The deep­est dives into what, how and why we play


01 Best Be­fore

James New­man

Here’s the co­founder of the Na­tional Videogame Ar­chive ti­tling a sec­tion of his book “Let Videogames Die”. He hasn’t lost his mar­bles: his am­bi­tion is that mu­se­ums and gal­leries stop try­ing to bring us playa­bil­ity in per­pe­tu­ity, and in­stead “doc­u­ment the game while it ex­ists” – ar­chiv­ing fo­rums, walk­throughs and speed runs to pre­serve why and how we’ve played. New­man is blis­ter­ing on our ob­so­le­tion ob­ses­sion (case in point: Miyamoto wanted to re­make Oca­rina Of Time almost from the minute he’d fin­ished work­ing on it), and the ne­glect that’s led to some vir­tual worlds dis­ap­pear­ing for­ever.

02 Beyond Choices

Miguel Si­cart

Si­cart wants fewer of BioShock’s bal­anced choices, more of Fall­out 3’ s Ten­penny Tower: mean­ing­ful eth­i­cal dilem­mas where bru­tal no-win de­ci­sions drag your own moral­ity out into the open, leav­ing us “chal­lenged, thrilled, shaken and il­lu­mi­nated”. He’s es­pe­cially elo­quent on how we’ve been trained to ex­pect in­stant out­comes of our de­ci­sions – he’s no fan of F9 quick­loads. This is a follow-up to The Ethics Of Com­puter Games, but Si­cart says this “won’t be a tril­ogy” – a shame, be­cause he no doubt has much to say about re­cent in­die games that ap­proach his ideal.

03 Game Feel

Steve Swink

Some of the brain sci­ence used by Swink to ex­plain the ethe­real ‘right­ness’ of cer­tain games seems dodg­ily sim­plis­tic, and it’s a pity that the com­pan­ion web­site’s in­ter­ac­tive ex­am­ples are gone. But the Tony Hawk alumni con­vinces as he zooms his game mi­cro­scope to high res­o­lu­tion, fas­tid­i­ously au­dit­ing the tiny el­e­ments of pol­ish in Gears Of War and Castl­e­va­nia, and con­sid­er­ing how the weight and ma­te­rial of game con­trollers con­trib­ute to game feel. This is the only book that com­pares World Of War­craft to twitchy Dream­cast racer Van­ish­ing Point and gets away with it.

04 Glued To Games

Scott Rigby and Richard M Ryan

Don’t be put off by the cover: Rigby and Ryan are se­ri­ous psy­chol­o­gists and se­ri­ous gamers, and they bring news about your brain. We play not be­cause games are fun, but be­cause they light up our mind’s plea­sure points through Sims-style need sat­is­fac­tion, and pro­vide a “just world” against the un­fair­ness of re­al­ity. There are real rev­e­la­tions – you’ll be very wary of NPCs after dis­cov­er­ing that their shoul­der-shrug­ging in­dif­fer­ence ac­tu­ally makes you feel worse about your­self. And the game vi­o­lence chap­ter is ex­cel­lent: heav­ily ref­er­enced, it re­fuses the easy an­swers on both sides of the de­bate.

05 Half-Real

Jesper Juul

While this is a dis­jointed book – it’s built partly from ear­lier es­says – Juul’s idea of games as in­co­her­ent worlds, where we’re half in and out of the rules on one hand and the story on the other, is com­pelling. He chal­lenges clichés (the words ‘game’ and ‘play’ don’t have an im­plied re­la­tion­ship in many lan­guages; Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi’s all-con­quer­ing ‘flow’ falls apart in the face of War­i­oWare, of all things),

and is il­lu­mi­nat­ing on play­ers de­vel­op­ing a reper­toire of puz­zle­solv­ing ap­proaches. And in his con­cen­tric model of games, you’ll be pleased to find out at last that “watch­ing a fire­place” is now, defini­tively, not a game.

