As someone who studied literature my position in life is to a) be unemployable except in very specific fields b) have, at all times, fragments of approximately three unfinished novels that I totally will finish one day, I just need the time and c) take up elbow room on public transport because I’m holding a book. Because people know that one area of my interests is ‘games and general geeky ephemera of the sort that’s hard to explain to one’s grandparents’ and another is ‘reading stuff’ I got a lot of recommendations from people I trust and respect to read Ready Player One because it is both a book that can be read and is about games and nerd stuff. Having indeed read it I have come to the conclusion that I really do not like Ready Player One because
I’m a joyless harpy I don’t think it’s very good at all, and have gained a reputation amongst my friends as being like the Beetlejuice of Ready Player One: if you mention it three times on Facebook I’ll appear, probably terribly dressed, to get angry about lazy writing and casual transmisogyny in your menchies. The podcast I Don’t Even Own a Television compared Ready Player One to a lab test where rats will continually press buttons to stimulate their pleasure sensors rather than get food, until they die.
But with the release of the movie version (which I’m sure will be good because Spielberg is good at making films) I’m instead going to leverage the Google uptick I assume it’s getting and move forward in a spirit of positivity and opportunity, because I’m a big fan of books and think everyone should be reading more of them all the time. And it turns out that, holy shit, there are loads of books about games! So whether or not you liked Ready Player One, maybe you should try reading one, some, any of these and stuff new ideas into your brain-head via your eye-holes.
Non-fiction books about games
There are a lot of these, mostly about the development of big games or how games can change the world, because they’re a wildly successful medium but everyone is still figuring out how and why and what to do now we’re in this situation. Masters of Doom, which is about, uh, Doom, and id Software’s subsequent influence on the industry, is a popular one from way back in 2003. More recently there’s been a series of really cool big ol’ Zelda tomes (The Legend of Zelda Encyclopedia, Arts and Artifacts and Hyrule Historia) and a company called Third Editions has been putting out volumes that look into individual games and big franchises – the latest is BioShock: From Rapture to Columbia, and it gives a good overview of the plots and the prevailing themes as well as development decisions, despite it constantly assuming the theoretical player is male in the text (and being absent one (1) rant about Ayn Rand being wildly hypocritical and objectivism being a crock of balls, which I would definitely have put in there had I been involved in any way at all).
Elsewhere you can find a bunch of books about gaming as a cultural influence that’ll make you way more interesting to talk to at parties. 10 Things Video Games Can Teach Us (About Life, Philosophy and Everything) was co-authored by Jordan Erica Webber and Daniel Griliopoulos (I have previously worked with the former at events and games panels and I have eaten baked goods she has made, for full disclosure) and is a really interesting and accessible dive into how philosophy has been used in games and what games can teach us about philosophical theory, swerving into topics including the soul, transhumanism and personal identity and, yes, objectivism as leveraged in BioShock. It’s the sort of book you can give your parents to explain why games aren’t a childish thing to enjoy.
Jane McGonigal, who worked on the I Love Bees alternate reality game promoting Halo 2, wrote a book in 2011 called Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, which discusses how using a kind of gaming model applied things in real life can solve basically any problem the world has. It’s a pretty big theory to put forwards and you may not be entirely convinced, but it’s a nice one to read if you’re a bit snowed under by everyone saying that games cause gun violence at the moment.
As understanding of and interest in games increases, so too does the criticism applied to them, and there are loads of these books to check out. Simon Parkin, a UK games journo who broke out of specialism and into the mainiest mainstream of writing for The New Yorker, wrote Death by Video Game in 2015, which delves into different obsessive ways of playing games. Google a topic about video games and the chances are a dude in his 30s who used to do freelance for Gamasutra has been commissioned to write a whole book about it.
Fiction books inspired by games
As a category these books aren’t yet as prolific as the others, firstly because video games already tell a story so it’s a weird fish hook to use another medium that tells a story to tell a story about a medium that already tells stories without needing further intervention, and secondly because when writers who don’t really understand tech stuff write about tech stuff it’s often hilariously bad. But a lot of the time games can be part of the frame for or context of a book in a cool way.
