Jun 062013

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).
  • 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.



  6 Responses to “Books about gamer culture”

  1. If you’re interested in history, I would strongly recommend Jon Peterson’s “Playing at the World”, which focuses on the early history of D&D but also necessarily includes a fairly comprehensive overview of wargaming culture in the mid 20th century and its origins. Peterson managed to produce a solid scholarly work that’s also very enjoyable to read, with no shortage of interesting personalities and narratives.

    It’s good context for what fundamentally attracts people to gaming as a hobby, and it demonstrates exactly how important Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax were to anything that looks like or borrows ideas from an RPG today. D&D would not have been created without Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign, and without D&D I’d say about half of modern videogames would have to be completely different.

  2. My publisher has been adamant with me that Gamers at Work is not a business book, so I think your list is safe. Thank you for the recommendation!

  3. The last third of Steven Levy’s “Hackers” book is about game coders, but the whole thing is a good read.

    “Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade” covers a lot of the same ground as “King of Kong”, but without the reality TV shenanigans that “King of Kong” pulled. “Get Lamp” is a thorough examination of Infocom-style interactive fiction.

  4. Dungeons and Dreamers by Brad King and John Borland (http://www.dungeonsanddreamers.com/) is one of my favorites. It follows Richard Garriott mostly, but also overlaps some of the content in Masters of Doom. I really enjoyed the stories from the late 70s and early 80s, particularly when Richard was selling Akalabeth out of Ziploc bags at ComputerLand.

  5. I’ve been enjoying Extra Lives by Tom Bissell, though it is more of a one man tale.

  6. Thanks @Gene. John and I were never truly happy with the first edition, which suffered a bit from our work with a big publishing company. We actually retained the rights, though, and we’ve spent the last year re-tooling the book, re-organizing it, re-writing it, and adding about 20% more narrative. And in September, we’ll have the 10-year anniversary Second Edition published by Carnegie Mellon that focuses almost entirely on games, players, and communities.

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