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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

Throughout much of the past century, new media associated with youth have been greeted with hostility by cultural custodians. From jazz to comic books, insurgent genres have been linked to crime, drug use, and declining aesthetic standards. Communication scholars often add their voices to the fray, grounding taste judgments in claims to scientific legitimacy. Research on cinema sponsored by the Payne Fund, Frederic Wertham's exaggerated warnings about comic books, and the first wave of videogame research are just a few examples. In each instance, academic findings were used to build support for various forms of regulation.

During the 1980s, the growing popularity of arcades and home gaming consoles generated a sustained wave of negative coverage. Early studies focused primarily on the effects of violent content, with the Surgeon General warning that youth were addicted "body and soul" to dangerous machines. More recently, the families of Columbine victims filed a lawsuit against game manufacturers, accusing them of turning young people into "monster killers." Without discounting the troubling issue of game violence, it is clear that the reaction to videogames on the part of scholars and policymakers has been lopsided at best -- hysterical at worst.

It is encouraging that a recent spate of scholarship is more intent on understanding videogames than crucifying them. Psychologists have demonstrated that games have educational and therapeutic benefits (Griffiths, 2002), and a report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project (Jones, 2003) challenges stereotypical views of gamers as anti-social losers. Cultural theorists are also taking note, with recent anthologies mapping an emerging sub-field of "videogame theory" (King & Kryzwinska, 2002; Wolf, 2002; Wolf & Perron, 2003). One of the most widely cited books on this topic, Steven Poole's Trigger Happy is a crucial touchstone for anyone who wishes to understand this fledgling medium.

"Videogames are an increasingly pervasive part of the modern cultural landscape," writes Poole, "but we have no way of speaking critically about them" (12). Trigger Happy makes some progress toward the author's goal of developing a critical language for analyzing videogame aesthetics, but the book's most important contribution is a sustained argument about authenticity, simulation, and the need for imagination in the creation of virtual worlds. Though Poole's conclusions are directed at game designers, they have implications for the broader community of cyberculture scholars.

Poole begins by establishing the legitimacy of a widely underestimated medium. Noting that Americans spend more on videogame software and hardware ($8.9 billion) than on first-run movies ($7.3 billion), Poole argues that any phenomenon capable of generating so much revenue is worthy of investigation. Since video sales and rentals account for only half of a film's overall revenue, such statistics are somewhat misleading. Nevertheless, few could deny that the gaming industry is highly lucrative.

The strongest chapters in Trigger Happy are those that analyze games in terms of simulation strategies, cinematic technique, narrative, screen geometry, and characterization. Poole's comparison of games to cinema is particularly compelling. While acknowledging that Hollywood and the videogame industry regularly raid one another for inspiration, Poole doubts that the two media could converge without sacrificing "essential virtues" of both. For example, dramatic irony is premised on a knowledge gap between the spectator and the protagonist. The audience knows something that the protagonist does not. Because they collapse the gap between audience and actor, videogames are incapable of inducing this tension. Montage and other elements of the cinematic vocabulary are similarly difficult to translate to a game environment without disrupting user control. Traditional cinematic techniques still have a place in the full-motion video (FMV) sequences that function as transition between different stages of the game, but Poole correctly dismisses such sequences as fluffy "tinsel around the real game-play" (78).

Poole also documents the progression of screen geometry from the bounded screen of Pong and Space Invaders to wrap-around screens (Asteroids), scrolling screens (Defender), and first-person perspectives (Counterstrike). A rapid evolution in graphical sophistication has been fueled by technical improvements that dramatically increase the number of polygons that can be rendered by the computer's video card. Poole predicts that "hardware is thus getting very close to being able to provide so many polygons that to all intents and purposes they will soon vanish, collapsing back into the original cosmic building blocks. They will become, in effect, the modest, invisible atoms of videogame reality" (128).

In theory, these improvements should make it possible to develop more convincing simulations. However, in an argument that has important implications for game designers and cyberculture scholars alike, Poole reminds us that the value of our digital creations should not be measured by the degree to which they recreate the physical world. Consider the zeitgeist of the 1990s when thinkers across disciplines were enraptured with virtual reality (VR). Whether one held that it was possible or even desirable to accurately simulate the so-called real world, this was widely perceived to be the goal of VR research.

Hyperbolic visions of VR failed to materialize, but the research seeded a host of affiliated technologies with practical applications in medical, industrial, and military contexts. Simultaneously, a generation of virtual world builders (programmers, animators, 3D modelers) were trained within the game industry. Unfortunately, as more impressive visual displays became possible, emphasis on special effects eclipsed attention to story and playability. A perusal of gaming publications reveals an obsession with graphical realism ranging from lighting, facial expressions, and atmospheric effects to the quality of an avatar's hair and the fluidity of its movements. Yet, authenticity is a poor barometer for evaluating videogames. Some of the most realistic games have zero playability, while the most addictive (Everquest and Ragnarok) are characterized by clumsy graphics.

