Not all gamers are total mountain-dew swilling, 24/7 screen-junkies. Some of us like to pick up a good book once in a while. For gamers of a literary bent, here are some top recommendations to stick on your reading list.
Although you can find plenty of tie-in novels for video game franchises, good books that feature gaming as a key part of an original story are rarer. The books in this #TopList each take on digital entertainment from a very different perspective, but there's a case to be made for each of them.
Page Turners For Button Mashers
Here are my top three books featuring video games that deserve a space next to your rig/console of choice. Maybe not too close though, those things can get hot.
1. The Player Of Games
- Author: Iain M. Banks
- Publisher: Macmillan (1988)
Iain M. Banks has an entire series of 'space opera' novels set around 'The Culture', a high-tech utopian interstellar society which nonetheless sometimes has to engage in morally questionable acts to deal with outside threats. Although written in the '80s, Banks' work continues to inspire people working at the cutting edge of technology, such as alpha nerd Elon Musk, who named SpaceX vehicles after Culture vessels.
The Player of Games tells the story of Jernau Morat Gurgeh, an expert game player, who is recruited (read: blackmailed) by The Culture's Special Circumstances Dept. (think CIA and you're not far off) into going to the Empire of Azad, an oppressive alien regime whose entire social structure is based around the mastery of an incredibly complex game.
In the Empire, how good you are at the game of Azad determines your profession and social status, and when things get personal between players, the stakes can get very high, with castration being a typical punishment for the loser. The hierarchy and cruelty of Azad may seem extreme, but anyone who's been on the receiving end of abuse from higher ranking players on multiplayer games might feel a twinge of recognition at how that kind of organization seems to bring out the worst in people.
As the most talented gamer in the Culture, Gurgeh must prepare himself for the ultimate challenge...to bring down the evil empire by rising through the ranks and defeating the Emperor himself. While immersed in the Empire of Azad, the initially apolitical and apathetic Gurgeh begins to notice multiple levels of games within games, and realizes he may be more pawn than player.
The rules of the game are never fully described, but it's shown to reflect both the inner beliefs and personality of the player as well as the society they operate in.
Followers of the latest tech that seeks to extend 'gamification' to our work and social lives or use games to explore psychology are certain to find Banks' vision of the all-encompassing Azad compelling. And any gamer will find something to relate to in Gurgeh's competitive spirit and his struggle to both master and subvert the system he has to beat.
The Player of Games' sci-fi setting is far removed from modern pop culture, so don't expect more than the slightest of references to real life gaming. If you're looking for something featuring the games we know and love more directly, then the next entry might be more up your street.
2. Ready Player One
- Author: Ernest Cline
- Publisher: Random House (2011)
Ready Player One is a love letter to gaming history and, more broadly, to 1980s pop culture. Hero Wade Watts is an impoverished teenage gamer who spends all his time on OASIS, a virtual reality system that combines elements of MMORPG, social network and information hub, replacing the internet as we know it. Wade devotes his life to finding the hidden fortune of the man who created OASIS, James Halliday. The only clues to how to get at it were hidden away in Halliday's personal writings, locked behind obscure references to '80s esoterica.
Ready Player One was a breakout success, and the film adaptation, appropriately directed by none other than '80s legend Steven Spielberg, is slated to come out next year.
Your mileage may vary on Ready Player One depending on your tolerance for pandering to nerd culture. Cline lays the fanservice thick and fast down on every page. He clearly knows his stuff, but sometimes it feels like the plot and characters barely have room to breathe in between detailed pop culture references.
However, if you're willing to surrender to that warm fuzzy feeling of nostalgia, Ready Player One has something for every type of nerd. Old school Dungeons and Dragons? Zork? Atari? The Power Glove? Wargames? Ultraman? They're all here and then some.
The plot, which sees the hero team up with a rag-tag band of misfits to take on a rich and powerful evil corporation, intentionally follows familiar genre beats. Anyone familiar with the games and films referenced by the book can expect to feel a lot of warm recognition but not much in the way of surprise.
