I never quite glommed onto videogames. When I was in late grade school/early high school, I tried to-- I played a few games, mostly Star Trek, but also a bit of Command & Conquer, Civilzation II, and Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. I bought a few others, but often would not play them beyond the first few levels. I did have a subscription to PC Gamer. But the interest faded, and I haven't bought a videogame in eight years, though I of course enjoy the occasional round of Mario Kart or Super Smash Brothers. Plus, the Wii is awesome. But I've never even been a fan of Tetris. I suspect my lack of interest is because I've got no hand-eye coordination-- I'm just not any good at videogames.
Still, I'm somewhat vaguely aware of videogames. At the same time I got into them briefly, my brother also got into them. And while I pulled back out, he's of course slid in deeper, becoming one of those people with a compulsion to replace their graphics cards every three months. So I found the idea of reading This Gaming Life, an account of the gaming cultures of three different cities-- London, Seoul, and Reykjavik-- an interesting one.
The title is somewhat of a misnomer. The three cities are really just springboards for Rossignol to talk about a wide variety of ideas relating to videogames. We get very little of London's gaming culture-- mostly just an account of what Rossignol himself has done-- and none at all of Reykjavik's. There is a whole lot of Seoul's, which is because Korea, with its PC baangs, has an almost entirely unique way of looking at gaming. I found the exploration of this quite fascinating. Due to restrictive tariffs on Japanese imports, console gaming has never really gained a foothold in Korea, resulting in most gaming being done in baangs (Internet cafes). And being done by everyone: Rossignol states that Korea doesn't really have a youth bar culture; when people go out, they go out to game. And with the exception of StarCraft, most Western games haven't made much of an impact on Korea. Games are so popular that the country actually supports five television networks devoted to games-- in the States, keeping one show about gaming on the air has been a struggle.
But as fascinating as this glimpse into another reality is, it's just a jumping-off point for Rossignol's ruminations on the future of gaming. Is Korea the way of the future for the rest of the world? Will videogaming become a spectator sport, played by professionals with fan clubs numbering in the tens of thousands? Rossignol doesn't think so-- the circumstances that led to Korea's gaming culture are fairly unique. What he rather sees is how Korea's gaming culture has reached out to encompass everyone, and how it has brought people together. Online gaming, Rossignol claims, is new and exciting platform for human social interaction.
This is no grand cultural revolution: it is a subtle wave, a gradual tectonic shift in the way we live, which will only make its true effects known over the course of many years. Games are growing, spreading, changing; and like the proliferation of TV, mobile phones, or automobiles, it's a change that will have far-reaching effects that cannot be easily predicted or defined. Chasing headlines that read "Game Are the New Sport" or "Kids Who Play Games for a Living" makes a crude statement about what really matters within gaming. The important changes will come from those smaller ripples that change how millions of people live, think, and socialize on a daily basis, not just the hard-core niches. (79)This is the core of Rossignol's book-- the ability of gaming to create a new and unique socialization, a power that is only just beginning to be tapped. He talks about it in a number of different lights, starting from when he was fired from his job as a finance journalist because he was devoting more time to coaching his team in Quake III Arena to his work, because what he did with his teammates in Q3A was more important and, in some ways, more real than what he did at his work. This thread goes all the way to the book's end, culminating in the playing of EVE Online, a massively multiplayer space game that simulates the inhabitants of an entire galaxy.
The depiction of EVE Online made me want to play, though I probably never will. He spends some time discussing how it's a game that let's you do anything (and is hence extremely daunting because of that), and the repercussions that has had. What I found most fascinating was his tales of the social structures that have sprouted up within the game, including a guild of assassins that spent over a year infiltrating an in-game corporation to claim a bounty on its CEO. They worked its way up to its highest levels, reached positions of authority and trust within the corporation, and then performed the assassination of the CEO by one of her own directors-- actually a member of the assassins' guild. They then raided the corporate coffers, making off with 30 billion units of ingame currency (against which the original bounty was just a drop in the bucket), which on eBay at that time could be sold for over 16 thousand dollars. And the game's developers were perfectly cool with this. Sure, the assassins may have violated the law within the game, but they never broke the rules of the game. In fact, they encourage such ingenuity.
Rossignol ties the emergence of videogaming to the increasing tendency to boredom in modern society, and he applauds its ability to stop boredom. And there's nothing wrong with that, he says. Games might come under fire for just being an enjoyable pastime-- but what's wrong with having an enjoyable pastime? Nothing. There's some citation of Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good for You to explain how gaming can be of benefit, but the real benefit, he says, is the pleasure people derive from gaming. People of all different sorts playing all different sorts of videogames for all different sorts of reasons. From those who invest years of their life elaborate "mods" for games to those who play WarioWare on the Wii with their friends while doing a little bit of drinking, gaming offers something for everyone, way to connect, and a way of entertaining.
Rossignol sees a lot of potential in gaming, and it's impossible not to get caught up in his enthusiasm. And as he points out, videogaming is only really just getting started-- where it might eventually go is somewhere no one can predict. Things like Second Life and Spore are only the tip of the iceberg of where gaming will go next, and as he points out, no one in the 1960s could have even predicted computer games and the Internet, so how can we even imagine where things are going to go next?
The book itself is well written-- Rossignol is an engaging writer, and as you can tell by this review, I quite frequently got caught up in what he has to say. If the book has any downside, it's that the title is somewhat misleading, but you come to terms with that as soon as the "London" section has finished after fifty pages and you've barely learned a thing about London's gaming culture. If there's any complaint you might muster, it's that he says almost nothing about the "negative" aspects of gaming, but then, as he says, "Games are not a blight on society, but they aren't a panacea either. Perhaps games, like most other human inventions, are tools--tools that we are very slowly learning to use for all kinds of new purposes" (201). Videogames, like anything, are as positive or negative as the uses you make of them, and it feels churlish to criticize him for not including any negativity when there's so much potential out there, waiting to be tapped.
I'd highly recommend this book to anyone interested in videogames, but more people than that. It's for anyone who's interested in the potentials of where modern technology will take socialization and creativity in our increasing digital world. It's a fascinating, fun, involving, persuasive read. Heck, it almost made me want to play a videogame. Almost.