Review: This Gaming Life
Souvik Tuesday, October 14, 2008Turned thirty in RL, last month. It wasn't as exciting as people make it out to be. RL is not too bad at the moment but it's quite humdrum when compared to the lives I've been leading in game-worlds. Yet, one can't ignore the overlap. Or perhaps it isn't an overlap: to me, sometimes the two can merge into something I cannot explain or describe. It is then that I start wondering about this gaming life.
I was quite sure that other gamers have the same experience but Jim Rossignol's book, This Gaming Life, still came as a surprise. I'd known people to write and talk about Holodeck Hamlets, Cybertexts and theory; Rossignol does something different. He talks about that constantly changing 'zone' where 'real life' and gaming lives come together and he does so without trying to tell us what to think. He starts by telling us how he lost his job in a London City financial paper because of his obsession for videogames and eventually ended up working with a gaming magazine, which took him on many adventures -- both in-game and outside. Though he subtitles his book, 'Travels in Three Cities', and divides it into sections called London, Seoul and Reykjavik, the front cover reveals a supplementary location. It's a part of some imaginary map with places like Nintendovia, Marioville and Sim city.
Though written as a travelogue, This Gaming Life is a versatile book: partly autobiographical and partly a commentary on the gaming industry, digital culture and philosophy, it addresses most of the major issues in videogame research. Though originally a Quake gamer, Rossignol's ludic knowledge is impressive. He discusses games as disparate as WoW, Spore, LEGO Star Wars and Half Life 2 with equal ease. In some cases, his interviews of the designers and modders adds more to the already very diverse understanding of videogames. I'm not sure I've seen a discussion of LEGO Star Wars in other books on gaming and I liked the author's approach here. His interview of Jonathan Smith, the creator of the game, reveals to an extent the strange yet very obvious experience where the interaction of the colourful LEGO blocks maps so well with the gameplay of a sci-fi videogame. While pointing out overlaps between digital games and their non-digital counterparts, Smith makes an important point: 'It's not a simulation of the plastic LEGO experience - it's the imaginative exercise'. This is similar to what Smith had told me when I met him at GameCity, Nottingham in 2007. I see his point even better now though I must admit to being disappointed then, because I was expecting a total sandbox-type game.
Not that I was to wait for that too long. The Sims were already there and Spore is here, now. Rossignol presents a promising preview analysis of Spore and despite the mixed reviews of the game, I am inclined to agree with his praise - mainly because he describes the idea behind the game and not the issues with DRMs and such irritations. Though one cannot have a Spore-like gameplay in every game, one can certainly increase the space of possibilities by creating mods. Rossignol's comment that 'browsing through modding archives is like visiting a library of rewritten classics. It's as if one were able to edit Shakespeare with pulp fiction tropes ...' is of vital significance, and I kind of wish that the author had unpacked this a bit more. Needless to say that I agree with him, though for me Shakespeare has always had the potential of being edited with pulp fiction tropes and this moddability is a characteristic of literature itself. I've said all this and more ever since I started playing videogames (and I bet in at least 80% of the previous posts) so I'd better stop here.
Perhaps the most useful part of This Gaming Life for me, was the section on Korean gaming. It helped dispel my ignorance of gaming in the Far-East. Honestly, sitting in the middle of the United Kingdom (or even in gaming backwaters of India), I had never imagined that gaming would have its own celebs and like Lee Yuneol, the StarCraft champion, they would feature on popular TV shows. Neither did I know that Korean gaming while perhaps a more 'serious' quotidian affair, is actually rather limited in terms of variety and concentrates on a few titles. In this console-based world, where my pc-gaming self is almost an anachronism, it is still heartening to know that an entire major gaming culture is still based on the pc. While I am used to hundreds of gamers telling me why they prefer consoles, I nevertheless tend to agree with Rossignol's point that the pc still remains the better platform - it lets one invent, edit and modify so much more easily. It also allows independent creativity rather than make games the preserve of large manufacturers. Often, this can be beneficial for the industry in many unthought of ways: Rossignol's example of how Portal developed from the indie game Narbacular Drop is a case in point.
I realise, as I write, that I haven't really been trying to write a book review. Instead of trying to summarise what the book is, this posting tends to look at how this book plays. There are many issues that I might have missed in my own rather quick path through the book. Other reader-gamers will surely pick them up. In other words, this is a possible GameSpot review of This Gaming Life. I'm judging it mostly on the gameplay and on my scoresheet it easily gets a 9.5/10.
Jim Rossignol has a blog called rockpapershotgun.com and writes for various journals and newspapers. I believe he writes for Wired, PC Gamer and the BBC. Here's the link to another review (a proper one, I think) of the book; I don't agree with the bit on 'lack of focus', though - I think the style is just right for a travelogue-cum-autobiography, which is how the author presents it. Rossignol also happens to be a fan of STALKER like me ... well, I must have met him in Pripyat some time.
'Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material [...] but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning' - Italo Calvino