The deepest dives into what, how and why we play
01 Best Before
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.