November 27, 2004

Plowing the Games

by Nick Montfort · , 4:47 pm

Gamers cover A Review of Gamers: Writers, Artists & Programmers on the Pleasures of Pixels
Edited by Shanna Compton
Soft Skull Press
2004
260 pp.
$14.95

Like a piece of summarization software run with extreme parameters, I have located the single sentence that I believe best characterizes Gamers: Writers, Artists, and Programmers on the Pleasures of Pixels. It is found in Aaron McCollough’s essay, about two-thirds of the way through the book:

“When I attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, playing Madden was one of the few things that helped me briefly forget about being a fraud.”

According to the Library of Congress cataloging-in-publication data, which is often indispensable when attempting to understand unusual volumes such as this one, this is a book about Video Games – Social aspects and Video games – Psychological aspects. According to the press release, it’s “The first book to ever seriously explore the culture of video and online games.” Actually, Gamers is probably best characterized as collection of personal essays, with a handful of rather impersonal ones thrown in to keep them company. The personal essay genre is not my favorite, and a video gaming theme doesn’t necessarily make the genre more palatable. I approached Gamers with some of the trepidation I might have felt starting in on Drivers: Writers and Visual Artists Discuss Their Fond Memories of Cars. Still, when I received Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (the bibliophilic, single-author equivalent of such a volume) as a gift not long ago I did go ahead and read it, and I even found things to like. Never one to be a snob for books about books, I was willing to read the confessions of common gamers, too.

Gamers does read at times like David Bennahum’s Extra Life: Coming of Age in Cyberspace without the glue-sniffing, or like the filler text from Van Burhnam’s Supercade, bereft of glossy color photos. Some of the selections, however, prove that the self-conscious alumni of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (and the New School, and so on) have some interesting and novel reflections on video games. They’ve worked, in their writing, to understand computer gaming, their lives, and the contexts in which we play games without fetishizing video game systems or cartridges, without wallowing in nostalgia – well, sometimes without wallowing in nostalgia – and without forcing the coin-op cabinet or home console into a central role in stories where it was really only one important element. The result is a collection with some good writing, some fresh perspectives, and a few gems.

The book begins with an appropriate invocation of the muse Charles Bernstein. There’s an epigraph from his famous 1991 essay “Play It Again, Pac-Man” – an early appreciations of video games by a famous poet. The selection right after the introduction is chapter 16 of Plowing the Dark by Richard Powers, a lyrical meditation on Adventure and the memories of programmers who played it years ago. These documents, one referred to, one included, set the high scores which the authors in the volume will try to beat.

In “Our Fingers & Thumbs” J. Brandon Housley narrates the life and times of his family’s Nintendo and their New York house filled with secret passages. The tale turns out to be a sort of Long Day’s Journey into Nintendo as the family dissolves amid religious differences and alcoholism. After the father goes to rehab and the process of divorce begins, a new wave of babysitters arrive who are allied with the rather anti-Nintendo mom but are still willing to let the two brothers hole up and play their games endlessly. The brothers, at last, move with their mother to Mississippi. The memoir is compelling, and it’s an effective part of this anthology. Video gaming doesn’t seem to be there just because it’s obligatory in this collection. The Nintendo takes its place along with games like capture the flag, arranged for the kids by an active babysitter; along with explorations of the house; along with riding a bike. It’s part of life and growing up, and while it has associations with the author’s father, the console doesn’t become either the over-swollen symbol of Rosebud in Citizen Kane or some almost irrelevant, scene-setting light fixture, but rather an effective hook for memory, an important piece of the past that is, remarkably, not steeped in nostalgia at all.

Even though I’m not generally a sucker for literary pieces that are broken down into numbered sections of prose, one of them consisting only of a one-line paragraph, I quite liked “Some Fine Shootin: Big Buck Hunter II” by Luis Jaramillo. It is funny and genuine, incorporating the vocalizations of Big Buck Hunter II and telling of the author’s odd fascination with the game despite his anti-gun heritage. The concept of the Deer Hunter genre of game is so uncanny, and what I’ve heard of it is so wacky – that home game originated when the guy in charge of buying video games for Wal-Mart suggested it, apparently – that I was pretty much primed for the wry humor about the arcade-game cousin of Deer Hunter in this piece. There are more serious juxtapositions and connections to American gun culture that Jaramillo makes, too, and they work well.

A truly incredible offering is “Are You Hot Enough to Play with Journey? Todd Rogers Is,” a piece that Daniel Nester wrote based on his interviews with and research into video game record holder Rogers, who played the Atari 2600 game Journey Escape for more than 85 hours straight in July 2003. Rogers, as a youth, beat what Activision thought was a perfect time in Dragster. His record score at Gorf has stood for 22 years. And he holds the top score on more than 2,000 video games. Quoting extensively from phone conversations and emails with Rogers, Nester provides a portrait of an outrageous personality, a personality not without its rough edges. This deep look at one old-school hardcore gamer is a welcome supplement to the more reflective autobiographical pieces. The difficult questions that Nester asks include “You said you had sex 330 times in 10 months? Did you count all those times?” and “You said you only peed once during that eighty-six-hour Journey Escape session. How did you do it?” Some might think the profanity-spewing, furiously driven Rogers is supposed to stand as representative of all video gamers. But Nester also speaks to and briefly sketches Walter Day, the president of video game record-keeping organization Twin Galaxies and a practitioner of transcendental mediation, who seems like quite a different sort.

There are twenty-four articles in all, of which these are some of the highlights. A few academically-inclined essays are included in Gamers. Some of them are of interest, but that material isn’t the strong point of the book. (By all means, though, write the book off on your Schedule C if you’re a game studies researcher and you buy it.) The essay by Jim Andrews incorporates some of what he wrote about Arteroids on his site for the project but lacks the personal direction of the more striking pieces. Mark Lamoureux speculates on the iconography and imagery of Atari 2600 games, offering a nice catalog of pixelated shapes but not connecting them to gaming history, technology, or previous academic work as Mark J. P. Wolf did in his similarly-themed article “Abstraction in the Video Game” (The Video Game Theory Reader, eds. Mark J. P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, Routledge, 2003). But those who were expecting a groundbreaking Sherry-Turklesque sort of sociological/psychological volume will have realized that this is something else by the time they get to those articles, anyway.

While Gamers is uneven, there are thoughts, recollections, and perspectives in the book that you’d be unlikely to run into in any academic reader, at any video game conference, or even on any blog. Avid readers who are interested in gaming and its personal dimensions are sure to find pleasant surprises in Gamers. It might make a nice stocking-stuffer, too, either for the literary type you’ve been trying to lure over towards your Playstation 2 or for the hardcore gamer whose eyes would do well to rest from the screen for a bit in pillowy pages.