them require either a PS2 or a PC, and I can hardly argue about many. It’s nice that it’s there, even if only as a reminder, at the end of the book, that all the writing in the world won’t matter if you don’t play the damn things.
Most of all, though, I’m just glad books like this can exist. It’s published through the
MIT Press University of Michigan, and I really hope it sets the scene for more writing on games like this. It’s grown-up, personal but not gonzo, multi-disciplinary and prefers rational, informed, and sometimes unresolved discussion over snap judgments and pithy soundbites. This, to my mind, is a format that suits games writing (not just criticism) incredibly well, and I hope that UMICH Press (and their competitors) seek to comission and publish more work like this, because it’s important that games starts to establish a second-order culture of criticism as well as a first-order culture of play.
I feel like I’m being harsh on the book earlier, but really, that’s just because it’s an early entry in this space, and it’s for that it needs to be praised. I have no doubt that Rossignol has even more – and even better – writing to come, and I’m looking forward to it eagerly. In conclusion: definitely recommended, but with what I think are reasonable reservations. Also, the less-well versed you are in some of the topics he discusses, the more essential a purchase I think it might be; perhaps my reservations are coming from someone too deep inside the topics he discusses.
As is traditional in such threads, here come the quotations that I found, for whatever reason, worth turning a corner over near:
p.30, on boredom:
“use of the term boredom has increased ceaselessly since the eighteenth century. It cannot be found in English before 1760, and although [Lars] Svendsen notes that some European languages came up with equivalent words in the centuries before, they were generally derivations of the Latin for “hate” and carried similar meanings”
p.43, on some of the motivations for writing the book:
“My travels had begun to reveal that almost all writing and reporting concerned with gaming overlooked what the experience of gaming had meant to the gamers themselves. There was some talk about the intellectual or cognitive experience, but how games slotted into different lives and how they changed perceptions and agendas was being ignored”
p.52, Leo Tan talking about playing Guitar Hero at the Donnington Rock Festival:
“…playing Guitar Hero on stage is a completely different experience to playing at home. At home, you might feel like a guitar god; but on stage, people are screaming, and when you come off, they swamp to the sides to try to talk to you. It’s exhilarating in a way that I’ll never experience elsewhere. And it was a game. And everyone knew it was a game.”
p.73, on televised pro gaming:
“gaming remains and awkward spectator sport. It’s an interesting avenue of possibility for a small clique of gamers, perhaps; but the low number of people who watch video games played by the pros outside Korea suggest that the most important aspect of gaming is its interactivity. I’ve seldom been as bored as I have been watching pro gaming tournaments, especially when they’re for a game I’m actually interested in playing. For these reasons, I believe that Korea’s televised Star-leagues reflect a cultural singularity within Korea, not an indication of where global gaming will go in the future.”
p.76, on the real-world communities and companionships forged through online gaming:
“Thanks to games, [Lee] In Sook [a high-level Lineage II player]‘s circle of friends had ended up talking, becoming close, and then making sure that they hung out at the same cafés to play at the game games. Online games create shared experiences that are unlike those we might have in the real world. This is a quality of the medium itself – players who might not excel in conversation might feel confident in text chat.”
p.77, on the nature of those communities forged within games:
“Online games are usually far more like teeming cosmopolitan cities than stable provincial communities: the mix of people is enormously diverse, and you often find yourself being ignored by passersby or even accosted with unsettling propositions. You aren’t sure who to trust, and many gamers will depend on previous acquaintances or real-world friendships as the basis for in-game socializing.”
“Games stand to change not simply individual imaginations or personal finances but the possibilities for interaction and socialization across our different cultures. This is no grand cultural revolution: it is a subtle wave, a gradual tectonic shift in the way we live, which will only make its true effects known over the course of many years… chasing headlines that read ‘Games Are The New Sport’ or ‘Kids Who Play Games For A Living’ makes a crude statement about what really matters within gaming. The important changes will come from those smaller ripples that change how millions of people live, think, and socialize on a daily basis, not just the hard-core niches.”
p.93, on how games manipulate and inspire our imaginations:
“The in-game slaughter of the attendees of a funeral held for a deceased World of Warcraft player presented a case of quite spectacular insensitivity. It revealed a significant swathe of gamers who radically failed to sympathize with their fellow gamers, treating them as little more than moving targets and ignoring the real-life tragedy they were trampling on. Perhaps, however, they were simply acting within the narrative conventions that the game delivered to them. Their game belonged firmly within the genre of bad guys versus good, and they played the bad guys. Had it been a game about tragedy and human loss, the gamers’ responses and actions might have taken on quite a different character.”
