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Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution (Literature)

February 7, 2006 By Glenn Turner

Heather Chaplin & Aaron Ruby, authors of Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution, certainly get around. Radio shows, websites, video game conferences, even television, over the past few months it seemed as if they've been everywhere, either in promotion of their book, or just watching from the sidelines. In reality they've been roaming around, observing gamers, conferences, and designers for several years now, the details of which have all been transcribed into Smartbomb. Smartbomb was written as a report from the frontline of the video game industry to showcase how and why the industry has grown into the media empire it has, and to shine a light on those most responsible for this recognition.

In order to accomplish this goal Chaplin & Ruby portion Smartbomb into eight chapters, each concentrating on an influential development, or designer, in the gaming world. From Nolan Bushnell to Shigeru Miyamoto and even the launch of the Xbox, each section concisely explores their subject quickly but adequately. When concentrating on a personality it feels as if the authors have been trailing them for years, allowing us to partake of some of Will Wright's more idiosyncratic behaviors or observe CliffyB's wildly changing series of looks. The accounts feel intimate, and thanks to their tightly written prose, Smartbomb also conveys a great sense of immediacy and even urgency. Events like 2001's E3 feel as if they're happening right now, that the waning lights of the generation of consoles they're discussing . There's a palpitating air of tension and excitement in Smartbomb's tales of conferences and press meetings, and it makes for a compelling read.

Unfortunately it's just not a very enlightening read. Despite the fact that the authors are able to situate the reader firmly in the trenches of this gaming generation's personalities and developments, it's all ground that's been tread before and in finer detail. The eight chapters read as primers to some of the best video game historical texts available. Instead of their cursory look at Shigeru Miyamoto, one could read the engrossing Game Over. Instead of reading the insufficiently terse chapter on id software, you're better off reading the superior tome Masters of Doom, devoted to the topic, and there's little in the closing chapter on the creation of Microsoft's Xbox that hasn't been addressed in Dean Takashi's Opening the Xbox. Apart from the unsatisfying chapter on Will Wright, the chapter centered on Raph Koster and the creation of Star Wars Galaxies and another chapter detailing the creation of America's Army and the use of games in the military, the bulk of Smartbomb has been covered in another text, in greater depth, scope, and meaning.

This rehashing could be forgiven if there was an overarching message throughout the isolated chapters, but Smartbomb is commentary free (except for perhaps, an odd preoccupation in describing just how unattractive many game industry folks are). The introduction parades out personalities like CliffyB but fails to impart any explanation for why they're important, and why anyone outside of gaming's insular walls should care about their achievements. Just like how the industry parades out statistic after statistic every year, stating that gaming rakes in more money than U.S. box office grosses, that more people are playing than ever, that gamers aren't just pimply faced teenagers, we're never given any reason why it's having an influence, why it's growing, why gaming is appealing and 'going mainstream'. Statistics and success stories aren't enough - the work itself has to speak to the public, or at least be spoken of to them.

There's no story like that in Smartbomb. The book appears to have no more ambitions than to introduce readers to key personalities; there's not a single explanation in there for why these designers and developers will be viewed by the mainstream public as the gaming equivalent of Orson Welles. This isn't to say that they won't, but simply that there is little in Smartbomb to illustrate that, apart from a glib mention of Miyamoto's stature as a 'master' in Japan. Smartbomb is overly preoccupied in representing a cult of personality than examining the medium of gaming, and that'd be fine if the personalities hadn't already been represented better elsewhere.

This isn't to say that Smartbomb is without merit. It serves as an engaging introduction to the major players and events in the 128-bit gaming generation, and if you haven't had much exposure to the history and lore of video games, and if you don't want to spend more than a weekend reading about them, then it works as a primer to the world. Otherwise, I'd earnestly recommend you read Stephen Kent's The Ultimate History of Video Games instead. You won't learn as much about CliffyB's hairstyle in it, but you will get a better idea of how video games have become culturally recognized since their inception.

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#1 KillerTeddy Feb 8, 2006 02:20pm

Nice job.

I have been hearing that it is a good book, but I'm stubborn and it takes alot for me to pick up a popular book. Like DaVinci code, for example.... (By the way, I was not impressed with that book...not because of religous inaccuracies, but with SETTING issues with the book)

But thanks for the heads up on other books that are more detailed.