I was recently visiting Powell's City of Books, the wonderful destination bookstore in Portland, and I thought I'd browse their selection of books about video games. Well, that's not quite true: I thought I'd see if they had a selection of books about video games, and if they did, I'd browse it.
"Hang on," you might say, "don't you know all that stuff's on the Internet now? Why pay good money for a strategy guide to solve your game when you can find one for free on GameFAQs.com?" But I wasn't looking for a strategy guide, or any other sort of help for playing games; I was looking for books examining games, and their roles in our lives, from a cultural, historical, or theoretical perspective. Though you might not guess it, there is a wealth of such literature.
Powell's did turn out to have a selection, though apparently it takes a City of Books to justify a single bookshelf's worth of books about video games. And not one of the big sets of shelves, either—one of those smaller constructions on the end that faces outward into traffic, perpendicular to the aisle. Am I grumpy? I'm a little grumpy.
But, hey, at least they had something, enough for a proper browsing session, which was a pleasant surprise. And while there were plenty of strategy guides in the mix—the sort of thing most likely to end up at a used bookstore, after all—there were also some gems. This included a used copy of Women and Gaming: The Sims and 21st Century Learning by James Paul Gee, for $40, which I did not buy, because, come on, $40. I wanted it, though. Sorry, Jim; maybe next time.
I did leave with a copy of Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby's Smartbomb, a history of the games industry, but on a whim I also picked up Game Boys, by Michael Kane. Here's what it looks like:
Look at that cover! It's so...so...
Hmm. Yes. Even now, I'm not sure how I feel about the cover. I think I can finally say that I like it, and I certainly dig its pixelated style, but whatever smart remarks one might make about the criteria used to judge a book, the cover is the point of entry, literally and figuratively. It should communicate something about what the reader can expect to find inside. And this cover doesn't say much to me. It feels impersonal, neutral, and vague. It doesn't give me a sense of what the book is like.
Yes, there's a subtitle and textual synopsis: "Professional Videogaming's Rise from the Basement to the Big Time." But what does that mean? Would the narrative follow a specific player? Would it be a wide-ranging history from a detached observer? I cracked open the book and read some profanity-laced dialogue. It seemed unpleasant.
I don't often buy things on a whim, and that's especially true with books. It's amazing I bought this one. At least I had heard of Smartbomb and knew something of its merits. If the trip to Powell's hadn't been special, or I'd already picked out more things, I likely would have passed on Game Boys. As it was, I decided to splurge and take a chance. But—embarrassing as it is to admit this rush to judgment—I didn't expect much from the book. It wouldn't be very compelling.
Surprise! I was wrong.
What I actually read turned out to be a ripping, gripping narrative full of passion and fire. Game Boys details the culture and history of competitive Counter-Strike, a first-person shooting game in which two teams of five players each take each other on in a terrorist/counter-terrorist setting. Something like that is perfect for structured competition, and it starts out with informal buy-in tournaments in basements, but the incentive of prize money motivates some of the teams to get more organized. They start developing playbooks of complex strategies, coaches materialize out of the aether, rivalries develop, someone secures a sponsorship from a technology company...
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" you say. "Teams? Coaches? Plays? Rivalries? Sponsorships? This sounds like a sports drama!" And that's exactly the point—it is a sports drama. The heart of the book is the bitter rivalry between two American teams, pushing to be the best, make a living, and earn credibility as athletic performers in the eyes of the world. One team has the money, the style, the winning record, a mercenary mindset, and a cold and calculating hustler of a coach. The other is a bunch of ragtag rejects coached by a man funding them out of his own pocket because he believes in them and in the game. No joke: it is a real-life corporate-behemoth-vs.-underdogs-with-heart story.
The author—a veteran sports writer—knew just what to do with it, too. There are enough moments of triumph, despair, incredible reversal, and surprise to match any sports movie. And, since this is a narrative of real-life events, there is no guarantee of a happy ending. Near the end of the book I was using my free hand to block parts of the page I hadn't gotten to yet, so that if my eye strayed I couldn't accidentally spoil the outcomes of climactic moments, decisions, and confrontations.
I was so close to passing up this book, but I'm so glad I didn't. I enjoyed Smartbomb, but I knew a lot of the history and characters already, and though I would never have anticipated it, Game Boys easily turned out to be the more-rewarding purchase. It's a great yarn, inspiring even, and considering that I don't follow basketball but can still get invested in a basketball movie, I would guess that even those who don't play video games (much less Counter-Strike specifically) would still find it easy, as the author did, to get invested in the people, the teams, and the drama of the story.
It's fascinating to read this book now, more than six years after it came out. The competitive game-playing landscape is very different. 13,000 people filled the Los Angeles' Staples Center to watch the League of Legends World Championship in 2013, with more than 32 million people watching online and on TV [source]. Amazon recently bought Twitch—a service for streaming gameplay sessions online for others to watch—for $970 million [source]. Colleges are now offering video game athletic scholarships [source]. The Counter-Strike players of Game Boys could only dream of such developments (though I hope they are enjoying them now).
It's clear that the wider media world has finally figured out the truth staring them in the face even in the pages of Game Boys: people like to watch video games, not just play them, and that goes well with their love of competition. But, stepping away from the hoopla over the tedious question of whether playing video games can "really be a sport," I think Game Boys reveals something more fundamental: the game itself, whether it's putting a ball through a hoop, or shooting a target onscreen, doesn't really matter. That's not what compels us to watch.
We get invested in people, in their lives and the drama of their relationships. Competition is a handy context for concentrating relationships in a dramatically-satisfying way, and games are a handy context for safely orchestrating competition. This doesn't mean we don't care about the details of what's happening on the screen or on the court. But they are significant because of how they relate to the people involved. It's doubtful very many people would watch the world's most exciting video game if it were just artificial intelligences battling it out. Meanwhile countless people tune in to events like Desert Bus for Hope to watch some poor souls play absolutely terrible video games, because it's for charity, but also because the players make the experience fun and entertaining.
I haven't researched the people involved with Game Boys to find out what's happened to them since the events of the book. I suppose I will eventually. Right now I'm still enjoying the thrill of watching the first shaky steps of a medium starting to get its legs and grow into itself, and knowing that, whatever the outcome of the book, years beyond the back cover the future of the medium is sure.
Read Game Boys. It's great. I'm not sure how the cover might have been changed to convey the true drama hidden inside, but you'll just have to trust me—the book is worth taking a chance.
[This essay was originally published on my personal blog.]