Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Venn Diagrams

I like Venn diagrams. I like the idea that you can take two different things, say, likes and dislikes, create circles for them to inhabit, and then find areas where they overlap and merge together cohesively. My favorite to date is a Venn diagram featuring Uncle Jesse from Full House and Jesus.

The overlapping points were "the hair" and "have mercy."

When two things that I love come together, I'm a pretty happy guy. Well, so long as the result doesn't suck, that is. In which case, I look/feel like this:

However, fortunately for me, I've had great experiences with the area between video games and literature, and that's what I'm here to tell you about.

Since first reading an uncorrected proof of Tom Bissell's Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, I've wanted to post something about it. Weighing my options, I decided that going on and on about my experience reading the book, my own experiences with the games he discusses, or which games I would love to hear him write about next wouldn't be a good idea. Fun for me, sure, but it would essentially be something just for me, which kind of defeats the purpose of making that public. No reason to expose you to any of that. But now, under this umbrella, Tom Bissell's work will lead the charge.

If you're at all interested in video games as a medium, you really ought to give Extra Lives a try. It's beautifully written, and provides analysis as well as insights into the gaming industry. While perhaps a smidge on the academic side, this doesn't detract from the writing. Instead, it seems to lend itself to a new kind of video game journalism. Part personal essay, part high-brow critique, and part exploration of where things fit in the grand scheme of things.

If you read this and like it, there isn't another book quite like it, but I would recommend checking out Kill Screen Magazine. It's stuffed with similar work. Or at least work approached in a similar fashion.

Next, we have Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution. Sadly, I'm not yet finished with this book, but it's proven itself to be pretty interesting. Authored by a couple of journalists, Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby, this work has a different approach than that of Bissell's. While it's clear Ruby has some experience with video games, it seems more like an outsiders' guide to gaming. These are not enthusiasts who decided to share their hobby with those not in the know, these are journalists that saw an untapped field of exploration, and jumped on it. This isn't a bad thing. You just need to expect to read sentences like "The Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3 as gamers call it..." and accept that fact that we, the gaming population, are something akin to subjects under a microscope within these pages.

Again, there's nothing wrong with that. It's just a touch alienating at times.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both books profile Cliff Bleszinski (CliffyB!) but the portraits they paint are in stark contrast to one another. In one, he is a dainty man wearing an ill-fitting pimp suit, while the other has him on stage wearing a blazer-hoodie combo and brandishing a somewhat functional Lancer Assault Rifle. What a difference a successful, mainstream game franchise makes!

By the time I'm done with Smartbomb, I'm hoping to be prepared to delve into Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games. It's a critical studies title, and it will likely include a lot of densely packed language that I won't understand. But that's alright. From my experience, the bits that you can glean from such titles manage to justify the effort expended.

If instead the title leaves me feeling stupid, I'll find comfort in the new Street Fighter World Warrior Encyclopedia put out by Udon Entertainment. There are always ways to find solace within beautiful, comprehensive art books.

When done well, the combination of video games and literature are even better than a corndog dipped in mashed potatoes! So I recommend you stop reading this and enjoy these bountiful offerings, post haste!


  1. Sad Keanu Reeves needs a corndog dipped in mashed potatoes, ASAP.

  2. Anonymous11:16 AM

    Griffin, I can't believe you got Sad Keanu on the Shelf Life. As for your books, I kinda want to read them now, even though I'm not a gamer. Will they maybe explain why I can't play video games with any skill or interest but find them conceptually fascinating? I'm thinking as a non-gamer I should try the second one.

  3. I like video games. But I did not know about these books on them. Extra Lives sounds great! Where can I get a copy?

    This is Nancy from Israeli Uncensored News

  4. Nancy, if you click on the book in the post, you can get it from us! We'll send it to you.


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