Poole uses the phenomenon of "game physics" to demonstrate that the most successful games depend on a lack of realism. Programmers devote considerable energy to modeling real-world physical laws that govern the interaction of moving objects, and players are sensitized to this aspect of the gaming experience. Yet, designers regularly tweak the laws of the game universe to maximize playability. In racing games, cars hug the road and navigate it in ways that would be impossible in the real world. In the game Quake, players can perform outrageously enhanced jumps by firing their rocket launcher at the floor. "Videogames' somewhat paradoxical fate," suggest Poole "is the ever more accurate modeling of things that don't and couldn't exist: a car that grips the road like Superglue, which bounces un-crumpled off roadside barriers, a massive spacecraft with the maneuverability of a bumble bee; a human being who can survive, bones intact, a three-hundred foot fall into the water" (50).

A similar phenomenon can be seen in interface elements that, while arbitrary and unrealistic, are surprisingly successful in controlling on-screen action. There is no logical reason that pushing forward-forward-X should cause Lui Kang to unleash a flying kick in Mortal Kombat. It just works. Many believed that head-mounted displays and data gloves would revolutionize arcades by completely immersing players in the game world, but most attempts to deploy VR arcade games have flopped. As Poole argues, direct correspondence between the gamer and their virtual body is not necessarily a good thing. Unlike most human beings, videogame characters are capable of a dazzling array of acrobatic skills, back flips, kung fu kicks, and bullet dodging. Buttons, joysticks, and game controller are arbitrary but effective control mechanisms. An immersive interface that directly maps user movements to character actions is far less playable than a simple game controller.

As our digital creations become more immersive and graphically compelling, what types of worlds will we create? Ultimately, Poole's book is a passionate plea for creative imagination on the part of game designers. He demonstrates that games do not need to slavishly imitate the physics of the natural world, the kinesthetics of the human body, or the tropes and spatial aesthetics that dominate Hollywood. Like computers, videogames are intrinsically mutable. Their true power stems from the ability to create new environments that have never been seen or imagined.

It is difficult to not be charmed by this passionate, clever book. Yet, for all of its strengths, a few modest criticisms are warranted. For one thing, the book myopically fixates on the conflict between videogames and Hollywood. "Since the upstart videogame form shattered film's monopoly on the moving image," Poole tells us, "the two media have been engaged in a wary standoff" (71). If any medium should be threatened by the success of video-games, it is television. After all, "individuals in the industrialized world devote three hours a day to the pursuit of television -- fully half of their leisure time, and more than on any single activity save work and sleep" (Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). Usage of interactive media directly trades off with time spent watching television, and home gaming consoles directly stake their claim on the television screen itself. Film theory is highly relevant to videogame studies, but we should also investigate how games are situated within the home and within the player's overall media behaviors.

I was also unconvinced by Poole's discussion of videogame violence. While acknowledging the disturbing role of "videogame-seeded" technologies in recent bouts of warfare, Poole wants to let videogames off the hook. In one jaw-dropping passage, he describes Time Cop 2 as relatively mature because the characters are "law-enforcing agents of national security" rather than "gun-toting maniacs" (229). His description of Metal Gear Solid as an anti-war war-game is also a stretch. Poole suggests that violence is acceptable if it occurs in imaginary environments, arguing that "one can revel unashamed in the joy of destruction all the more if what is being incinerated could never possibly exist" (230). After begging us to liberate our creative imaginations, Poole seems willing to turn our creations over to the same forces that inflict such misery in the real world.

At the risk of sounding peevish, I should note that Trigger Happy is marred by the lack of a road-map and meaningful chapter titles. This may be one of the best existing books about videogames, but it is one of the most poorly organized. Exploring its pages is similar to wandering through a far-flung videogame environment without a map. The images and insights are beautiful, but the reader pines for a few directional clues. Nevertheless, Trigger Happy is an essential work for any serious game theorist.

Griffiths, M.D. (2002). The educational benefits of videogames, Education and Health, 20, pp. 47-51.

Jones, S. (2003). Let the games begin. Gaming technology and entertainment among college students. Pew Internet and American Life Project.

King, G. and Krzywinska, T. (Eds.) (2002) ScreenPlay: cinema/videogames/interfaces. London: Wallflower Press.

Kubey, R. and Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002) Television addiction is no mere metaphor, Scientific American. 286 (2), pp. 74-81.

Wolf, M. (Ed.) (2001). The medium of the videogame. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Wolf, M. & Perron, B. (Eds.) (2003) The video game theory reader. London: Routledge.

Aaron Delwiche:
Aaron Delwiche is an assistant professor of Communication at Trinity University. His research focuses on global youth culture and the on-line construction of transnational identity.  <aaron.delwiche@trinity.edu>

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