For a lot of gamers, myself included, playing games isn’t enough, we want to know more about them and where they come from. We’re at a point in gaming where there’s no shortage of video game books that deal with the history of the industry. Fortunately, a lot of them are well-written page turners, but there’s also quite a few that are little more than Wikipedia-esque info dumps dressed up as a novel.
The books listed here run the gamut – from books that cover specific parts of video game history, right through to those wanting to dive deeper into the nuances of how this industry has changed over the years. No matter where you start though, I can assure you that each of these books is worth your time and money.
AN EASY READ THAT EVERY GAMER (PARTICULARLY SHOOTER FANS) SHOULD PICK UP
Masters of Doom by David Kushner
Almost 14 years old now, Masters of Doom is an absolute must-read for fans of the first-person shooter genre. David Kushner weaves an expertly researched story that follows the brash John Romero and the pragmatic John Carmack as they break new ground with their four biggest hits – Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake.
The meat of the book focuses on the formation of id Software and the creation of Doom – the genre defining shooter that spawned countless clones and even more concerned parents and teachers.
While there were books about video games before Masters of Doom, none were written in quite the same style or so laser focused on one subject. Kushner expertly captures the rise of the two Johns as they redefine gaming, and their inevitable break-up as their clashes grow more and more heated. Nobody comes across as a saint either, and it’s clear that Kushner had the good sense to show these two people as talented, yet flawed individuals, instead of untouchable geniuses.
It’s a fairly light read compare to some of the others on this list, but that only serves to make it even more accessible. If you’re looking for a place to start when it comes to historical video game non-fiction, Masters of Doom is a fantastic place to start.
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AN ENGAGING AND IN-DEPTH TALE OF THE 16-BIT CONSOLE WARS IN THE 90S
Console Wars by Blake J. Harris
After finishing Console Wars, I could have sworn author Blake J. Harris wrote it just for me. Chronicling the battle between Sega and Nintendo in the 90s, the book is less concerned about the games and hardware of the era and more focused on the triumphs and the drama that went on behind the scenes.
At the center of the story is Tom Kalinske, a man who spent most of his career in the toy industry reinvigorating established brands like Barbie and Hot Wheels. Coming on the scene shortly after the launch of the Genesis, Kalinske is tasked with finding a way for Sega to get a foothold in a video game market dominated by Nintendo.
It’s an underdog tale that covers some familiar ground but also uncovers new details about the console war that defined a generation. Through countless interviews, Harris crafts an engaging narrative filled with interesting side stories, such as the train wreck that was the Super Mario Bros movie and creation of some of Sega’s most iconic commercials. Other sections, like the stories about Sony and their on-again-off-again relationship with both Sega and Nintendo, are truly eye-opening.
The real strength of Console Wars is that it never gets bogged down by subjects only gamers would care about. While I’d loved to know more about the development of the Sega’s doomed 32X add-on, I understand why a lot more pages were given to the troubled relationship between Sega of Japan and Sega of America. That’s Harris’s greatest strength – knowing what to leave in, what to cut out.
Overall, I cannot recommend this book enough. It’s a fantastic read for gamers and non-gamers alike, and even if you think you know the full story I guarantee this book with giving you at least a few surprises.
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A WELL RESEARCHED TOME ABOUT HOW GAMING STARTED
The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent
Condensing the history of video games into one book is no easy task, yet somehow author Steven L. Kent pulls it off in The Ultimate History of Video Games. There’s an incredible amount of detail in this book, so much so that it’s hard to believe anyone ever thought to take on this project was a good idea. What sets Ultimate History apart from the numerous other ‘history of’ books about gaming is the vast amount of first-hand accounts Kent was able to gather for his work.
He doesn’t shy away from conflicting accounts either, and there are numerous parts of the book that offer multiple perspectives of the same event. Thankfully, Kent also knows how to stay out of the story, and his authorial presence is very light. Yet by the same token, Kent knows how to make his point in as few words as possible.
The book was published in 2001, so as you can imagine the last 16 years of gaming are completely absent, but the timeless quality of the stories within make it a must own for video game history nerds.
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PC GAMING IN THE 80S, THE BIRTH OF THE MMO, AND HOW TO USE A TOILET IN SPACE
Explore/Create by Richard Garriott (with David Fisher)
Widely considered one of the greatest programmers of his time, Richard Garriott is best known to gamers for the Ultima series. Explore/Create is an autobiographical account of his life, both in video games and in search of adventure. From being trapped on the bottom of the ocean while exploring the Titanic to being just the sixth person ever to buy a ticket to the International Space Station, Garriott has led the ultimate geek life.
Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume some of you don’t know who Richard Garriott is – or his in-game alter-ego Lord British. If you’re a gamer of a certain age (like I am) then you already know him as the father of the modern MMORPG, but it’s hard to truly appreciate what that means until reading this book. Dealing with digital eco-systems, deaths of players in real-life, even just convincing publishers that MMOs were worth investing in were just some of the challenges he had to face over the years.
Personally, I found Garriott’s anecdotes about space and beyond a tad drawn out, but on the flipside, the sections about his life in video games to be incredibly fascinating. One of his best coming early in the book and involves a deranged fan breaking into his house to ‘complete a quest’, and ends with Garriott searching his office for one of his numerous guns. No spoilers, but he finds an Uzi.
What really shines through is how much of a genuine geek Garriott is. There’s no pretense here, and the book is not filled with chapters about how great his life has been – instead Garriott (and his co-author David Fisher) often turn the tables on the reader and task them with challenging themselves more. Not in an annoying self-help way, but in an earnest, sometimes corny, but always in a genuine way.
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