Smartbomb by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby

It is a measure of how quickly videogame culture changes that Smartbomb, which first appeared in 2005 but came out in paper in November, already is beginning to feel a trifle dated. World of Warcraft, for example, only has time to make a cameo appearance 10 pages shy of the end. On the other hand, some things haven’t changed at all: Spore is still primarily a very, very, very cool demo. To note that times have changed is hardly a criticism: Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby relentlessly insist on the accelerated temporality of gaming culture.

Besides, the appeal of Smartbomb is in its historical reporting — that is, in the profiles of leading industry figures such as Will Wright, John Carmack, John Romero, Shigeru Miyamoto, Nolan Bushnell, CliffyB (Clifford Bleszinski), Jonathan “Seamus” Blackley, and others. And it is a tribute to Chaplin and Ruby’s reporting that these profiles can occasionally seem startlingly prescient: It’s impossible not to read Shigeru Miyamoto’s attacks on photorealism-for-photorealism’s sake and his defense of fun, creativity, and whimsy and grasp the nature of the Wii’s appeal. And the book is an engaging, light read. (I will say, though, that reviewers who’ve claimed the book is “well-written” are being generous. The first sentence, for instance, is an exhausting frenzy of overclocked prose: “a place where bleeding-edge computer science and wild creativity have fused to produce a new medium that is poised to dramatically alter not only how we play but also how we communicate and learn.”)

While Smartbomb‘s profiles are engaging and almost unfailingly interesting, it’s disappointingly thin on ideas. Or, to put this a slightly different way, it sticks so closely to the ideas of those being profiled that the book gains very little critical purchase. The book occasionally notes that video games were “only a notch or two above pornography,” though now the games “are big business, with annual sales approaching $10 billion in the United States alone.” But, of course, pornography has gone mainstream, too, with Jenna Jameson a best-selling author, and with prominent news organizations such as the New York Times reporting the industry’s annual income as exceeding $12 billion. (I don’t want to defend the number, which many think is pretty dramatically inflated; I’m just drawing attention to the limits of Smartbomb‘s comparison.) The comparison to pornography is meant to be self-evidently absurd, but apparently Americans enjoy playing with joysticks and Wii wands of all kinds. While one could argue that games have gone mainstream, one could apparently also argue that Americans have just decided to do what feels good, regardless of the consequences.

It’s also frustrating to see that the difference between videogames and prior art forms is that videogames “are models,” while books “use descriptions … as a means of representing and communicating ideas.” Such an impoverished understanding of representation can’t do justice to the complex ways novelists and poets model objects ranging from subjective states of mind to the world. (Whatever George Eliot is doing in Middlemarch, surely we can agree it goes beyond “description.”) I’m perfectly happy to admit that videogames may well be a new art form, and ought to be judged on their own terms. But that argument needn’t be launched from such feeble ground.

These objections, though, are in a perverse sense a testament to the book, which uses it profiles to go beyond mere fandom, instead encouraging people to think seriously about videogames. I think this call is wholly warranted, and Smartbomb is an entertaining guide to the culture — and it is a culture in both the anthropological and aesthetic senses — surrounding video games.

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