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Understanding video games : the essential introduction (2nd ed.)
Egenfeldt-Nielsen S., Smith J., Tosca S., Routledge, New York, NY, 2013. 323 pp. Type: Book (978-0-415896-96-2)
Date Reviewed: Nov 20 2013

The academic study of video games, a field known as game studies, is rather recent. Many technical monographs have been written on aspects such as programming video games for any imaginable platform, 2D and 3D graphics for video games, game sound, and the design (and use) of game engines, which are the software systems used in the creation and development of video games. These papers and books are supplemented by numerous conferences devoted to the many different topics of interest to video game programmers, from the highly popular and decades-old ACM SIGGRAPH conference to the more recent Game/AI conference. However, there has been relatively little serious research beyond the technical aspects of video games.

This book starts with a succinct introduction to game studies, the main academic approaches to the analysis of video games, and the major perspectives behind such studies (speaking of schools of thought is indeed an overstatement, as the authors point out). An informative chapter on the video game industry serves as an overview of the importance of this economic sector and introduces the prototypical organization of video game companies.

The authors address the quasi-philosophical question, “What is a game?” The answer bears some resemblance to Bertrand Russell’s discussion of our perception of a table and whether there is any knowledge in the world that is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it [1]. The authors dissect many of the definitions that have been proposed for games, from Wittgenstein’s concerns and Huizinga’s magic circle to Sid Meier’s pragmatism in defining games as “series of interesting choices.” Of course, no definition is suitable for all situations, and the authors close this chapter with a down-to-earth taxonomy of video games using the broad categories of action, adventure, strategy, and process-oriented.

This is followed by a 50-page decade-by-decade survey of existing video games. The authors identify technical advances, popular trends, and major game titles, often accompanied by screen captures that let us visually enjoy the evolution of the field since its modest origins in 1961. The next chapter, on video game aesthetics, offers a shallow description of games in terms of sound, graphics, and their use of space and time. This is probably the weakest part of the book from a computer science point of view, although readers from other disciplines might still find it interesting.

The second half of the book focuses on the cultural impact of video games. The authors analyze the role of games as lowbrow entertainment and as a “means for creative expression.” They also look at who plays and why, the communities players form, and their metaculture. A significant part of the analysis is devoted to the public perception of games and their perceived risks, especially those related to violence. Gender issues and addiction problems are also briefly discussed. In general, these discussions are open and subject to different interpretations, so their conclusions leave the impression of being half-baked (if not superficial).

The most interesting chapters in the second part of the book are those devoted to narrative and serious games. The chapter on narrative describes how video games use storytelling. This is divided into how video games describe fictional worlds (settings and actors), how the action of the story is organized (the mechanics), and how players experience the story (the reception). A brief history of the literary theory of video games (that is, narratology versus ludology) summarizes previous work in this area. This topic is largely unknown to video game developers and is tangential to their major concerns, but it is important for understanding how player interaction is shaped. The other remarkable chapter in this part focuses on serious games--games that are not just for entertainment--which include educational games, political games, newsgames, and advertainment, and the idea of gamification (that is, bringing games into everyday activities).

This book provides a much broader perspective than standard books on game programming or game engine design. The authors have written an informative overview of video games from the perspective of game scholars anchored in the humanities or social sciences. Technically oriented readers may find this book somewhat dull from an engineering point of view, and some sections may seem somewhat repetitive and more meandering than necessary. However, the authors have assembled valuable information that can’t be found in more conventional sources.

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Reviewer:  Fernando Berzal Review #: CR141743 (1401-0059)
1) Russell, B. The problems of philosophy. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1959.
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