Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution
eather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby
“A lot of people say, who is your competition? Sony or Nintendo?” points out a game developer. “I’m like, ‘It’s Friends, it’s Steven Spielberg.’ We’re competing for leisure time here.” That’s the new lay of the land in the world of video games, and Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby’s Smartbomb attempts to provide an encapsulation of the industry at the cusp of mainstream saturation. Their sojourns include interviews with game pioneers such as Nolan Bushnell (Pong) and Shigeru Miyamoto (Donkey Kong); an invite to a drunken, glitzy industry fair where pasty programmers awkwardly try out their new rock star-sized regard; a visit to a LAN tournament in Dallas (the city known among gamers, by virtue of Doom’s Lone Star pedigree, as “the ‘first-person shooter’ capital of the world”—how’d that look on a license plate?); and interviews with current game auteurs such as Will Wright, creator of the Sims and now a new evolution-based game where you begin as a unicellular organism and progress to perfecting interstellar flight.
Smartbomb is unsure whether it wants to be a thumbnail history of the medium and the men (and they are all men) who midwifed video games from tech curiosity to entertainment behemoth, or a portrait of the industry’s current movers and shakers now riding the money and tech explosion. The quality of the prose wavers between readable and schlocky, sometimes shifting dramatically between chapters. Maybe all of the book’s bipolar symptoms can be explained away by the dual authorship. It’s never made clear how the duties were split, or whose vision prevailed, but someone obviously did more heavy lifting.
The book’s latter half, however, with chapters culled from the writers’ original interviews, prove the most interesting, especially with the droll and keen Will Wright, an innovator who’s gripped what’s different and possible with games in a quantum way and who may have a clearer handle on the video game’s essential nature than anyone else. Chaplin and Ruby should have lasered their focus onto more interviews and skipped the history lesson (there are lots of other books for that), but they do manage to capture the shivery glee of each creator in turn experiencing “a crystalline moment in time when he was so good at simply being himself that the world around him exploded in excitement.” Who doesn’t want that?