The history of videogames is a subject that has been remarkably well documented. From Pong to the launch titles of the 360, games have always had historians. Now that gaming is taking its place beside movies and music as a recognized art form, new players have to be informed of the hobby's past. Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution tells the tale of modern gaming's formation via the personal stories of the people who make them. It's a well-considered look at the early days and recent history of interactive entertainment. Read on for my impressions of a book with not only a sense of history, but a handle on what's fun.If you don't follow games, you won't recognize the name of CliffyB. Suffice it to say that Cliffy (a designer at Epic Games, makers of the Unreal series) has a reputation in the games industry. His swagger and bravado at industry events early in the decade fills the first chapter of the book, and had me sighing. While I respect the man's work, I have a low tolerance for that kind of machismo. Cliffy has changed since then, though, and despite the image he portrayed back then the authors of the book make it clear that the swagger was all an act. As they describe the man's dissatisfaction with his situation, and a humanizing moment where he walks from a dance floor seeking solitude, it was clear that Smartbomb was not going take a superficial look at the games industry or its people.
Smartbomb uses the individuals who make and play the games we love as lenses to focus on distinct segments of the videogame industry. Each chapter is a mini-novel, with characters and reflections that explore the roots of gaming as an art form, as a medium, and as a culture. The story of Nolan Bushnell and the early days of Atari are a lead-in to the formative years of the home gaming scene. Through the eyes of Shigeru Miyamoto we see the ascendency and decline of Nintendo in the Western market. Angel Munoz's CPL tournament allows us access to the world of FPS titles, and lets us lament the loss of Looking Glass studios all over again. Seamus Blackley attends the launch of the original Xbox, and we tag along to reflect on Microsoft's bid for the living room.
Though the outlines of much of this may be familiar to anyone who's been a gamer for a while, the immediacy of the book's language places you in the flow of history as it unfolds. They don't just tell you about the Xbox launch, they put you in the moment. You're standing there as Gates plays a round with The Rock, and are a fly on the wall as Blackley proposes to his girlfriend. Though the tone feels somewhat unnecessary at times (we don't have to 'be there' to see Will Wright's buddy making a fool of himself at a GDC), it breathes life into what could have been very dry material.
The story of Smartbomb, the oral history of the gamers, is not dry in the slightest because the authors make it a human tale. During the course of the book there are plenty of games to talk about, but the authors chose to focus their attention on the people behind the games. It pulls our attention as readers away from the subject matter and forces us to consider gaming history in a more holistic way. For example, the launch of Star Wars Galaxies, discussed in a chapter on Raph Koster and virtual worlds. The game's launch was a harsh time for everyone involved. It lead to harsher times and marked the start of a game that has always been troubled. The authors force us to consider the human toll that must have taken, revealing that the live team was in crunch mode for almost three years after the game's launch. Several Christmases away from your loved ones is a high cost to pay for fun gameplay. In addition to humanizing raw statistics, the tone of the book forces the reader to see these people as no more or less than human. Will Wright's genius is well known, but he's an intimidating person to talk to. The launch of the Xbox saw a lot of friendships broken up, and thousand dollar purses at the CPL are won by teens and young adults who spend far too much time in front of a PC screen.
The chapter in the book most likely to deal with new ground for the reader shares its title with the entire work. Though it doesn't use that term, the 'Smartbomb' chapter touches on serious games. The most serious of games, actually, the ones the military is using to train the next generation of soldiers. Where the other chapters talk about the creation of an industry and the advancement of a hobby, 'Smartbomb' introduces the reader to games like America's Army and Full Spectrum Warrior. The human face of military gaming are the men and women who developed the titles, and are even now adapting lessons learned from their play to training programs for U.S. soldiery. Humanized in the same way as the more jocular portions of the book, the look at gaming and the military is probably going to be the most informative for gamers already familiar with the rest of the text's characters.
The book accomplishes some admirable goals in relating the history of the hobby, the industry, and the people who have made both possible. Despite that, there are some elements I felt could have been better. Average players are included in some portions of the tale, and the device would have been more effective if it had been used throughout the book. Impressions from a Sims player would have been a poignant offset to the cloud castles of Will Wright's thought processes. While the book does an admirable job of grounding some icons it doesn't do so evenly; Some industry personalities are brought to earth harder than others. The book ends on a postscript during 2005's GDC, and the few sentences mentioning the designers' views on the modern industry were not satisfying. Revealing the founders of modern videogaming as human could have been followed by more exploration of that humanity, an opportunity missed.
Alongside titles like Masters of Doom and Dungeons and Dreamers, Smartbomb is a stab at capturing some legitimacy for the community by creating well-informed members. It uses a casual tone to relate the tales of videogaming past, and places readers in the middle of the moment. This first-person perspective of history is certain to appeal to readers who might otherwise not be interested in the formation of an industry. As an extension of gaming's oral history, the book accomplishes its objective well. It's both informative and entertaining, a title you can feel comfortable giving to a non-gamer without pause. For long-time gamers, familiarity with the book's subject matter may detract from your enjoyment. The only truly new story that 'Smartbomb' tells is that of the military's involvement with gaming. Many of the most interesting aspects of the book are anecdotes gamers have been telling each other for years. That said, those who enjoy gaming history will enjoy Smartbomb. It treats the subject matter with respect and the icons of the gaming world as people. It is a well-crafted look at an immature medium, and will hopefully open up younger readers to the events that prompted the news of today.
You can purchase Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.