In the wake of Indie Game: The Movie, I was asked on Quora about other works that are descriptive of gamer culture, suitable for someone who doesn’t play games, isn’t trying to learn how to make them, but rather is interested in learning about gamer culture.
Something that presents the human side, rather than the technical, and doesn’t assume a lot of prior knowledge. As many of you know, portrayals of the gaming hobby in the mass media have often been rather sensationalistic or inaccurate.
So here’s a quick list of ones that I have enjoyed and recommend for this purpose. It’s not in any particular order. I avoided “business books” that are more about how a company was built, in favor of ones that tell human stories.
In terms of being interested in gaming culture, and game development culture, but not in “how-to” books, I would recommend:
- Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner: this is the story of id Software, makers of Doom and Quake. You get very personal portraits of John Romero and John Carmack, and of the early days of the shareware business model. One thing that I think makes this book valuable today, as we discuss diversity in the industry, is that it reminds us that some game pioneers, such as Romero, come from interracial backgrounds.
- This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities by Jim Rossignol: a journalist dives into gaming culture in three cities around the world. Although it spends quite a lot of time on Eve Online, I think that the real value to the typical reader likely comes from the portrait of Seoul in South Korea, where games are as mainstream as it gets.
- Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot by Julian Dibbell: the story of a journalist’s attempt to make a living as a “gold farmer” in a virtual world. This one might be a bit of inside baseball, but it makes for a natural “hook” for those who want to understand how it is that virtual worlds became such big business. There’s a direct line to be traced between gold farming and the “free to play” microtransaction business model.
- My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World by Julian Dibbell: still the best story of what it’s like to be a citizen of a virtual world. The prose may seem a bit purple these days, but I truly believe that everyone who has ever played World of Warcraft should read this to get a sense of the real possibilities inherent in virtual worlds.
- Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsay: a set of interviews of game developers describing how they got their studios going. Yeah, this maybe bends the “no business books” rule a little bit, but it’s one of the most recent of all of these and covers a wide range. There are plenty of human stories throughout as well. Keep an eye out for a follow-up focusing on online game developers due out this fall.
- Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby: an overview book that captures the state of the game industry right before the web and mobile disrupted it wholly. It’s a portrait of big bucks, big budgets, and of games on the verge of moving from hobby for geeks to mainstream entertainment in everyone’s pocket. Each chapter moves through a different segment of the industry (disclaimer: I’m featured in one of the chapters… I think I come across as a crazy idealist).
- Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form by Anna Anthropy. There are not yet many works about indie game culture specifically, alas. This book is more from a creator’s point of view than any of the others (none of the others feature examples of software code!), but it’s an important book that goes a long way towards showing how games can broaden their subject matter and become more inclusive.
- Not a book, but The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is an entertaining and accessible documentary about arcade gaming culture today. It deals with the world record in Donkey Kong, and the personalities who are chasing it. I haven’t seen it, but I hear Ecstasy Of Order: The Tetris Masters is along similar lines. There’s also Avatars Offline, which is sadly unavailable, but is a good documentary snapshot of the state of virtual worlds and MMORPGs in the early 2000’s.