How to Play a Video Game
Awa Press, $19.95,
When I was 10, my brother and I stayed the night at my best friend’s house. While there, we hired a Sega Mega Drive – a game console you plugged into your TV and which was particularly popular in New Zealand in the early 1990s. We rented Sonic the Hedgehog 2, one of the more famous games for the system, and had a fantastic time taking turns to control an oddly fast – and oddly blue – hedgehog.
It’s a vivid memory – not just because of the game itself, but because of the fun the three of us had together. It helped me bond and problem-solve with friends and family; it provided a window into a bright, colourful world where my imagination could run amok; it even taught me to be methodical and patient when faced with particularly nasty problems (in this case, spikes). Pippin Barr’s How to Play a Video Game presents a number of very similar stories. These all serve to reinforce the main point of his book: that video games can provide wonderful experiences, whether you’re a dedicated gamer or a complete novice.
There are barriers, of course. Early on, Barr notes that “there are now so many different ways to play games … . Who knows which are the best ones to play, or even how to start them up?” It’s a good question: video games can seem overwhelming to someone who sees the whole industry as one dense, impenetrable source of confusion. They can even appear threatening, as with the more violent titles that make the rounds in the media. How to Play a Video Game attempts to dispel all that, and, in the best tradition of the How to series, to offer a glimpse into why so many people enjoy this pastime, and how you can as well.
Barr begins with a brief history of video games that, while necessarily vague and selective, does give a sense of how over the last four decades we have gone from Pong to Grand Theft Auto. From there, you’re given a smorgasbord of topics, from defining the most popular genres to trying to dissect the rules of game worlds and players’ roles within them. There is a lot to take in, and the shortness of the book can make it feel as though you’re constantly being pulled from one briefly mentioned topic to another. Where it works best is in more unified chapters like “The Other You”, where Barr muses on avatars, immersion and player expression. It’s an interesting insight into the relationship between player and game, what effect interactivity can have when combined with our own imaginations, and how this can translate into unique – and uniquely fun – experiences.
The problem is that, with a title like How to Play a Video Game, there’s simply so much to cover. In games, there are so many wildly different experiences to be had, so many different goals that various titles try to achieve, so many different ways of playing on countless different devices. It’s not Barr’s fault if the book struggles to pin down precisely what video games can be – the gaming industry is simply too varied and disparate. It’s as if an author was tasked with writing How to Watch a Sports Game, and was then expected to teach people the rules of every sport under the sun, all in one slim volume.
A game like Bejeweled, for example, is built entirely around a set of simple, addictive mechanics. You move jewels around on a grid, and when three of them are aligned, you gain points. This is not even beginning to try to be a world in which you can immerse yourself or to provide an avatar for you to become. Instead, it’s idle amusement, but no less valid a game than something like Shadow of the Colossus, which certainly does invite you to become immersed in a beautifully realised world. Or take a game like The Sims, which Barr frequently refers to. This is based entirely around player-created stories that emerge dynamically from the decisions the player makes about how to take care of their Sims. At no point does the game itself present an explicit narrative; it’s all up to the person playing the game. Contrast this with something like the popular Uncharted series, which is extremely linear and pushes the player from one non-interactive cutscene to the next. All of these are classified as games. But at the same time, they offer wildly different experiences and have goals that sometimes don’t overlap at all.
The book is at its most effective, then, when it doesn’t try to unify video games under one ill-fitting umbrella, but simply provides examples of the games you can play. Barr’s tales of the video games that have struck a chord with him tend, therefore, to be the best part: they’re randomly scattered throughout the chapters, but achieve the tricky task of showing the reader what kind of experiences are available, why games don’t have to be something to fear, and why you should care in the first place.
How to Play a Video Game is certainly worth reading if you’re after a friendly, enthusiastic guide to a category of entertainment that can sometimes seem impenetrably unknowable. It’s hard – I would say impossible – to pin down such a young and ever-moving target as video games, but Barr gives you an entertaining insight into an industry that’s growing and evolving at a prodigious rate. He sums it up early on when he writes that “Video games may become ever more advanced, but they will always be recognisable as what they are: the window to a wonderful experience.”For me, that’s always been true. I encourage you to grab this book and see if it’s true for you.
Tristan Clark is a co-founder of Wellington-based games developer Launching Pad Games.