review

Recommended Books for 2012

It’s always around this time of the year that I think about what I want to get done in the next year, what new projects I want to try. For the moment, I will spare you my personal goals for 2012 — that’s an upcoming post. Instead, I want to try to help other people start with some good material to look through and get inspired by in the coming year. I want to talk about something I said I would do in what feels like months and months ago: type up a list of recommended books.

Roughly 25 days ago, I mentioned over on Line’s blog that I was knee-deep in research material and named off some books I’ve been meaning to get back to reading. That comment, naturally, kicked off an exchange between Ari and myself over what books each of us have bought, read or mean to read on the topic of Games and Games Studies. At the time, I said “I’ll see about typing up a list of Recommended Reading at some point.” Guess what? It’s that time!

[Note: These are all books I read this year. I limited myself to my own personal reading list in making these selections.]

Ludology

Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture by Johan Huizinga [Amazon]

All you the basically need to know is that Huizinga came up the phrase “magic circle” to describe games in 1950. Yes, decades before video games even existed, he was writing about the power of games to transform people, cultures and even civilization itself. While it is dated in some ideas, in others it is as fresh as any other book on the subject. I consider it required reading for anyone serious about studying the impact of games on society.

The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia by Bernard Suits [Amazon]

Not unlike Homo Ludens, this books is famous for a single phrase too: “playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” Written originally in 1978, it presents several interesting ideas about how to classify what a game may or may not be and has one of the first attempts at creating categories of players. [For those who are speed readers, pay attention to Chapter Four. I’m going to talk about it next week in connection to another article.]

Critical Play: Radical Game Design by Mary Flanagan [Amazon]

Buy it.

For those who are interested in talking about the narratives that players bring into games, this is the book I would recommend above all others. It took me some time to get through it but, once I did, it changed how I saw the power of games for changing culture through exploring societal roles in game spaces. Although I covered it in great detail back when I was talking about the book nearly every day a few months ago, I think the book should have been called Subversive Play instead. Flanagan’s take on play being a performance that subverts, in a good sense, the rules of the society that the player lives in while they are in a game is wonderful and has highly influenced how I think about players and what they bring into the “magic circle” of games.

Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism by Ian Bogost [Amazon]

This book made me feel really dumb. And I mean that as both a compliment and a complaint against it. Bogost knows what he is talking about and is quite willing to use all manner of sources, cultural frameworks and even occasionally name drop in the process of explaining things. While I was quite willing to go along with transposing Object-Oriented Programming ideas to analyzing Literature, I quickly became lost in the growing list of authors, works and literary theories I had never heard about before as the book went on into deeper ideas. I still highly recommend it, but with the knowledge that you might want to go slower than normal in reading it.

Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Happy and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal [Amazon]

Be careful when reading this. McGonigal is one of the most optimistic writers about the power of games — and gamification — I have ever come across in my own fairly wide reading habits. It is quite easy to get caught up in seeing games as the sole solution to all the world’s ills when reading this. While I agree that game design — that is, designing things into games — can be beneficial in many places, I’m not sold on it always being a good idea. Too often, while reading, I would see a way to abuse or even break certain system ideas she discussed. Despite that, I really liked it and suggest it as a book for game designers to read.

Design

Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits by Debbie Millman [Amazon]

Although I only finished reading this last week, I highly recommend it for visual and graphic designers — in whose camp I have been known to moonlight from time to time. Brands are an important force in modern Western culture. For many people, their identity is tied up in which clothes they wear, which logos they show and which products they use. To be ignorant of the power of brands, for both good and evil, is to be ignorant of the power of design and its effect on consumers, creators and culture itself.

Meaning of the Built Environment: A Nonverbal Communication Approach by Amos Rapoport [Amazon]

This is a strange book to include, I know. However, I have gained many insights in how people use, interact with and ‘read’ environments from this book. Like others on this list, it also has a unique audience: it’s aimed at academics studying spaces. Rapoport does not take the time to explain certain ideas and assumes you are familiar with them as he analyses how ‘built spaces’ communicate their meanings through design and use. Suggested only for those willing to wade through some intense examples of city and urban planning.

Writing

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner [Amazon]

This books does a great job of explaining the purpose, power and craft of fiction. Although normally used in a classroom setting, I read it over a weekend in order to discuss it with a professor last spring. For those aspiring to write fiction, you do yourself a disservice if you have not read this book at least once.

On Writing by Stephen King [Amazon]

What’s not to love? With personal stories from King’s past, a glimpse into how many of his most famous books were written and many insightful comments on the process of writing fiction, there is much here to enjoy. Even if you aren’t a fan of his work, if you want to write commercial fiction, do yourself a favor and read this too.

Misc.

I almost didn’t include these last two suggestions. Although I have never talked about this before now on the blog, I did a great deal of graphic design work for a friend who attends a local church in my area back during the summer. The reason I never talked about that experience is that it ended very badly: they threw my designs away — yes, literally — after I did all the work but was unwilling, because I was taking a full-load of classes during a summer session, to also implement everything I had outlined and mocked up for them. I’m still highly pissed about it. Still, I do research before I take on any projects and the following two books were fairly helpful in that regard.

The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church by Shane Hipps, Brian D. McLaren

Hipps uses extensive quotes and commentary on the impact of media from Marshall McLuhan’s works on the Christian church. He also touches on the frequent collisions between media-rich postmodern culture and modernist Christian churches. (The original sources, Understanding Media, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects and, of course, From Cliché to Archetype are also good, I’ve heard. I’ve only used them as references but keep meaning to get back to them at some point.)

The Art of Worship: A Musicians Guide to Leading Modern Worship by Greg Scheer

I have a friend who is a Music Director and she let me borrow her copy of the book. It’s an interesting look at, as I mentioned above with Hidden Power, the trials, tribulations and even timing involved with trying to bring ‘modern worship’ to Christian churches. It wasn’t as helpful as I had hoped it would be in my own research, but I quite liked the breakdown of the average singing and hearing ranges. Scheer’s thoughts on arranging instruments on the cheap were useful for another project I worked on a couple months later too.