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The best video game books

Video game books are edging towards a golden era. People are writing about everything under the sun: travelogues, deep analyses of EVE Online, sociocultural inspections, and narrative dissections. For those passionate about the medium, there’s been no better time to learn about it.

In this buyer’s guide, we’ve assembled a sampling of the best video game books we’ve read. The books listed are not necessarily PC gaming specific, as that would exclude an arbitrary portion of good writing for no good reason—all things in the games industry and creative culture influence one another. Included are links to where you can purchase the publications, with a brief summary of each.

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Masters of Doom

  • Reloads your brain (with knowledge)
  • A safe way to think about hell
  • Is not the videogame Doom
  • Cannot run Doom

It’s impossible to ignore the impact Doom had on video games. But it’s difficult to truly understand the impact without proper context. Masters of Doom is one of the most complete inside looks at what went into classic FPS from the get-go.

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Embed with Games

  • Gives global perspective
  • Details parties with Terry Cavanagh
  • You are not partying with Cavanagh

Video game and travel writing mix like beer and whiskey, except the whiskey is Wild Turkey and the beer is a $20 bottle of the latest craft sour named after a dead dog. It tastes alright, a bit off, and is does a number on your gut. Ellison’s global game developer couch-surfing adventures are travelogues in the same feel-good-but-bad-for-you vein.

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10 PRINT CHR$(205.5 + RND(1)); : GOTO 10

  • May be the hardest you think about old code
  • Mazes are cool
  • Impossible to Google

Despite having the hardest title to Google, 10 PRINT is a fascinating analysis of written code as a cultural object. The entire book is a series of essays that delve into aspects of a single line of BASIC that generates a maze-like image when executed. While examining something that is typically observed as purely functional—it works or it doesn’t—code contains a ton of clues into the personality of its writers, the time period of its writing, the implications of its function, and on and on.

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  • A winning collection of writers
  • Breezy and insightful
  • Does not let you win

If you want to read a dissection of why the Iowa Caucus is one of the worst games ever and wash it down with a detailed list of valuable life lessons we can learn from Godzilla, then subscribe to Unwinnable. A weekly (now monthly) publication, Unwinnable examines both familiar and obscure pockets of game culture from diverse perspectives.

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Uncertainty in Games

  • ???
  • It's uncertain
  • Read to find out
  • The _____ is jarring

What will this paragraph be about? Who knows? Maybe you’ll find out if you keep reading. Here’s the answer: fooled you. That wasn’t the answer. Here’s the real answer: just kidding. That was another fake answer. The real answer? This paragraph is about uncertainty, an integral factor in good game design, or so argues Costikyan

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How to Do Things with Videogames

  • Taught me to love video game buildings
  • Widens perspective of game utility
  • Made me Google 'games that do your taxes'

Bogost’s broad examination of the utility of video games will teach you what to play to prank your friends, whether or not a game can teach you how to do your taxes, and may instill a curiosity for how games translate the experience of travel and relative space—and, of course, he also touches on the entertainment utility.

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Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

  • Teaches how to use games for the greater good
  • Does not teach you how to hack the Matrix

McGonigal, a game designer, also writes about the utility of games, but specifically as vehicles for self-improvement and philanthropy. She takes similar ideas introduced in How to Do Things with Videogames and applies them to social problems, like depression, obesity, poverty, climate-change, and more.

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The State of Play

  • Diverse writers, diverse topics
  • A clean snapshot of gaming culture today
  • Play is not recognized as a state by federal government

With the ease of access to game development and learning tools, it’s no surprise that videogames are one of the most popular mediums around today. More games are being made than ever before, and more people are playing them than ever. But with the medium’s new reach, come some growing pains.

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Extra Lives

  • Stark, realistic take on games culture
  • Easy to identify with author's perspective at times
  • Drugs are bad
  • Don't do drugs

Depression, cocaine, and Grand Theft Auto go together like peas in a pod—a withered pod, sure, but a few things can happen when they’re thrown together. You can keep doing cocaine, stay depressed, and keep playing Grand Theft Auto, or you can, in a spout of desperate invigoration, start to question exactly why you’re depressed, doing a ton of cocaine, and hopelessly addicted to Grand Theft Auto.

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The Arcade Review

  • Covers fringe games and art
  • Cover art is almost too cool
  • Is not a review for arcades

The Arcade Review is a quarterly publication that assembles essays, reviews, criticism, and interviews on experimental videogames and the digital arts into a digital collection. A given issue’s subjects might include the engagement of poetry through 3D space, how Her Story is in conversation with Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress, or good old fashioned robot erotica.

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Killing is Harmless

  • Motivates reader to think harder about games
  • Gives new perspective on player violence
  • Turns out, killing isn't harmless

Spec Ops: The Line surprised a lot of people. It was an entry in a franchise that had been dormant for about 10 years, and used the expectation of ‘realistic’ tactical combat to sneak in a biting narrative, a near future take on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The game is an attempt to comment on the consistency with which players commit extremely violent acts in games, and Heart of Darkness’ journey upriver serves the video game format well.

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Reading ahead

The books here won't fill up your library, but don’t worry, the list isn’t final. We’ll keep reading and updating until our organic eyeballs are replaced by whatever Google comes up with that aren’t embarassing cyber goggles. In the meantime, enjoy.

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