Monday, September 19, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: SMARTBOMB by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby (2005)

SMARTBOMB: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution
by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby
Published 2005 and 2006 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Smartbomb is an efficient mixture of original reporting and research on the state of video games as both an industry and a cultural phenomenon circa 2005-2006 when the book was originally published.

Authors Chaplin and Ruby are focused on how the video gaming phenomenon has evolved in the United States, starting with how accessible computing grew out of  the hacker crew at MIT's legendary Building 20 in the early 1960s, and going on to give in-depth profiles of designers such as Gears of War creator Clifford "CliffyB" Bleszinski, the guru of all things Sim Will Wright,  id Software's John Romero and John Carmack, and Atari's Nolan Bushnell; but they also go in-depth with Shigeru Miyamoto, the resident genius at Nintendo.

Miyamoto's creations, Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Mario 64 insured Nintendo's dominance over console gaming in the 1980s and 1990s, and allowed them to stay relevant to American gaming into the first decade of the 21st century. The book's later chapters deal with the ominous convergence of gaming and the military-industrial complex's ambitions to more efficiently model "full spectrum dominance" and to better indoctrinate young soldiers with high end first person shooter games. Smartbomb closes with Microsoft's $500 million gala launch of the X-Box, which would go on to become the first console gaming system from an American developer to offer a serious challenge to the hegemony Sony, Sega, and Nintendo had enjoyed over the US and global console gaming markets throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

My favorite chapter was the chapter about Will Wright, founder of Maxis and all things Sim. Wright is portrayed as a kind of plain-speaking oracle: at conventions various aspiring game designers pitch him their gaming ideas, and Wright usually shoots them down. On his downtime, Wright participates in the Stupid Fun Club: an underground robot battling circuit. DIY robot builders meet in a seemingly abandoned warehouse to orchestrate rock'em sock 'em gladiatorial spectacles. He has also taught himself to fly planes, and obsessively collects junked out tech from the Soviet space program as a hobby.

This chapter also recounts a meeting between Wright and Philip Rosedale, the creator of Second Life, over sushi with Rosedale picking up the tab. Rosedale and Wright are both in the business of trying to enhance gaming's capacity to colonize the consciousness of players by offering up complex multi-variable simulations. SimCity puts the player in charge of a complex evolving city. The player is a kind of super-mayor, who must anticipate the needs of the Sim people inhabiting the SimCity. The player must zone property for commerical, residential, and industrial zones, and then respond to the Sims' complaints about pollution, crime, jobs, and other factors. Occasionally, an earthquake or a giant radioactive lizard trashes things, and then the player must respond to the crisis with relief and reconstruction. Rosedale's Second Life is not so much a game as it is . . . well, a Second Life. In Second Life the goal isn't to beat scores of enemies or field an army, or even to play a godlike role lording over a complex simulation. It can be anything you want. The Second Life citizen can meticulously reconstruct prosaic reality, or they can transform themselves into a half-dragon bike punk with a mean tattoo. Men can become women, women can become men. Or you can forge your own bold new gender identity. Or you can re-fight famous battles of World War II. Or you can don the robes of the KKK and burn a cross. Or you can simulate all manner of sex acts.

 Rosedale and Wright rap about "possibility spaces" and how the games aren't so much meant to be goals in and of themselves, but are rather an opportunity to do science.  Specifically, Wright asserts that models and simulations are the new way to conduct science as opposed to experiments. Wright says, "Simulation is quickly replacing experimentation as the central test of a new theory." Wright's talent for constructing simulation programs has gotten him lucrative projects for hospitals, Chevron, and the Pentagon. Wright seems to have few moral or ethical qualms about his work being used for potentially lethal applications, such as designing autonomous vehicles for land based cruise missiles. In fact, he explicitly states that he is more bothered by the lost opportunity from failing to realize an application of a given technology, rather than the attendant moral hazards that come with creating something and implementing it.

Will Wright was seemingly born to be a game designer. He comes off as comfortable in the role of genius game creator. He all but says he prefers to interface with reality via simulation. After all, if you're the simulation designer, you get to decide what's important and what's not. Experiments are messy, and must be rigorously repeated and the results scrutinized and cross-referenced. Dead ends are legion. A sim designer can create his or her own world and come up with wholly new rules and realities. Will Wright has rather joyously carved out his own place in the industry.

But many people in the world of gaming have struggled with being passionate about their profession. They create successful product, and yet they do not wish to be perceived as geeks or shut-ins. Chaplin and Ruby explore these tangled desires with the character of CliffyB the lead designer of Epic Games and the creator of the Unreal FPS franchise. CliffyB would later go on to create the smash hit Gears of War, but Smartbomb covers his pre-Gears of War days. Chaplin and Ruby use CliffyB's ascent to illustrate the rise of the gaming industry overall: from the disreputable basements of skeptical moms and dads to the heights of celebrity, wealth, and worldwide cultural cachet. CliffyB started out as a hobbyist and evolved into a captain of the industry. Along the way, he shed his geek-grunge threads for a personal trainer and bling chic couture, strategically engaging with the pan-optic media culture of the early 21st century. CliffyB has his private doubts, in Chaplin and Ruby's telling, and heavy is the head that wears the crown. In some ways, CliffyB's transformation resonates with the alternate persona existences of those gamers who devote themselves to MMORPGs and Second Life. CliffyB has to step into his persona as a rock star game designer, and then steps out of it in private. Maybe it's more LARPing than MMORPing, but it's intriguing how the global success of gaming has necessitated sundry forms of gamesmanship and image management on the part of the industry leaders.

Chaplin and Ruby also touch on the phenomenon of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games through a riveting account of the launch of Star Wars Galaxies. Anticipation builds as the authors trace the technical trials and tribulations of the developers working out the bugs in the system prior to launch, and the outsize expectations of legions of Star Wars fans who have signed up for beta subscriptions and can't wait to dive into their new personae. In lesser hands, such an account could be muddled, tedious with technical detail, and of no obvious interest to non-specialist readers. But Chaplin and Ruby keep the high-tech business grounded in human emotions, ambitions, and expectations, and they illustrate the dramatic stakes for all involved. The gamers can't wait to escape meatspace, and the developers can't wait to see if their elaborate scenarios are a hit.

Once an MMORPG is launched, the troubles have just begun. Even if it is massively popular from its first launch, all sorts of bugs and kinks can only be worked out, sometimes painfully, via the gamers' contact with the game. The life of an MMORPG as both a cultural and business entity is one of constant adpatation, mutation, evolution, and transformation.

Smartbomb is five or so years behind the times, but it's a great place to start if one wants to pick up on the dominant currents of video gaming as both an industry and a culture. It's written with keen perception into the business, human drama, and cultural aspects of this multi-billion dollar industry. A solid volume for any library on the history of video games.
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