p.100, quoting Kieron Gillen on simulation:
“‘Battlefield 2 presents a beleaguered United States in a war that is more cowboys and Indians than anything else, while Operation Flashpoint reaches for something more akin to a comment on the nature of war using theoretical examples’… as Gillen observes, ‘simulation is expression'”
p.102, leading into discussion of Luis von Ahn and his ESP game:
“Game creators don’t have to speak to gamers at all, nor do they necessarily have to persuade them of anything. It is simply by letting gamers get on with playing that they really begin to change the world. To me, this idea is one that seems far more radical than molding games into old-fashioned propaganda: it is the notion of using games for the purposes of ‘human computing'”
p.106, on one kind of propaganda present in games:
“The danger of games, [Chris] Suellentrop suggests, is that they teach us that success means discovering and then following the rules – a deeper genre of propaganda. If he’s right, then the ever-growing millions of obsessed gamers could eventually be playing their way into a new and subtle kind of oppression, something far more worrying than finding their ‘wasted cycles’ put to use in the technology of a major corporation’s search engine.”
p.145, on “use models”:
“Will Wright observed that unless you actually play games, it’s hard to judge what is happening to a gamer. ‘Watching someone play a game is a different experience than actually holding the controller and playing it yourself. Vastly different. Imagine that all you knew about movies was gleaned through observing the audience in a theatre – but you had never watched a film. You would conclude that movies induce lethargy and junk food binges. That maybe true, but you’re missing the big picture.'(Wired, April 2006)”
p.147, more Will Wright (from a conversation with Brian Eno):
“When we do these computer models, those aren’t the real models; the real models are in the gamer’s head. The computer game is just a compiler for that mental model in the player. We have this ability as humans to build these fairly elaborate models in our imaginations, and the process of play is the process of pushing against reality, building a model, refining a model by looking at the results of looking at interacting with things.”
p.150, applying Wright’s model to EVE Online:
“EVE is a shared mental model in the heads of both thousands of gamers and dozens of developers, with a process of feedback moving cyclically between all those involved. The mental model is not htat of one person engaging with a singl emodel on a personal screen, but a picture comprised of tens of thousands impressions of the same model… [EVE] is a single collaborative imaginative enterprise that exists in real time… those who have had time [to sink into playing and exploring EVE] have begun to uncover something remarkable and one of the possible future directions for gaming: entertainment that is also massive collaboration.”
p.170, on LittleBigPlanet (which, at the time of writing, was still in production). I particularly liked this simple turn of phrase:
“LittleBigPlanet presents games as malleable, communicable objects, built for gamers to customize and distort as they see fit.”
“Communicable objects” seems about right.
p.171, on Tringo:
“Tringo had become a leaky object: moving between physical and virtual realities seamlessly. It was a virtual entity that had become a physcial product, while still making money within a virtual world.”
Again, “leaky object” is very good.
p.181, quoting Julian Dibbell:
“Dibbell makes a powerful case for the contemporary social and political importance of virtual interactions, as well as summing up something about thei weird, hybrid nature as both games and monetary systems: ‘Games attract us with their very lack of consequence,’ Dibbell wrote in Wired magazine, ‘wheras economies confront us with the least trivial pursuit of all, the pursuit of happiness.”
p.183, on the shape of online gaming groups such as clans or guilds:
“…it seems that they are becoming more like actual communities or tribes. Like entertainment-seeking nomads, they move from one game to the next. If the future of games ends up being focused on user-generated works, then we will probably join projects because we like gaming with particular people we have met elsewhere. We might like the look of what they are making or how they are influencing the game world they plkay in, but it’ll be the gmaers themselves that reinforce our commitment or define how our gaming is experienced.”
p.192, on what might be described as the journalist’s dilemma:
“I am caught between my personal interest in the games and the gamers who play them, on the one hand, and the billion-dollar business machine for which I have become a regular mouthpiece, on the other. I am troubled by the idea that games have to have some greater purpose than entertainment, and yet I am enthralled by the idea that they cabn be used as propaganda, art, or medicine. I want to spend all my time exploring the peculiar physics of a new game world, and yet I am compelled to write about and describe it for money.”