Saturday, May 23, 2009

Book Reviews: 3 Perspectives on Video Game Theory

As you heard earlier, one of my many, many questionable decisions as of late included an attempt to compress a lot of theoretical reading in a very short period of time. Mission accomplished! As of last Tuesday, (the same day as the great pancake experiment) I finished reading 800 pages of theory in under 72 hours. For a while there, my head was so full of knowledge that it threatened to slosh off the top if I turned too quickly. The knowledge is fading veeerrry fast, but I’m glad I did it---and glad that the aformentioned friend gave me the opportunity.

But how were the books? Why, I thought I'd never ask.

This is going to be a little less detailed than the usual reviews. If anyone really wants more info, feel free to request it in the comments.

The Medium of the Video Game. Edited by Mark J. P. Wolfe & Ralph H. Baer. Out of the three books, I’d say this one was the simplest, more or less. Essentially, it’s a run-down of the history of video games, with particular attention paid to early developments, and a quick evaluation of some video game elements: time, space, narrative, and genre. It’s all fairly basic and fundamental—except for the last two chapters. The first, “Play It Again, Pac-Man,” by Charles Bernstein, looked at video games as expressions of sexual desire. The second, “Archetypes on Acid: Video Games and Culture” by Rebecca R. Tews, takes a psychoanalytic approach to video games. Despite having titles that shed very little light on their subject matter, both papers are worth reading.

The Video Game Theory Reader. Edited by Mark J. P. Wolfe and Bernard Perron. Wolfe again. This guy gets around. This book is a lot like Medium, but a little meatier in terms of diverse points of view and theoretical complexity. It starts with a brief sketch of video game theory history, rather than just video game history, which is a welcome switch. In its 13 chapters, it runs the full gamut from ludology to narratology, and also delves into film theory, interactive story telling, and a gender-based investigation of Final Fantasy IX (which endears it to no end in my mind. Mia Consalvo is entirely right: Zidane’s hypermasculine adorability disturbs me in strange ways.). There are also chapters that deal fairly well with postmodernity and pyschoanalysis, which is nice. While there was no break-out piece, the majority of the book is solid. I hear there’s a second volume, and I’d be interested in reading that.

First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. This book, on the other hand, is nearly Medium’s polar opposite. It’s set up in the format of a series of conference papers and panels, which means that each essay is very short—some clocking in at under eight pages. That means you don’t get a lot of depth, but you do get a lot of different viewpoints: there’s twenty-five different writers here, representing some of the best thought in the field, from ludologists Eskelinen, Aarseth (reviewed previously here; Aarseth has the added advantage in scholarly writing in that his name will always appear at the top of a works cited list), and Frasca, to the other side of the debate with narratologists like Jenkins and Murray. Even digital media superstar Katherine Hayles contributes a piece.

The book has eight sections: cyberdrama, ludology, critical simulation, game theory, hypertexts & interactions, the pixel/ the line, beyond chat, and new readings. As you might imagine from the book’s subtitle and subsections, it’s not all on video games, but it is all fascinating. The downside of the book is the choice of format. The beginning of each essay is split, top and bottom, so at the bottom there is a reply to the main essay. Then another reply. Then the author’s reply to the second reply. What you get is a real sense that there’s an evolving conversation going on, which is an impressive effect for a print medium, but it really disrupts the flow to have to either flip back after reading the article proper, or mentally switch back and forth between the two points of view. That said, I probably want to get my own copy of this one. Already, I’m planning on using the Utterback piece on text-based installation art for a conference proposal—more on that if and when it develops.

There you have it—three books, three days, one sore head. And if this experience has taught me anything, it’s always to put off for eight months what can be done in 72 hours. Which I’m sure is the best possible lesson here.

Later Days.

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