Jim Rossignol’s This Gaming Life is a casual discourse on the growing culture of multiplayer gaming. It isn’t so much an exercise in New Game Journalism as it is a look at the way that players are beginning to reflect their gaming lifestyles in the real world. From the celebrity culture of South Korea to Iceland’s bold experiment in EVE Online, all are explored as Rossignol argues the merits of online games as an after the fact situation. They are here to stay and are only getting more popular.
Rossignol describes his interest in games as casual until he took up a boring job and a copy of Quake III. He writes, “Cold mornings, adolescent disinterest, and a nagging hip injury had meant that I was banished from the sports field for many years” (7). A lot of the opening pages are spent justifying this decision, beginning with the point that, like any amusement, it’s the user who makes such decisions into something positive or negative. He points out that the art conversation hasn’t been relevant since DuChamp put a urinal on a wall and writes, “The reason for arguing that games—at least some games—deserve to be classified as art is that it offers gamers a more positive, culturally sanctioned way to describe what they do. It suggests that games are not mere trivia” (18). Borrowing from Ian Bogost’s Procedural Rhetoric, Rossignol explains that the focus of a game is complex experimentation. The plot of Super Mario Brothers is not really the point of the game, it’s about “learning how to run, jump, and open treasure chests” (20). Rather than try to make some bold argument for education or deep human experiences, Rossignol dismisses most of these claims in favor of championing what games already do quite well: fix boredom. He cites a text by Lars Svendsen that points out that boredom is in reality a very real problem today. It was not even in the English language in 1760, being coined to describe “the feeling that there’s nothing worth doing”. It’s not a matter of sitting on your ass; it’s finding nothing meaningful in your life that you want to work for. Rossignol writes, “The bored are not necessarily unhappy with life; they are simply unfulfilled by circumstances, activities, and the things around them” (31). Games are valid then to him because they help to solve this.
Lee Yunyeol, Starcraft Pro
The book then launches into a discussion of the gaming cultures of London, Seoul, and Reykjavik to show how diverse and varied their approaches to solving boredom can be. He first discusses South Korea, which is something of an anomaly with its spectator sports atmosphere in gaming. Due to a heavy tax on Japanese goods and PC’s being able to network, games like Starcraft with LAN support became popular in PC cafes. More arcade than bar, a culture developed so that a top player like Lee Yunyeol could practice for 8 hours a day and make around 200,000 dollars a year (back in 2004). There are 5 dedicated gaming channels on TV, feeding into a noticeable preference for PvP games.
Rossignol argues that this culture wouldn’t really transfer well to the West. He writes, “It remains an awkward spectator sport. It’s an interesting avenue of possibility for a small clique of gamers, perhaps; but the low number of people who watch video games played by the pros outside Korea suggests that the most important aspect of gaming is its interactivity. I’ve seldom been as bored as I have been watching pro gaming tournaments” (73). It’s here that Rossignol starts to make the argument that interacting with people (performing the complex experiments of gaming on other players) is where the medium really holds its appeal. The heavy competition and grind heavy style of most Korean games don’t really lend themselves to the eclectic “cosmopolitan cities” that make-up other online games. Online games are interesting merely because of all the strange behavior people and what they get up to while playing. An in-game protest against Japanese artwork in a Chinese MMO, the Blood Plague in World of Warcraft, or EVE Online’s long war between Goon Swarm and Band of Brothers all highlight the unexpected results of these games. Watching people play, instead of participating, is counter-productive to what makes games fun in the first place.
The second city is Reykjavik, the home of EVE Online. If you follow Rossignol’s work, you know that this is a game that he has played and studied extensively. He gives a good explanation of the game’s setup in an interview with BLDGBLOG, “The thing about EVE, which is distinct from other online games, is that it’s a single galaxy—a single space. Most games aren’t like that. Even massively multiplayer games, like World of Warcraft, are broken up into “shards”—so that, if you’re playing Warcraft, you’ll be on a shard with maybe two or three thousand other people. In EVE, everyone is in the same galaxy together”. One change to the rules or one player innovation changes the game for everyone. He describes the early days of mining asteroids using a canister trick and other innovations like drop coordinates. Players would speculate and sell areas of space that a ship could jump to without having to cross pirate territory. His discussions with the game’s creators considers their reluctance to ever force changes on the economy or ways that people play. It’s easy to take something out of the game, but the culture that grows up around these playstyles is impossible to recreate. They can only make a few changes and wait to see what happens.
From EVE Online
It’s that theme of interaction between people that Rossignol keeps returning to consistently throughout the book, whether it be between audience and player, developer and player, or just what’s going on when you play solo. He explains, “the modeling possibilities for games are effectively infinite, since what they model is intended not to educate but to entertain. Their models don’t have to be accurate to anything outside themselves, although they usually have to be coherent. The models of video games are the models of fantasies” (147). Or as Will Wright puts it, a game is just compiling the mental models in your head. These things have their own unique reality for the player, “We’re not acting or pretending: I am my spaceship, or my superhero, or my robo-suited explorer. If I have invested time and money in these extensions of my everyday life, then they deserve respect and protection” (181). Which returns the focus to the case for the significance of the multiplayer experience that Rossignol is making throughout the book. These mental models and fantasies take on value and meaning as more and more people start to take them seriously together.
The book has its ups and downs, depending on who you are. It was originally an article on South Korea written for PC Gamer that Rossignol has expanded significantly with a wide array of curious facts. I wouldn’t really say there is a singular thesis to the book—what I’ve cited is just me cherry picking points and themes out. Sections like the propaganda chapter or how one precisely turns into a gamer aren’t going to be new to someone who follows the industry regularly. The section on Korea is fascinating while the Iceland portion is more a discourse on the history of EVE Online. The book seems meant to be read by people who aren’t overly familiar with gaming culture, and in that sense, it presents a positive and interesting image of the scene. He ends by assuring the reader that whatever a person might think of games now, they are only going to get better. The constant changes and experiments in the medium come from the growing belief that the golden age of gaming is yet to come. He notes, “I think these people are dissatisfied because they are the pioneers in a gold rush: they’ve glimpsed the possibilities, and now they know that the riches await us, out there, somewhere over the horizon” (196).
// Notes from the Road
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