As IEEE Spectrum readers know, video games have become big news in terms of their technical and economic impact. Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby explore their cultural impact in Smartbomb.
The authors report vividly from design studios, industry conferences, tournaments, and even bedrooms to give a panoramic view of the gaming world, from the developers who create the games to the players who can spend months trying to master the latest titles. Many notable game designers are featured, including Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario, one of the most famous and successful game characters ever; John Carmack, cocreator of the seminal Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake franchises [see “The Wizardry of Id,” Spectrum, August 2002]; and Will Wright, creator of the idiosyncratic blockbusters SimCity and The Sims [see “Mind Games,” Spectrum, December 2002]. Getting insight into what drives such designers creatively is thought provoking. For many of them, video games are an expression of larger artistic or philosophical goals.
However, Smartbomb does miss a significant part of the video game landscape entirely: that belonging to the so-called casual gamer. Chaplin and Ruby have focused laserlike on hard-core gamers, who spend countless hours honing their reflexes to play in networked first-person shooters such as Halo 2 and Counter Strike and those who spend equally countless hours accumulating treasures and reputations in massive multiplayer online role-playing games such as Ultima and EverQuest [see “Engineering EverQuest,” Spectrum, July 2005]. Although hard-core gaming is the highest-profile segment of the video game world and pushes technological and cultural boundaries, the hardest, casual games—such as electronic versions of card and puzzle games that can be easily picked up and put down—are actually responsible for more than half of all online game play. Casual games for cellphones—which possess graphics capabilities far inferior to those of the consoles and personal computers used by hard-core gamers but which are ideally placed to capture a player’s attention during an idle moment—are also becoming increasingly significant. But unfortunately, you wouldn’t know any of this from Smartbomb.
The book also lacks analysis. For example, the authors helpfully translate some examples of the slang used by many online gamers, without even pausing to comment on its racist, homophobic, and misogynist nature. If the gaming industry wants to be treated as a legitimate and mainstream form of art and entertainment, it—and its would-be chroniclers—have to stop turning a blind eye to such cultural problems.
Still, if you’re looking for a book to bring yourself up to speed with a who’s who and what's what of video games, Smartbomb is the read for you. And readers who are familiar with the video game landscape are likely to find the book’s portraits of the industry’s movers and shakers—as well as the lowly players who ultimately pay their salaries—worthwhile.
Save a Saturn: Buy This Book
The Saturn V boosters used in the Apollo program were the greatest rockets ever built. Thirty stories tall, capable of 33 million newtons of thrust at liftoff and able to throw a three-man crew all the way to the moon, each one was a technological marvel that is unlikely to be replicated anytime soon. Only three of the behemoths survive today; one—the engineering test model—is in Huntsville, Ala. It was in Huntsville, at the Marshall Space Flight Center, that the Saturn V was conceived and developed in the 1960s under the auspices of Wernher von Braun.
Sadly, like the other two surviving Saturn Vs—located at the Johnson Space Center, in Houston, and the John F. Kennedy Space Center, in Florida—the Huntsville rocket was left exposed to the elements for decades, resulting in considerable deterioration. Fortunately, before this monument to engineering and technological ambition rotted away completely, an effort was begun to restore it. (Similar initiatives are under way for the Saturns in Texas and Florida.) About half of the US $5 million required to complete the Huntsville restoration has been raised. To augment the fund, more than 50 of the surviving members of von Braun’s Saturn V team gathered to sign a limited edition—200 copies—of the recently published Saturn: The Complete Manufacturing and Test Records by Alan Lawrie and Robert Godwin (Apogee Books, Burlington, Ont., Canada). The book, available in paperback only, includes reproductions of documents from the Saturn’s history and comes with a DVD containing documentary footage. The autographed edition costs $200, with most of the proceeds going to the restoration project. Signers include engineers Jack Lee and William R. Lucas, who went on to become directors of the Marshall Space Flight Center, as well as members of von Braun's original German V-2 rocket team, such as Ernst Stühlinger.