This has been a very good year for video games, but it has been an exceptional year for books about video games — surely the best ever. I can't tell you who will win the prestigious BAGOTY award for 2015, but Cara Ellison's Embed With Games, Simon Parkin's Death by Video Game, and Michael W. Clune's Gamelife are all garnering buzz among devoted BAGOTY watchers.
To that list of seriously good books you should add Ian Bogost's terrific How to Talk About Video Games.
Bogost is a game designer (Cow Clicker, A Slow Year); a professor at Georgia Tech, and a critic who writes for places like the Atlantic. He tries, as he writes in How to Talk About Video Games, to appreciate games "for what they are, rather than what we wish them to be." He writes about Flappy Bird, about the meaning of the blue shell in Mario Kart (in a chapter titled, "The Blue Shell Is Everything That's Wrong With America), about Heavy Rain, about Words With Friends, about Gone Home, about Mirror's Edge, about sports video games.
Here are some of my favourite sentences from How to Talk About Video Games:
Why Ms. Pac Man is a feminist video game: "It is a work about a woman who tramples over a man by playing his game better than he ever could, about one who wins over millions by being more challenging rather than simpler, who keeps her heels and celebrates her feminine curves — or perhaps I should say curve — who is willing to woo and be wooed, who balances being a professional, a wife, and a mother, all without compromising any one of her desires."
On the Supreme Court's affirmation of video games as speech under the First Amendment: "Free speech is defended in courts, but it is practiced on the streets and in the media by people who want to intervene in their world, not just occupy it. Commercial video games deserve a place at that table, to be sure. Whether they will ever choose to show up is an open question."
Why David Cage's Heavy Rain isn't "cinematic": "The most important feature of Heavy Rain, the design choice that makes it more important than any other game in separating rather than drawing games toward film, is its rejection of editing in favour of prolonging."
On the isolation of video games from the rest of culture: "Not only are we fighting civil wars among ourselves, we are doing so in a tiny, peripheral, war-torn media already written off by the 'developed' media ecosystem. From outside, people have the same prognosis for video games that they have about, say, Somalia."
I talked to Bogost for my podcast, Shall We Play a Game? We talk about why we each sometimes think that choosing to write about video games was a mistake, whether video games have more in common with toasters than they do with movies, and why he is thinking about making another game for the Atari 2600.
You can listen to the podcast here. (At the start, my co-host, JJ Sutherland, and I talk about our first two weeks in the Commonwealth of Fallout 4.)
Top photo of Ms. Pac-Man in a Denver bar by Aaron Ontiveroz | Getty Images