Friday, January 11, 2013

A beginner's guide to game studies literature

Having just graduated from college, I've got a lot of friends who grew up playing video games and are deeply interested in the medium, but it never quite hit them until recently that "game studies is a thing." For anyone curious about exploring games on the same level we explore literature and film in school, here are a few recommendations of books you should read. Some of these come from college courses I've taken, and others I've simply stumbled upon.

This is a must-read entry-level book for game analysis, and it's nearing its tenth anniversary. A Theory of Fun is a quick read that introduces audiences to many of the basic concepts of game design. Author Raph Koster is an MMO veteran; he was the lead designer on Ultima Online. Koster's other work includes Star Wars Galaxies and EverQuest II.

At 500 pages, this comprehensive history of games is slightly imposing. But while it seems dry on the surface, Replay is by far the best gaming history book I've ever come across. The fact that author Tristan Donovan is British means that in addition to the requisite American and Japanese game industries covered, we actually get to see the oft-overlooked genesis of gaming in Europe.

Unfortunately, many gaming books have incredibly generic titles. But this is the one gaming book I recommend to everyone, even if you're not a hardcore videogame enthusiast. Extra Lives is a series of vignettes about games Tom Bissell has played, and how he contextualized them within his life at the time--living in Estonia while playing Fallout 3, or being addicted to drugs while playing Grand Theft Auto IV. Bissell is one of my absolute favorite writers. He doesn't maintain any sort of personal website or Twitter account, but if you can find his writing, it's always well worth the read.

Georgia Tech media studies professor (and Cow Clicker creator) Ian Bogost is the closest thing game studies has to a rock star. While some of his work like A Slow Year and 10 PRINT can go over people's heads, How to Do Things with Videogames strikes the perfect balance of approachability with legitimate game analysis. This book explores the untapped potential of videogames, and shows us what a narrow sliver of that potential we see today.

All Your Base Are Belong to Us by Harold Goldberg

Another unfortunate title, Harold Goldberg's All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture is less game analysis and more a collection of extended interviews and conversations with pivotal game creators. We see game development as a monolithic calculus of unknown programmers, but this book shows us the personal struggles involved in game design.

I would be remiss if I omitted the book everyone in game studies is talking about right now. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form comes from Anna Anthropy, creator of one of my favorite games of the year, Dys4ia. Her book foretells the rise of DIY game development as the barrier to entry for the industry continues to drop. It's a riveting, emotional read, although it does get a bit preachy at times. Nevertheless, it's one of the most important gaming books of the past decade.

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