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Heather Chaplin’s and Aaron Ruby’s SMARTBOMB: THE QUEST FOR ART, ENTERTAINMENT AND BIG BUCKS IN THE VIDEOGAME REVOLUTION

Algonquin Books, October 2006 304 pages, $13.95Algonquin Books, October 2006
304 pages, $13.95

It's appropriate that Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution chooses not to be a straight history of the videogame but a collection of profiles focusing on the people who defined what started as a hobby and became an industry. The videogame, being a whole different kind of storytelling and entertainment than more conventional forms, lacks a defining creation myth. Smartbomb is that creation myth as seen from the perspectives of its pioneers; a collective history in the way the videogame is a collective interactive creation.

The book starts by introducing CliffyB, a constantly self-reinventing game designer, as a microcosm of the industry. From being the "kid on the school bus who got Coke poured on his head" to his ill-fitting "pimp-suit-wearing" days, CliffyB is searching for an appropriate identity and, dare one say it, the appreciation of the mainstream. The first chapter takes place at the 2001 Electronic Entertainment Expo in L.A. and introduces the rest of the players. The lives examined range from Will Higinbotham, the scientist who invented the videogame but didn't think much of it, to Shigeru Miyamoto, the man who put imagination and art into videogames and made the Japanese industry a global player.

The stories that follow track the evolution of the videogame from game to social experience to something more. The chapter on "Cyberathletes" in Dallas, meeting for the World Championship of first-person shooters, offers a window into a vibrant community of gamers that is, to quote one of its leaders, "only the beginning." The foray into this digital new world pans out even further to encompass Will Wright, creator of "The Sims" and his ambitious vision for creating a simulation of the universe. The next chapter focuses on the people who might populate Wright's "model of everything," and the virtual communities developing in multi-player online worlds, while also examining the alternate online lives of the players.

The final two sections show how the industry stretches beyond entertainment. The chapter that lends its title to the book, "Smartbomb" takes us to the ominous world of the U.S. Army and the way in which videogames are used to train and recruit the warrior of the future, a type not too far away from Orson Scot Card's Ender. The last section illustrates potential gaming technology for the future. While chronicling the very public launch of the Xbox console, the writers show how consoles with networking capabilities might integrate household technologies in a manner envisioned by the high-tech industry for the past 50 years.

By the time we meet CliffyB again, the man and the videogame industry he represents have a much spiffier suit on and some exciting prospects lined up. It is no secret that the videogame has arrived, but Smartbomb is valuable because it illuminates not only the sci-fi promises of alternate worlds and new forms of community but also the immediate impact of the new technologies in the fields of global politics and economics.

Heather Chaplin is a journalist who has written for many major publications, including the New York Times, Fortune and Salon. She lives in New York City. This is her first book.


Aaron Ruby began his career as a biophysics research assistant and has done graduate work in both philosophy and science. He has also written extensively about the videogame industry and has reviewed videogames for Entertainment Weekly. He lives in New York City. This is his first book.

Yiorgos Kakouris just finished a Journalism degree at NYU. He has tried to glamorize it by tagging Politics and Dramatic Literature to it.