Tetris by Conor Lawless CC-BY https://www.flickr.com/photos/conchur/2443635669/

book review: tetris

I enjoyed Tetris: The Games People Play even though it was essentially a business story. Box Brown is good at making characters out of real people, and the very analog style of art worked really well in contrast to the pixels of the game under discussion for most of the book. It laid everything out clearly with the convoluted selling of rights that some people didn’t have, and in the end it all works out for the Russian who invented the game (though his friend and sidekick through most of the story ends up um.. badly in a way that surprised me and could have been a frame for a very different style of book).

In the beginning of the book there was a bit about the importance of games and the cultural significance of them, which gets wrapped around back to by the end. I think that’s the best part, and what I’ll probably return to. It felt a little like reading Scott McCloud in its clarity and use of the comic format.

I’ve become less of a devotee of the power of games in the last year or two, mostly because I’m seeing more ways that adding game layers to things enhances certain political projects. Which is conflicting, because while I love games and I wish I could play them more, but I prefer it when games are kept in the realm of recreation and art, not business or the betterment/anaesthetizing of society or the efficiency of an organization.

So yes, the book about Tetris made me feel bad about the world. But it’s good.

book review: twisty little passages

Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction is a nonfiction book about text adventure computer games by Nick Montfort. I picked it up to read for a program I did at work on digital storytelling. The ILL didn’t come in time for the program but no one came to the program anyway so it wasn’t a big deal.

The book was about the history and some of the artistic merit behind text adventure gaming, not the point-and-click stuff like the classic Sierra games I grew up playing with my buddy, but the ones where you’re given some text and you type some text and if you type the right thing you get further into the game, like Zork (although Zork isn’t depicted with as much reverence in the book as I had naively expected). The first game that started this form was called Adventure and was about exploring caves and solving puzzles with a randomly appearing pirate messing with you. Now they’re more complex.

The book was written about 10 years ago so my further research shows that some of the languages and tools used to create this stuff have moved on. It’s an intriguing enough topic that I’m doing the further research. We’ll see if the fiction I’ve been writing might work better in this weird little form.

book review: prince of persia

I’ve actually reviewed A.B. Sina’s Prince of Persia comic before and it was on the basis of that memory I suggested it for our YA reading circle on Comics and Videogames. We read Scott Pilgrim, Level Up, Kimmie66 (which it appears I’ve never reviewed) and Prince of Persia and discussed them for class. It was good discussion each week, lots of fun. Sitting around for 40 minutes and talking about the shit we’ve read is pretty much my idea of a good time.

Anyway, this time I didn’t like Prince of Persia so much. It felt to me like the two storylines (taking place centuries apart) were just covering up for and over-complexifying two bog-standard royalty narratives. The characters didn’t seem very fleshed out, relying on the reader to fill everything in.

That said, the book is still beautiful. One of my favourite visual motifs is how Ferdos (the princ in the ruins) told Shirin stories and those stories were illustrated like old Persian paintings, with the borders and lack of perspective and everything. The colours were rich and not garish, which allowed the mystical peacock to really stand out.

So I still liked the book, but it wasn’t quite the book I’d remembered when I pitched it for the group. I’d be a bit more careful about recommending it in the future, especially to someone who just wants a Prince of Persia book because they want something similar to the videogame (which really, this isn’t).

story-gaming in libraries full bibliography

For my class on Services for Young Adults I wrote a Topic Briefing on Story-Focused Games in libraries. I ended up not using everything I’d read, because it’s only a five page paper. Here’s the full bibliography. There are a bunch of videogame related articles I skimmed in the course of research, but they don’t show up here. Also, some of the books of essays had other essays I read, but didn’t come close to using so they aren’t in here (but the book as a whole might be). My favourite resources in the bibliography are bolded.

