Ever since I wrote that piece about game-labor a few posts back I've wanted to check out more Steven Poole. While I was cruising his website I found that he wrote an actual book about videogames called Trigger Happy, which I swiftly procured from an Amazon seller.
The aims of Poole's book are evangelical. It's out to convince joe six-pint that in the year of our lord two thousand, this whole videogame phenomenon has really arrived. The narrative demands of this missionary effort are the kind of thing that'll vary your mileage. Poole cites the customary battery of statistics about the size and ethnographic makeup of the fin-de-siecle videogame scene, and he notes the collaborations between established cultural enterprises (pop stars! name brand trainers!) and the videogame business so as to confer legitimacy on the nascent artform. If you are already inclined to the view that the video games are a culturally significant and interesting pasttime, you will find the book less-than-revelatory in the early going. But remember that this was 2000: Poole was doing God's work. As Kieron Gillen notes, Trigger Happy “was an serious, accessible book on videogames where no one else had published one.”
And he can certainly evangelize with wit and verve. Poole manages the difficult feat of striking a tone that is both fiercely literate and unpretentious-- even when he is is showing off, it reads as constructive whimsy rather than writerly self-aggrandizement: “Games such as Defender or Space Invaders offer 'extra lives' when a certain score is achieved... It resembles an ethically inverted form of Buddhism... whereas Buddhism's final aim is to jump off the exhausting carousel of constant reincarnation and to be no more, life in a videogame is always a good thing, and killing is the morally praiseworthy action required to resurrect it.” Trigger Happy abounds in learnèd-yet-appropriate asides of this sort (the index contains entries for Theodor Adorno, Martin Heidegger, and “Nietzsche, Friedrich, pummeling the joysticks”), and its greatest charms reside in Poole's capacity to weave old and new media together: “Just as Timaeus argues further that the four numbers (or atoms) that make up the cosmos correspond to the four elements of ancient Greek cosmogony (earth, wind, fire and water), so modern polygons can be made to draw every kind of substance on the videogame screen: rocky outcrops, sure, but also lakes, blazing torches, grass, even snow.” Despite the erudition on display the tenor of the prose is inviting, and the knowledge of other artforms on display throughout Trigger Happy gives birth to may of its best insights.
On his website, Poole says that Trigger Happy is “about the aesthetics of videogames: what they share with other artforms, and the ways in which they are unique;” The “about” is telling. Trigger Happy doesn't make an extended argument about the nature of ludic pleasure (the kind you'd find in Raph Koster or Steven Johnson); it's more an inventory of the various aesthetic elements of the videogame: graphics, perspective, character, narrative, and so on. Poole has a wealth of perspicuous insights about the way that games differ from other media in their handling of these elements, but you won't find a narrative.
Indeed, the reader already-familiar with video games will find the side-streets the most interesting elements of Trigger Happy. There's a great bit on the the conflict between the aims of gameplay and realism; an Piercean-semeiotic riff on Pac-man, and a thought-provoking meditaton on the relationship between Japanese aesthetics and Japanese game design. My favorite parts of the book were these stray aperçus, his astute observations about the subtleties of reward scheduling and the narrative pitfalls of infinite repeatability.
It's churlish to register complaints with a work with so many stylistic felicities and such a wealth of keen observations, but I have to say that Trigger Happy left me wanting in certain respects. Though it engages with a wide variety of popular entertainments and never lacks for witty things to say about them (in this respect it is vastly superior to the stuffier game-studies approach of Persuasive Games, which rarely treats popular games and embarrasses itself when it does), it lacks a certain generality. Trigger Happy isn't animated by a single idea-- Poole is a fox rather than a hedgehog, in Isiah Berlin's terms. The craving after generality may be a particularity of mine, but as I read the book the I felt the continual disappointment of my hunger for a thesis.
This disappointment was made the worse by my sympathy for Poole's fundamental attitude towards the medium. Much of the game-studies lit operates at a substantial remove from the experiences of the game-player, and unintentionally evince a kind of lofty disregard for the very elements that make games compelling to their audience. (Bogost's concept of “procedural rhetoric,” for example, explains why someone would design a game-- to persuade, of course-- but is strangely mute on the seemingly inessential question of why someone would want to play a game so designed.) Poole's book operates on the assumption that popular games are objects worthy of an aesthetics, and though he doesn't give a cohesive picture of the native excellencies of the medium (what it means to be "trigger happy"), he is on the side of the angels as far as I'm concerned.