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Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution

Author: Steven Poole
Publisher: New York: Arcade Books, 2000
Review Published: January 2004

 REVIEW 1: Edward Castronova
 REVIEW 2: Aaron Delwiche

My final impression when setting Steven Poole's Trigger Happy down was terror: deep, gut-wrenching terror. You see, this book is a piece of intelligent non-fiction writing about videogames, the kind of thing I'm trying to write myself these days. It was published in 2000, and, to my chagrin, it is already somewhat out of date in terms of the games it talks about. This book provides a good lesson for anyone trying to do serious work about video games: Do not -- I repeat, DO NOT -- base much of your discussion on games that are popular as you write. Within three years, they will be only a distant memory.

Setting timing aside, however, Poole's book is a great one. The world is slowly waking up to the fact that videogames constitute a serious activity, and this realization is not hurried by the practice of many nonfiction writers in this field to gush without limit about what is happening. You know, "the amazing videogame on the amazing internet! Where you can do everything you always wanted to do by clicking on a button!" and so on. Poole's text has some of this flavor, but on the whole he avoids sensationalism in favor of a measured, if enthusiastic, effort to describe the craft of game-making in an aesthetic context. He asserts that game-making is art, and also that it does not fit into existing categories of art. Nonetheless, it borrows from and contributes to many different art forms, for example film (chapter 4), narrative (chapter 5), and architecture (chapter 6). Like other art forms, videogames are concerned with the nature of represented reality (chapter 3), the characterization of the individual (chapter 8), and the interactions of language and signs (chapter 9). Unlike other forms, videogames have to grapple with the avatar, the representation of self in a rendered, other space (chapter 7). Poole makes a solid case for treating the videogame as an art form. For example, the connections he draws between polygons as forms in western culture, and their use in constructing 3D game objects, are quite fascinating (125-128).

Poole's rendering of these concepts is very informative for one such as myself who does not have deep training in art. On the other hand, at times, the text seems to suffer from a certain syndrome of quoting really cool ideas that don't necessarily fit in the present argument; one gets the impression that the author just read a good book and wants to get it into his own book somehow, just because it would be neat. For example, on page 168, Poole goes over the concept of "flow," with the idea of using it to describe positive mental states while playing games. A number of quotations from the inventor of the concept, the impossibly-named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, are given to touch up the reader's understanding of a fairly well-known idea. Then a note is given, pointing to the admission that the quotes are not from Csikszentmihalyi's own work but from a book about Zen and Japanese motorcycle gangs (Ikuya, 1991). Nothing wrong with that, but again, it gives the sense that we have some extra info about "flow" in the text only because Poole came upon a neat book about "kamikaze bikers" the week before this particular section was written.

There are some other signs of slippery research. Early on, Poole describes the growth of videogames as a phenomenon and then states flatly, "increasingly, first-class graduates from such universities such as Cambridge and MIT are moving into videogames rather than academic research" (12). It would be nice to see some evidence to back up such a significant assertion, but none is offered. In moments like this, Trigger Happy comes too close to gushing.

Poole's coverage of videogames is similarly thought-provoking but not particularly careful. His method is to discuss a concept and then give examples from videogames, obscure or not, that illustrate the idea. At one level, there's nothing wrong with this approach. But consider what would happen if I wished to discuss the nature of some important social phenomenon, say, poverty, in the same manner. I could write "Poverty is typically found among single-parent households, for example, Ms. Janelle Ascot of Tacoma, Washington, who is a single parent, and also poor. Poverty is also typically the result of spending too much time mowing the lawn rather than working for pay, as is the case with Mr. James Dardoole of St. Louis, Missouri, who spent Saturday April 14 mowing his lawn and thereby missed a job interview; he is now poor as a result." A more careful practice would be to decide beforehand what games are important, and then write about what we learn from them. Poole's many references to Lara Croft and Tomb Raider are helpful and persuasive, yet his use of Space Invaders less so -- from my own memeory, I know the game was popular only for awhile, and there never was much to it anyway. And references to House of the Dead 2 really aren't helpful at all. Again, the reader gets the feeling that the examples used for a given section happen to be the games that sat in Poole's Playstation on the day he wrote it.

And this brings us back to the first point: the book delivers a certain measured enthusiasm about the aesthetic qualities of a series of games that Steven Poole played in the period 1980 - 1997; as the games fade from memory, the impact of the book softens. Still, by convincing us (and he does) that aesthetic categories can be applied to these games, Poole brings all of us forward, whether we played those games or not. For now we understand that, in principle, videogames are subject to aesthetic criticism. This really is a step forward, but the problem is that we are in fact far, far behind in our understanding of games as cultural artifacts. What we need is for someone to do more than point out that a somewhat random selection of games can be viewed through the lenses of a somewhat random series of artistic categories. No. What we need is for people to take specific games that are known as Great Games, ones that will be remembered for all time, and subject them to analysis from specific artistic categories. What is the Story of Quake? What is the Film of Tomb Raider? What is the Architecture of EverQuest? Or, if neither story nor film nor architecture fits, then someone needs to define the videogame aesthetic, in general, without reference to specific games. I imagine that this project is moving forward in art criticism programs, if not yet on paper, then in people's heads, probably spurred on by this book. Trigger Happy is good background work for this project, but it is not quite careful enough to be a part of it.

Sato Ikuya, Kamikaze Biker: Parody and Anomy in Affluent Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Edward Castronova:
Edward Castronova is an Associate Professor of Economics at Cal State Fullerton. He has also reviewed Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Networked Economy and Strategies for Electronic Commerce and the Internet for RCCS.  <ecastronova@Exchange.FULLERTON.EDU>

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