  • Cover, J. G. (2010). The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.
  • Falk, J., & Davenport, G. (2004). Live role-playing games: Implications for pervasive gaming. International Federation for Information Processing, 127–138.
  • Farmer, L. S. J. (2011). How school libraries can provide gender equity in e-gaming. Knowledge Quest, 40(1), 16–17.
  • Fernández Vara, C. (2009). The tribulations of adventure games : integrating story into simulation through performance. Georgia Institute of Technology.
  • Fine, G. A. (1983). Shared fantasy: role-playing games as social worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books?id=Kx6UQgAACAAJ
  • Gallaway, B. (2009). Game on!: gaming at the library. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers. Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books?id=0d7QAQAACAAJ
  • Grabianowski, E. (2012). why is the 5th edition of dungeons & dragons a big deal? io9.com. Retrieved from http://io9.com/5874922/why-is-the-5th-edition-of-dungeons–dragons-a-big-deal
  • Gray, J., Sandvoss, C., & Harrington, C. L. (2007). Introduction: Why Study Fans? In J. Gray, C. Sandvoss, & C. L. Harrington (Eds.), Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (pp. 1–16). New York: New York University Press.
  • Harris, C., & Kirk, T. (2011). It’s All Fun and Games in the Library. Knowledge Quest, 40(1), 8–9.
  • Harris, M. (2012). Future of reading? “Active fiction” lets readers make the call. Canada.com. Retrieved from http://www.canada.com/news/Future+reading+Active+fiction+lets+readers+make+call/6038524/story.html
  • Hoenke, J. (2011). Game On! Envisioning Your Own Video Game. Justin The Librarian. Retrieved from http://justinthelibrarian.wordpress.com/category/libraries/game-on-envisioning-your-own-video-game/
  • Joseph, B. (2008). Why Johnny Can’t Fly: Treating Games as a Form of Youth Media Within a Youth Development Framework. In K. Salen (Ed.), The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning (pp. 253–265). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Mackay, D. (2001). The fantasy role-playing game: a new performing art. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books?id=s8YRVbDknyUC
  • McGonigal, J. (2008). Why I Love Bees: A Case Study in Collective Intelligence Gaming. In K. Salen (Ed.), The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning (pp. 199–227). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Nicholson, S. (2007). Go Back to Start: Gathering Baseline Data about Gaming in Libraries. Because Play Matters. Retrieved from http://librarygamelab.org/backtostart.pdf
  • Nicholson, S. (2008a). Finish your games so you can start your schoolwork: A look at gaming in school libraries. Library Media Connection, 26(5), 52–55.
  • Nicholson, S. (2008b). Modern board games: It’s not a Monopoly any more. Library Technology Reports, 44(3), 8–10, 38–39.
  • Nicholson, S. (2008c). Reframing Gaming – Clearing up misconceptions about this increasingly popular activity. American Libraries, (7), 50–51.
  • Nicholson, S. (2009). Library gaming census report. American Libraries, 40(1/2), 44.
  • Nicholson, S. (2012). Crossed Paths: An Improvisational Storytelling Game. Because Play Matters. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/crossedpaths
  • Salen, K. (Ed.). (2008). The ecology of games: connecting youth, games, and learning. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation series on digital media and learning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books?id=OSPQ196R3kMC
  • Sullivan, A., Mateas, M., & Wardrip-Fruin, N. (2010). Rules of engagement: moving beyond combat-based quests. Proceedings of the Intelligent Narrative Technologies III Workshop (p. 11). ACM. Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1822320
  • Wallis, J. (2007). Making Games That Make Stories. In P. Harrigan & N. Wardrip-Fruin (Eds.), Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media (pp. 69–80). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Wardrip-Fruin, N., & Harrigan, P. (Eds.). (2007). Second person: role-playing and story in games and playable media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books?id=P20NAQAAMAAJ
  • Wark, M. K. (2007). Gamer theory. Gamer Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books?id=peytfo3E-IIC
  • White, M. M. (2008). Level 10 Human Student: The Effects of Non-Curricular Role-Playing Game Use on Academic Achievement and Self-Efficacy. Memorial University of Newfoundland. Retrieved from http://gradworks.umi.com/MR/69/MR69308.html
  • Williams, J P, Hendricks, S. Q., & Winkler, W. K. (Eds.). (2006). Gaming as culture: essays on reality, identity and experience in fantasy games. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books?id=i7UBWz6LBK4C
  • Williams, J Patrick, Hendricks, S. Q., & Winkler, W. K. (2006). Introduction: Fantasy Games, Gaming Cultures, and Social Life. In J P Williams, S. Q. Hendricks, & W. K. Winkler (Eds.), Gaming As Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games (pp. 1–18). Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books?id=i7UBWz6LBK4C

book review: level up

Gene Yang’s Level Up is a comic about videogames and “fulfilling your destiny.” The protagonist is basically deciding between the pleasurable life of videogames and eating bitterness (they’re an Asian family) and becoming a doctor to fulfill his parents’ dreams for him. In the end the negotiation is made quite well. It’s not just a simple “I’ve got to do my own thing!” kind of story, but is a story of the complexity involved in doing what you love.

