Saturday, March 31, 2012

Book Review: The Art of Video Games

Over the course of 2010/2011, I was privileged enough to be invited by Chris Melissinos to sit on the advisory board for the Art of Video Games exhibit he was putting together for exhibition at the Smithsonian. The exhibition opened a couple weeks ago and I was unable to attend the opening due to overlap with vacation plans, but I plan on visiting it sometime in May.

In the meantime though I got a copy of the book Chris authored in parallel with it, also titled The Art of Video Games and had a delightful time going through it.

The book is a large format hardcover coffee table book. It is liberal with spacing given to artwork, screenshots and whitespace and this makes it easy and fun to flip through. The games are broken up into different eras, loosely coupled with the "generations" of home consoles, though it also covers many PC games* from those same eras.

[*If I had any contribution to the exhibit, other than voting on the games with the other board members, it was in the debate for the inclusion of PC games to the list. A few of us (John Romero and myself were most vocal) felt that it was important to represent the symbiosis of development on closed platform consoles and open platform PCs (C-64, DOS/Windows PCs, etc - though the Apple II was a notable omission) and each has helped push the progress of the other. Chris agreed and that lead to the inclusion of a number of games from those platforms, including Jumpman on the C64 - itself likely responsible for consuming 1000+ hours of my youth.]

The treatment given each game focuses in part on the game's art and gameplay, and in part on why the game was notable or revolutionary for it's time.

The book also has a number of interviews with industry luminaries including Nolan Bushnell and others. These lend a bit of context to the mindset at the time, challenges in developing the games, etc.

Its a beautiful book that every gamer should have sitting on their coffee table.

The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book Review: A Visit From The Goon Squad

I just finished Jennifer Egan's novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. I did it as an audio book, but went back to print form to review a couple bits (a note on why follows below).

I went into it without any expectations, going off a friend's recommendation. I had no idea it won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 2011.

What I got was a really unique novel with great characters with loosely interwoven stories, a really unique format/structure for a novel, and a surprise pinch of well crafted futurism thrown in for good measure.

The story centers (if you can even call it that) around two characters, a perhaps-past-his-prime music industry exec and his assistant. However, many chapters are spent dealing with rich portraits of other characters whose lives intersect with the main two. These intersections aren't in the contrived fashion seen in many novels where all the characters are brought together in a big knotted bow at the end. Rather, they only loosely intersect, sometimes only once or twice. This makes it far more plausible and also it makes it less about driving the story and more about painting the portraits of the characters and using them to further support the main theme.

The main theme is about the passage of time (the 'goon' mentioned in the title is time itself), and its inevitable erosion of hopes and dreams, and how the people find themselves in a place they didn't expect in their lives ("I want to know what happened between A and B" one character asks).

The format of the novel is quite... novel, but not for everyone. Chapters skip back and forth between characters, back and forth in time periods, and jump between first and third person. One chapter is done as a powerpoint presentation.

The characters are the way the author paints them is top notch. Again though, if you are after a traditional format, this may not be the book for you.

One last thing: On the experimental format, be warned that this means the transition to other formats may not have made it cleanly. In the case of the audio book, the power-point chapter doesn't translate well, and isn't helped by the skeuomorph "slide show clicker" sound effect added. I've also heard that the same PPT chapter is difficult to read on the kindle. That aside, the book is still worth getting regardless of format.

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Book Review: The Influencing Machine

I read Brooke Gladstone's graphic non-fiction work, The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media, while on vacation this week. It's a great, superbly structured and easily digestible work on a number of complex subject matter.

The book is done in a very similar style to Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. In fact Gladstone cites it as one of the inspirations for her work.

Where Understanding Comics looks at the medium of comics itself, The Infuence Machine looks at the evolution of media, journalism, and our relationship to them, as well as how we are affected by them. It also wraps up with a quick tour through popular futurist views on the future of media, which serves as a great crash course on the opinions being bounced around currently.

The subject matter is complex and yet easily digestible. This isn't because it's presented in comic form (though that helps - some of the metaphors used really help push a point across), but rather because Brookstone is superbly skilled in structuring her arguments and her examination.

It's a great read. Highly recommended.

The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Book Review: Lauren Ipsum

Lauren Ipsum is a children's book with a unique take on a well-worn theme.

The book centers around a girl, Lauren Ipsum, who finds herself lost in a strange land, and then goes through a series of adventures while trying to find her way home. In this way, its not unlike Alice in Wonderland or countless others.

What sets the book apart is that all of the characters and challenges she faces along the way are all logic puzzles and computer programming concepts. She encounters a travelling salesman, for example; or needs to formulate instructions to have some minions accomplish a task. In this sense, as its billed, it is a book about computers without any computers in it.

On the negative side, I found the characters to be a little thin and underdeveloped, but perhaps this is normal for a children's book.

The real test is whether this captures kids and entertains them while perhaps also teaching them a thing or two. I have a vacation coming up during which I plan on reading this to the kids. I'll post an update regarding how it goes after that's done.

[Update: I read this to the boys (mine and their cousins) over vacation, and the LOVED it. The older boys were trying to get ahead and outguess Lauren when she was faced with a challenge, or were trying to solve the math bit in it ahead of the book. So, highly recommended!]

 Lauren Ipsum

Friday, March 2, 2012

Book Review: Reality is Broken

I've had the pleasure of speaking to Jane McGonigal a few times, and have great respect for what she's trying to do, and for the passion she brings to the task. Unfortunately, after having slogged through her book, Reality Is Broken I have to give it a fairly negative review. This is unfortunate because as I said, I think what she's trying to do is important.

McGonigal's book is centered around the concept of using games, and the collective effort people put into playing them, to impact the real world. This can run the span of everything from connecting real-world benefits into online games, to using game-like mechanics to encourage behavior in real-world activities.

I found the book suffered from three fundamental flaws:

  1. No discussion of impact to the 'magic circle'. Those espousing the 'magic circle' idea will talk about how games have a fundamental property of taking place in a safe place that doesn't have real-world impact. It seems to me that the more you effect the real world, or the less trivial the effect, the less it's a game.
  2. Flawed logic & poorly connected research. Jane makes many, um, enthusiastic leaps of logic, which are flawed. You can see many that I've highlighted in the Kindle app (I'll figure out how to put a link here).
  3. Lack of an objective look at both sides. In looking at all the good that can be done by motivating people via games,  McGonigal really should have looked at the other side too. Can games be used to effect evil as well? As long as she's only looking at one side of the discussion, it seems flawed.
I really applaud McGonigal's goal and her passion, but I can't recommend the book.

Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

Book Review: The Art of the Start

I read The Art of the Start recently. I'd read some of Guy Kawasaki's stuff in the past and found it humorous and easily digestible. The book promised to address not only entrepreneurship but also intrapreneurship as well, which is a little more relevant to me.

Overall, I give the book a B+. It's accessible, and hits on the main points, and does so in Guy's usual tell-it-like-it-is fashion, with some humor to flavor it. However, it really is aimed more at entrepreneurship and the intrapreneurship part is only touched on in a couple sections briefly.

Also, I have to say that it feels like a rushed and/or sub-optimal effort by Kawasaki. There are a lot of recycled jokes and anecdotes, which is OK to a degree. There are also a lot of broken metaphors, or anecdotes that don't directly illustrate the thing Kawasaki's trying to demonstrate.

If you are trying to start a business, or are thinking about it, and want an accessible "first steps" kind of guide, the book can serve in this capacity. Other folks will probably find it less useful.

The Art of the Start: The Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything