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Review Essay: the interactive book; Joystick Nation: How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts, and Rewired Our Minds; and Extra Life: Coming of Age in Cyberspace

Author: Celia Pearce, J. C. Herz, David Bennahum
Publisher: Macmillan Technical Publishing, 1997; Little, Brown & Co, 1997; & Basic Books, 1998,
Review Published: January 2002

 REVIEW 1: Erik P. Bucy

Coming of Age, Digitally: A Review Essay

What ever happened to the coming of age novel? Forget about the classic of this genre, Somerset Maughn's Of Human Bondage, where boy meets girl, suffers through a quasi, rejection-filled romance, not to mention the pitiful death of his surrogate father, and in the depths of loneliness and despair ultimately finds himself. They aren't writing them like that anymore.
Today's new and improved version is more apt to be digital. Instead of the vagaries of the human heart, the romance part now revolves around a love affair with technology, namely computers and videogames. Pain on the road to self-discovery is still largely self-inflicted in these silicon-based histories, but all suffering ends when the hero resolves that most vexing of contemporary dilemmas: settling on a suitable career path.

Coming of age stories have always been semi-autobiographical; perhaps never before have they been this self-absorbed and technologically focused. In one of the first of its kind, Celia Pearce's the interactive book, we learn, in the short span of 608 disjointed pages, about the virtues of dropping out of college and becoming a self-taught, or autodidactic, multimedia game designer. With some 110 chapter fragments pieced together to resemble nonlinear hypertext links, the "choose your own adventure" format of this unusual book encourages readers to take off on tangents as diverse as modern art history (interactivity all started with Picasso) and digital socialism (the online world is fundamentally communal).

The organization of the interactive book both reflects the topic that Pearce attempts to illuminate -- theories of two-way communication and reciprocal involvement across media types -- and at the same time mirrors her fragmented life narrative. Tellingly, she comments on the rise of the ADD Generation, suggesting that attention deficits are technology driven. Her own unwillingness to sustain an argument reveals just how much Pearce herself belongs to the generation that grew up on rapid, MTV-editing and the non-stop action of videogames. The admiration and awe with which she describes interactive life, as well as her own accomplishments in game design, reveals a love of self at least as great as her love for media.

J. C. Herz, the New York Times' first computer game critic who is now CEO of her own e-commerce consultancy, takes a slightly different tact in Joystick Nation: How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts, and Rewired Our Minds. Herz, now CEO of her own e-commerce consultancy, documents not so much her splendid accomplishments on the way to media success but offers up instead a "natural" (i.e. chronological) history of the $6 billion game industry. Born "the same year as the first coin-operated videogame" (1), Computer Space (1971), Herz describes her game-saturated childhood in the context of the changing cultural milieu. In a multitasking world, she says, "those to the joystick born have a built-in advantage" (2).

Neo-Luddite critics to the contrary, she declares (a la Pearce) that "kids weaned on videogames are not attention-deficient, morally stunted, illiterate little zombies who massacre people en masse after playing too much Mortal Kombat. They're simply acclimated to a world that increasingly resembles some kind of arcade experience" (2-3).

In her chronology of the game world, Herz identifies six game eras beginning in 1962 with the Pre-Pong Era (Spacewar was the very first computer game). The Pong Era came about a decade later with the rise of that most endearing of paddle games, which she notes had only two instructions: DEPOSIT QUARTER and AVOID MISSING BALL FOR HIGH SCORE. (Those were the days.) As with the dinosaurs, Pong was overtaken by a more agile breed -- games such as Space Invaders and Centipede, followed by Nintendo's first American hit, Donkey Kong, and, later, Super Mario Bros. When videogame rentals became a reality in the early '90s, Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog did battle with Nintendo's Street Fighter series, until they both lost out to the Sony Playstation. If you see your own childhood rushing by, chances are Joystick Nation would make an interesting read.

One of the more heartfelt digital coming of age memoirs to arrive on the scene is David Bennahum's Extra Life: Coming of Age in Cyberspace. More directly than Pearce or Herz, Bennahum, a contributing editor to Wired and Spin, relates how an early interest in the virtual reality of computer games played an important role in centering his life even as a difficult parental divorce and feelings of alienation complicated his awkward journey out of adolescence. A strength of this book is Bennahum's reflections on how computer technology empowered his circle of friends by opening a space for meaningful interaction. (The book's title, Extra Life, literally refers to the extended play that video gamers earn for a virtuoso on-screen performance.)

True to Extra Life's digital orientation, Bennahum's autobiographical coming of age story is told through his relationship with technology rather than the opposite sex. Though the book falls short of being "a Catcher in the Rye for the Atari generation," as Douglas Rushkoff gushes in a jacket-cover blurb, it does provide an emotionally honest, if somewhat smug, account of how early computer geek culture saw great promise in electronic interaction long before the rest of us used our desktop terminals for anything more than word processing. "Where others found meaning in the poetry of Rimbaud or the lyrics of Jim Morrison," Bennahum writes, "we found it in the layers of code and the perfect matrix of machine memory" (234). (Truth be told, I'd rather muse over the poesy of The Lizard King.)

Unlike human emotion, machine-derived satisfaction is somewhat predictable and reliable, at least when the computer doesn't crash. On account of this, we may find our machines, and the pleasure they produce by enabling us to connect with (and compete against) distant others, worthy of our affection. Technology's cheerleaders -- Microsoft's Bill Gates and AOL Time Warner's Steve Case among them -- push the idea that nirvana consists of pursuing the "Web lifestyle." Ironically, at a time when so many in-person relationships prove volatile and fizzle, the glow of the computer screen may indeed be all that we can count on at the end of the day.

With so many friends, fortunes, and fun times to be had in cyberspace, one wonders how the next generation of writers will make sense of their computer-mediated transition into adulthood. As prototypes of a new subgenre, these three titles offer a revealing and candid glimpse of an interface upraising.

Erik P. Bucy:
Erik P. Bucy is an assistant professor in the Department of Telecommunications and adjunct faculty member in the School of Informatics at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the editor of Living in the Information Age: A New Media Reader, published this year by Wadsworth Publishing. 

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