Only You Can Save Mankind is an oldie but a goody, by the late, great Terry Pratchett. Only You Can Save Mankind is technically aimed at children or possibly tweens but I feel it can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. It was first published in 1992 and follows a 12 year old boy who suddenly finds that the alien enemies in his video game are in fact alive and aware and would very much like to not be killed by the human players hunting them. After he accepts their surrender the aliens, the ScreeWee, disappear from everyone’s copies of the game as their entire fleet begins to trek to their home planet, Johnny leading them. The story also weaves into Johnny’s real life. His parents are arguing, referred to in the text as Trying Times, and the Gulf War and its missiles are on the news each night. Johnny and his friends’ analysis of these events provide interesting parallels to the events happening in the game. It’s also the first in a series (called The Johnny Maxwell Trilogy) so if you like it then you immediately have two more books to enjoy! And Terry Pratchett wrote loads of other great books so now you can read those as well!
If you’re older than approximately 12 then consider A Boy Made of Blocks by former Guardian games editor Keith Stuart (I never actually worked for Keith but I was on some Guardian live games panels and he’s probably got a round in that included me on one occasion, for full disclosure). You’ve probably already heard of it because it was huge and was on the Richard and Judy Book Club and everything. It’s about a father struggling to bond with his young autistic son, and finally being able to through playing Minecraft, and is in part based on Keith’s real life experiences with his own son. It was a hard one for me to totally connect with because I don’t have children and I don’t seem to have yet located a biological clock (plus I sometimes have to approach empathy with a bit of a run up to get going) but I would think that if you’re approaching your mid 30s and have a kid but also like games you’re not only probably just coming out of a screening of Ready Player One, but you’re also extremely well placed to read A Boy Made of Blocks
The first in the Dahlia Moss series (for it is one), The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss, charts the titular heroine on her first case as an amateur detective, which is kicked off by the virtual theft of a cool weapon in an MMORPG. Dahlia herself is the kind of person that the lady who works part time with your mum would probably describe as quirky. Much of the text is shaped around her being witty, to the extent that you’ll find the whole book either hilarious or annoying, but the frame provided by MMORPGs is a fun one that allows for a bunch of interesting characters to pop up, as well as cosplay occurring. Dahlia Moss feels like it might be a young adult book, but I’m honestly never sure.
I have never spoken to the author of 100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed), a book that catalogues, in chronological order, a hundred fake games that might as well be real, but if I had I’d say that it’s probably a very funny book and almost counts as fictional non-fiction.
Fiction based on games
If none of any of that piques your interest then fear not. The chances are that your favourite game already has a bunch of supplemental stories orbiting it like small moons, from comics to novels to more comics. There are novelisations of Assassin’s Creed games, for example, but big RPG properties like Mass Effect and Dragon Age – because obviously I have read BioWare novelisations – have a load of books that expand the universe or fill in events between games. Asunder, for example, is set after the events of Dragon Age II and tells a large chunk of the story of one of the party characters of Dragon Age Inquisition, Cole, from when he was trapped in a Templar tower as a kind of ghost. Later this year we’ll see the release of Hard in Hightown, a real life incarnation of an in-game book that has been written by actual game character Varric Tethras and definitely not BioWare writer Mary Kirby. For some games the novelisations might be the only way to fill those gaps in; Mass Effect: Andromeda isn’t getting a sequel any time soon so if you want to find out what happened to the Quarian Ark that information is going to come in the form of the printed word. There are novels expanding on HALO, Deus Ex and even Star Wars Battlefront II. Because they want your money however they can get it.
But, get this, books are way cheaper than games! And if your budget is zero dollarydoos you can still read great fiction about your favourite games by exploring the mad, bad and dangerous to know world of fan fiction. Websites like Fanfiction.net and AO3 host literally hundreds of thousands of stories written by fans of stuff, and loads of them are about games, and loads of them are really good – and you can filter out the really porny ones (a lot of them are porny). There are even apocryphal stories of actual games writers contributing fanfiction under pseudonyms…