Ultimately, Ready Player One is a straightforward celebration of nerd culture, not a critique of it. Basically, its premise is: "What if your all-consuming pop culture obsession is what makes you just the right person to save the world?" To the gamer of a certain age, it's a self-indulgent ride through a host of pleasant memories and an escapist reminder of how awesome they are. For the younger reader, the borderline-encyclopedic referencing serves as an excellent primer for anyone looking to dive into retro pop culture.
If Ready Player One's blatant fanboyism feels a little too much, I recommend the following to leaven the power fantasy with a bit of gritty cynicism.
3 . REAMDE
- Author: Neal Stephenson
- Publisher: William Morrow (2011)
I consider Neal Stephenson's cyberpunk classic Snow Crash required reading for gamers and geeks generally (seriously, go and read that right now, this article will wait here for you), but the more recent REAMDE puts video games right at the centre of the plot.
Specifically T'Rain, a mega-successful MMORPG which is built around the concept of allowing players to make real currency exchanges within the game's virtual world. Founded by Richard Forthrast, a former marijuana smuggler turned video game addict, T'Rain is meticulously detailed, with geology experts tapped to seed resources through its virtual soil and bestselling fantasy authors competing to realize its fantasy world.
Richard's comfortable digital empire is shaken when a virus called REAMDE arrives on the scene, infecting millions of players in T'Rain, holding their computer files for a ransom that must be paid in the virtual world. As if this wasn't bad enough, his adopted niece Zula runs afoul of Russian gangsters whose dirty secrets have been hacked by REAMDE. She and a group of hostages are abducted halfway across the world to help locate the hackers and exact bloody retribution. As Zula struggles to outwit her captors and stay alive, Richard makes use of his considerable resources to scour the globe in search of her and get to the bottom of the devastating virus. Then things get even more complicated.
REAMDE is a thick, dense tome that juggles several concurrent plot threads. In the real world, you get a globe-trotting thriller in which the protagonists face down crack mercenaries, coerced hackers, gangsters, international spies, Islamic terrorists, backwoods survivalists and angry wildlife. But when the action shifts to the virtual world of T'Rain, Stephenson doesn't miss an opportunity to make some entertaining points about video game nerd culture.
The fictional T'Rain is what a mega-MMO like World of Warcraft would have turned into if Blizzard had embraced, rather than rejected, the phenomenon of gold farming and trading virtual goods for real currency. Real life gold farming already attracts major financial players and interests from organized crime. But Stephenson's best digs at nerd culture have less to do with the money at stake and more to do with the absurdity of MMO tropes.
Through T'Rain, Stephenson pokes fun at micro-transactions and monetization of player activity, munchkinism, factions of gamers starting rabid partisan virtual wars of pointless cosmetic details, hack writers generating reams of awful, formulaic fantasy plots for the masses, and many other ugly aspects of MMOs. When Richard takes his overpowered creator avatar into the game, players go to ridiculous lengths to attempt to take him down a la what happened to Ultima Online creator Richard Garriott back in the day.
Stephenson's take on video game culture is cheeky but affectionate, clearly coming from someone who's spent more than a few hours adventuring in Azeroth. Likewise, it's hard not to be impressed by the detailed research on everything from file encryption to gun safety procedures. They say 'write what you know', but Neal Stephenson clearly knows waaay too much, and likes to show it through his work.
Despite the globe-trotting, gun-toting technothriller hijinks, REAMDE is easily the most down to earth of my three picks. In today's world it's not completely impossible to imagine cybercrime and terrorism somehow connecting to a hugely successful MMO in a perfect storm that leaves us vulnerable to a devastating but infuriatingly mis-spelled virus.
Despite all the research that went into it, REAMDE somehow manages to balance action, humor and a wry commentary on the interconnectivity of modern high tech life without collapsing under its own weight.
Although these are my top three picks for video-game centric novels, I'm sure a few good ones have managed to slip past my radar. If any come to mind that you'd like to recommend, drop a line in the comments below!