Thien Pham’s art was a little cutesy for my taste (I much prefer the bolder stylings from Yang’s American Born Chinese, for example) but it gets the job done.

book review: luka and the fire of life

Luka and the Fire of Life is Salman Rushdie’s sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a book I will forever love. Maybe it’s just the glasses of nostalgia looking back at Haroun, giving it more depth than there actually was, but Luka fell a little flat.

There’s still a lot of great language-play going on, and Rushdie is doing his old-school storytelling thing here, which is great. The world of magic that was supposed to be so rich with all the things implied about its vast history was actually rather small and curtailed.

Rushdie also used a video-game device of having extra lives and save points that I understand were an attempt to modernize the tale, to differentiate it from the pre-digital age Haroun, but it felt tacked on and misunderstood and a poor fit for the old-school storytelling on display. In Scott Pilgrim coins popping out of people after he defeats them in a fight works, here the grabbing of hundreds of extra lives at a time seemed to misunderstand the logic behind videogames entirely. I may have complained about Ready Player One being a bit too nerd-pandering, but this is what that feels like when done badly I think.

They also did the whole skipping a bunch of levels in the quest thing, which I’ve seen done more cleverly in Un Lun Dun (and possibly a Neil Gaiman story or two?).

But that’s what I didn’t like and the rest of the book was pretty good. I already mentioned the exuberant language. I loved the Insultana of Over The Top (and could have used more examples of her insults before they soften a bit towards Luka). The use of so many different deities cross-pollinating the World of Magic was great, and Luka’s big speech near the end was wonderful.

Overall I liked the book, but I’d recommend Haroun and the Sea of Stories much more highly.

book review: ready player one

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is an sf novel that was just released to a lot of hype (in my part of the internet at least). I got the Kindle edition because paper books in Australia are crazy expensive. It was a fine book, but I wonder if it panders just a bit too much to its target audience.

The story is set three decades into the Great Recession (you know, the one we’re living through the beginning of right now). A company designed an excellent immersive reality software environment in 2012 called the OASIS. It’s released for free (monetized through in-universe transportation costs, not through ads) and becomes a really excellent way for people to escape from the crushingly shitty existence of non-uber-wealthy life. (There are two-year waitlists for jobs at McDonalds in this Recession.)

Five years before the story begins the creator of OASIS died, and in his will, the company and all his wealth go to whoever could find the three keys hidden in OASIS. He was worth megabillions so this is a big deal. But unlike most corporate sweepstakes kinds of things this one was actually difficult and when the story begins for real most people have given up on the idea of winning those billions. Except for our protagonist, Parzival, a dirt-poor kid from the States, who’s part of the gunter (egg-hunter) subculture.

So the story is a classic quest novel, with all the stuff happening in OASIS, and dealing with the real world when he has to. What Cline’s done though is have Halliday (the dead billionaire who made the puzzle) obsessed with the 1980s. Knowing 1980s pop culture as well as Halliday is the key way to solve the puzzles. And while it’s kind of a clever way to include Star Wars (and Ferris Bueller and Dungeons and Dragons and Firefly and Back to the Future and all the other 80s stuff people like myself grew up on) references, it kind of lost its appeal a ways in. I think it was the reference to Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton being elected the presidents of OASIS year after year. It felt a little too much like fanservice to let me take the story seriously (or something).

As far as quest stories go, it’s good. Well structured, with clear bad guys who want to win the quest so they have control of the OASIS and can monetize it with ads and subscription fees and will kill (and more importantly cheat at the game) to get their way. I’d have no problem recommending it to YA readers or adults looking for something light. But it’s not “the best SF novel I’ve read in a decade” (as Mark Faruenfelder called it). There’s too much fanservice and not enough oomph (or beauty) to it in my opinion.