So, we definitely love video games, right? There’s nothing like actively taking a role in another world, solving crimes or beating up bad guys for fun and profit. When you put down the controller, you don’t have to stop enjoying your favorite hobby. For as long as the industry has been around, there have been people writing books to chronicle its colorful history. Next time you’re looking to brush up on your game history, reach for one of these books.
1. Game Over by David Sheff
Since 1993, this book has been reprinted under many different titles, but “Game Over” finds a way into most of them. My favorite title has to be How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children, but it’s pretty easy to see how that can come off as a bit aggressive. It’s a history of Nintendo, after all.
This book is sort of a must read for video game history buffs, as it’s one of the first books published about the subject. Sheff interviews many big name game designers for the final product, like Nolan Bushnell and Shigeru Miyamoto, about the company's place in America’s gaming past, present, and future. Also, through some anonymous sources, Sheff helped shine a light on the incredibly stringent and sometimes overbearing standards involved in getting a game finished to Nintendo’s liking. Much of the book was published in different places before it ended up compiled, and in the reissues, many more additions and edits were made. 1999’s version for Game Over is the definitive version of the book, featuring new pictures and some guest chapters written by storied game journalist Andy Eddy.
2. All Your Base Are Belong To Us by Harold Goldberg
As the very overt use of one of gaming cultures most tireless slogans suggests, Harold Goldberg’s expansive look on the past 50 years of video games is one better suited for insiders. That is, without prior knowledge of gaming’s big moments and top names, some of Goldberg’s many claims may lack the context to prove interesting to you. This isn’t so much an outright history of video games' rise to the top of pop culture, as much as it makes interesting arguments for how “contemporary” pop culture (non-gaming) relates to today’s most popular games.
Besides its especially interesting sections on Grand Theft Auto, the book reaches a lot to make unique arguments where people previously never tried. For example, he speaks pretty glowingly about Crash Bandicoot and its heavy influence on 3D gaming, but doesn’t touch on Super Mario 64 as strenuously, when Crash arguably owes its entire design to the Nintendo 64 classic.
3. Masters of Doom by David Kushner
David Kushner’s record of John Carmack and John Romero’s rise to infamy is one hell of a read. The unique personal story of the pair’s work on Doom and Quake - two of the premier First Person Shooters in our industry - is gripping and hard to put down thanks to Kushner’s way with words.
The sort of ups and downs in this book would almost seem fictional had Carmack and Romero not lived it. The weird and still mostly uncorroborated events of their eventual falling out is some real thought provoking stuff. Outside of the drama, Masters also shines a pretty revealing light on the process of programming games, making it digestible even to code challenged folks like myself. If you are an old school id Software fan, or a fan of shooters in general, you own it to yourself to grab this pretty easy read.
4. The History of Nintendo 1889-1980 by Florent Gorges
Unlike Game Over, Florent Gorges History of Nintendo 1889-1980 is a very comprehensive look the raw history of the Big N, stemming from back when Japan was still an empire. While not strictly chronological, the book takes great effort in painting a picture of a smaller, humbler Nintendo, printing playing cards and legitimately struggling to survive.
The cultural cross sections of it all is probably the most interesting aspect of the Gorges work. Seeing how Nintendo adapted to the political and economic troubles in Japan, and experiencing big global events like World War II in the lens of the fledgling company is an engaging experience. The history stops pretty much before Nintendo becomes anything resembling the company it is now, so it may not be for every Nintendo nut. People with a nose for history should definitely give it a read, though.
5. Service Games: The Rise and Fall of Sega by Sam Pettus
There are few more fascinating stories in the industry than that of Sega’s hardware development career. History paints Sega systems as the people’s consistent consolation prize, always second to the Nintendo home device at the time. Truth is, if it weren’t for Sega’s tenacious heel clawing, the wild battle for innovation in the 90’s might have never happened. Sam Pettus’ Service Games does Sega’s trials and tribulations a service in its meticulous chronicling of the company's hardware days.