06 Val­ues At Play In Dig­i­tal Games Mary Flana­gan and He­len Nis­senbaum

The am­bi­tion here is sim­i­lar to Beyond Choices, but Flana­gan and Nis­senbaum go fur­ther: the au­thors have tried-and-tested frame­works and tools that de­vel­op­ers and lec­tur­ers can use to embed eth­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal val­ues into games – not just in their themes, but also day-to-day de­vel­op­ment. This is mes­meris­ingly writ­ten, with many in­tel­li­gent ex­am­ples of re­flec­tive games, most no­tably the dev­as­tat­ingly sim­ple Rwan­dan civil­war game Hush. We’re a long way from an in­dus­try full of the au­thors’ “con­sci­en­tious de­sign­ers”, but they’re bet­ter than most at pro­vid­ing prac­ti­cal tips to get­ting there.

07 Aes­thetic The­ory And The Video Game

Graeme Kirk­patrick

Ob­tuse at times – non-philoso­phers will strug­gle – Kirk­patrick’s book is an il­lu­mi­nat­ing ex­plo­ration of how a player’s body and a game in­ter­twine, or how “a gen­er­a­tion of young men have grown up danc­ing with their hands”. You’ll never look at a con­troller the same way again after Kirk­patrick ex­plains how we’ve been con­di­tioned to use care­fully de­signed blobs of plas­tic to in­flu­ence an im­age.

08 Ethno­gra­phies Of The Video Game

He­len Thorn­ham

A rare book that ob­serves and talks to young adults play­ing games such as Grand Theft Auto, Pro Evo­lu­tion Soc­cer and Mario Kart, with riv­et­ing re­sults. It’s dif­fi­cult to not pick holes in some of the method­ol­ogy and con­clu­sions, but Thorn­ham is right to con­sider this book an in­ter­ven­tion in the way games are the­o­rised – it’s clear from it that games are im­pos­si­ble to un­tan­gle from so­cial and gen­der dy­nam­ics.

09 Games Of Em­pire Nick Dyer-Withe­ford and Greg De Peuter

In­spired by a 2000 book on post-cap­i­tal­ism, this delves into the dark side of the game in­dus­try, fer­vently ac­cus­ing it of be­ing com­plicit with mil­i­tari­sa­tion and in­equal­ity. It cer­tainly over­does it – the au­thors are well aware that their later idea of games as a unit­ing force for utopian so­cial change might seem “com­pletely im­plau­si­ble”. But it’s re­fresh­ingly dif­fer­ent, and en­ter­tain­ing in its right­eous anger.

10 How To Do Things With Videogames

Ian Bo­gost

Top­i­cal for a chap­ter in which Bo­gost ar­gues that games will win their bat­tle for rel­e­vance by be­com­ing as unas­sum­ing a part of ev­ery­one’s lives as other me­dia. A rich sight­see­ing tour through gaming’s many uses – from elec­tion­eer­ing to re­lax­ation – and with a nice line in cheek­ily teas­ing im­por­tance from tri­fles such as Atari’s ET and ‘Wash Joe Jonas’.

11 In­tro­duc­tion To Game Anal­y­sis

Clara Fernán­dez-Vara

This is aimed at stu­dents, so older read­ers can skip the bits about how to fin­ish that es­say. But oth­er­wise it’s a very read­able frame­work for think­ing crit­i­cally about games, with ex­am­ples of both games and ar­ti­cles that stretch across time and cul­tures, and sev­eral easy-to-di­gest sum­maries of some of the big thinkers fea­tured else­where on th­ese pages.

12 Video Game Spa­ces

Michael Nitsche

It’s worth per­se­ver­ing with this hard-go­ing philo­soph­i­cal ar­gu­ment, since Nitsche’s five-part model for the player’s world pops up of­ten in game stud­ies. He’s in­sight­ful on how a game’s pre­sen­ta­tion in­di­rectly in­flu­ences us, es­pe­cially in terms of how we’re slowly learn­ing to un­der­stand and con­trol more com­plex cam­era tech­niques bor­rowed from cin­ema.













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