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Cannonball Read III: The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent

By Sinnh | Books | August 1, 2011 |

By Sinnh | Books | August 1, 2011 |

Despite my husband claiming that I am as much a gamer as they come, I don’t really feel like one. I think video games are fun and can actually improve our happiness levels and teach us a few new things as well. But beyond that, I really just play the one game. So from my point of view, I don’t have a good reason as to why I picked up this book. It has been sitting on my husband’s shelf for years and one day I just picked it up and decided to see what it said. A few hours later, I was well into it and did not want to put it down. So from my husband’s point of view, he says I picked up the book because that’s just what a gamer does.

I absolutely loved this book, much more than I ever expected to. It’s as hefty as any college history textbook and so it took me several months to get through (plus I’ve developed a snail’s pace for reading, putting in usually just under 30 minutes a day…I’m pretty bad). But at no point did I feel like putting it down, and it never stopped being interesting and incredibly informative.

Clearly my favorite parts were when Kent writes about video games (and this implies there’s more to write about in the book than just games…well, in fact, there is, and more on that later). He provides an excellent history of the origin of video games, way back to the roots of pinball machines (back when they were viewed as sources of gambling and restricted to pool halls and bars, and downright outlawed in some states), through Spacewar, Pong, the arcade explosion, Atari, Odyssey, Coleco, all the way through to Sega, Nintendo, Sony, and so on. Kent attempts to lay out how the technology behind video games originated and evolved (paralleling the history of computers from the vacuum tube to the transistor era). He also follows the evolution of game design, from the surprisingly addicting Pong (a simple tennis simulator) to the intricacy of level design and game world design in The Legend of Zelda. He provides the history behind some of the all-time classics of video games: Space Invaders, Centipede, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Mario Brothers, and trust me I could go on and on.

Beyond being a book about video games, it is ultimately a book about the birth, rise, decline, and rebirth of a now multi-billion dollar business. It tells the story of the rise of this huge industry, as told by the very people that built it from the ground up, and those that came later to push it into world-wide phenomenon. It details the humble beginnings of some of the most important business people in the industry today, told in part through actual interviews: Nolan Bushnell (founder of Atari), Ralph Baer (inventor of the Odyssey), Steve Jobs (his stint at Atari), Trip Hawkins (founder of Electronic Arts), Minoru Arakawa (first president of Nintendo of America), Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Donkey Kong, Mario, Zelda, and Star Fox), David Rosen (CEO of Sega), and, again, I could go on and on. And what shouldn’t come as a shock at all: the birth of an empire can be downright nasty. Kent doesn’t hold back in detailing all the scheming, sleight of hands, out-manuevering, and strong-arming that took place.

Another informative aspect of the book is its account of the societal and cultural impact of video games. There are the funny stories: like Japan having to increase its production of coins because so many were tied up in arcades after Space Invaders was released. The slightly paranoid ones: like all the news coverage devoted to how Japan was trying to slowly take over the American economy given their massive sales of Nintendo Entertainment Systems and even their purchase of the Seattle Mariners baseball team (even though that was Nintendo of America, not of Japan). And the really controversial ones.

Controversy over games and their content has existed from the very beginning, back to the Lieberman hearings in 1993 that focused on Mortal Kombat’s realistic use of blood and overly-gruesome fatalities (that hearing brought about the development of the ESRB rating system, similar to what is in place for movies), and through to the tragic events that occurred at Littleton, Colorado in 1999 and how the killers related their crimes to Doom (a first person shooter). The events at Columbine renewed the urgency to address violence in video games and how it was being advertised to children, with hearings beginning just two weeks later (though much more dramatic than the 1993 hearings, no new outcomes or laws came about from this hearing). Kent provides a detailed and non-biased account of both hearings, providing the actual transcripts from the sessions. And I have to mention, in another show of how things really are cosmically aligned, I read through these chapters just as the Supreme Court reached a decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, which finally ruled this summer that video games fall under the same rights as the First Amendment.

The only drawback to the book is just a matter of time. The book was published in 2001, shortly after SEGA discontinued the Dreamcast and Sony released the Playstation 2, and prior to the release of the Game Cube and Xbox. That’s a good chunk of history missing. Lord, a full decade! Now I feel old… But really, the book is just begging for a sequel. I sincerely hope Kent decides to pick up the story where he left off and take us through the recent bout of video game innovation, from motion accelerators and sensors to online gaming communities (in my biased opinion, I was sorely disappointed that there was absolutely no mention of Blizzard, creators of Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo, and World of Warcraft).

As a study of a business and how it impacted our culture, and also as a fun and interesting account of video games, it was very enjoyable. Highly recommend.

For more of Sinnh’s reviews, check outher blog, The Occasional Sin.

This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.

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