It’s not the shortest read, with almost 500 page turns of sometimes dry and over specific data. It’s also not the most elegantly written, with a small collection of repetitive turns of phrase stuffed wherever an idiom can be stuffed. If you’re the sort that can’t get enough Sega-flavored trivia fodder, then this is the book for you.
6. The Making of Prince of Persia by Jordan Mechner
The personal journals of Jordan Mechner aren’t so unique in a world where indie devs livestream their development meetings on Twitch. But for a one man developer back in the Apple II’s prime, this was one of the first good looks into the psyche of an incredibly talented programmer as he figures out how to design and sell one of the oldest game franchises in the industry.
It doesn't focus so much on the hard development cycle - the nitty gritty of actually building a game. Instead, it hovers around Mechner’s struggle with the business end of the development process, as well as a lot of personal reflection on his abilities, hopes, and fears. As a source of learning the trade, it may not be useful, but it’s great for peering into the privacy of a pioneer.
7. Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto by David Kushner
Kushner’s work with Masters of Doom laid the foundation for this book, another story about two founders and innovators and the highly influential games they developed together. The Grand Theft Auto story is quite different from the Doom and Quake stories in many ways. Sam and Dan Houser are more like characters in any one of their games than the traditional view of sequestered, sun-deprived game devs that we're used to. Their story reads more like an early treatment of The Wolf of Wall Street than a draft of Masters of Doom, for better or worse.
Granted, the shock value wears off pretty quickly, and gamers or folks who have followed the tumultuous journey of games transcending their reputation of violent child hypnotizers knows the Rockstar Games story, as they are Public Enemy No. 1 almost every time the controversy flares. This books doesn’t offer much new, un-Googleable insight on the Games Industry vs. Jack Thompson conflict, and should really only be read by people who want to know what it was like before Grand Theft Auto 3 changed everything.
8. Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life by Chris Kohler
As many books like Power-Up look to focus on gaming's history in general, Kohler takes a deep dive into what makes the Japanese style of game design so important. Not just to the 90’s and the JRPG, but to games in all genres from the late 80’s on. He’s inconsistent on what he chooses to cover and how thoroughly he chooses to cover it, but even the shallowest glance involves tying two points in history together you may not have done yourself.
A great deal of focus is placed on how Japanese games affected the world around it outside of games, as well. Like when Space Invaders became so popular in the country's busiest regions, the 100 yen coin’s production was increased. Tidbits like that shower this master’s thesis on Japanese games and their relationship to the world’s cultural identity.
9. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal
TED Talk alumni Jane McGonigal suffered from a terrible brain injury that changed her life. Not only did it alter her ability to do active things like exercise, but it affected the way she thought, processed information, and her mood. She credits games as the primary reason for her recovery.
Not so much a specific game, but the goal setting and call/response features of general game design. Her life’s work since has been showing the public ways to help themselves through the process of gamifying their life. Reality is Broken is her message, concentrated and colorful. It’s an attempt to show games as a necessary byproduct of social human interaction, and not just the isolationist, escapist power fantasies that we associate the hobby with. It’s a bold take on the concept from someone who’s made playing games a self-help exercise, and is a side of the story rare discussed, which may make this book a must read simply for its one of a kind angle.
10. Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation by Blake J. Harris
Blake J. Harris wrote the definitive guide to the most exciting time in the games industry: the 90’s console war. It’s a dramatic read, with no qualms about painting Sega as the scrappy underdog and Nintendo as the unstoppable force - their meeting in the free market a modern day David vs. Goliath. A couple hundred interviews with former and current Sega and Nintendo employees provided Harris with the factual sources he needed to tell this tale as true to life as possible. Something he did so masterfully that the book is being turned into a feature film.
That said, it isn’t the most exhaustive look at these well reaped facts.The book is thriller entertainment first and foremost, and as a scholarly reference to the events falls a bit short. Think of it as what the movie The Social Network is to the story of Mark Zuckerberg, but about the wild and wonderfully wacky world of 90’s console gaming.
What are your favorite books about the industry? Leave them below, or tweet them to us @CurseGamepedia!
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