After the invention of moving pictures in the late 19th century, it took less than a decade for films to move from arcade amusement to communal ritual, complete with philosophical discourse on the dawn of a new medium. But the birth of interactive immersive entertainment—video games—in the late 20th century didn't catalyze a similar reaction. Even after games migrated from the arcade to practically every suburban home, few saw them as the transforming cultural force that the movies were a century earlier.
Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby aim to correct the oversight with their absorbing cultural history Smartbomb. Their narrative positions videogames as the first new medium since film—endlessly malleable models that players manipulate, rather than information they absorb. Starting with the watershed years of the early '00s, when game-development and electronic-entertainment conferences first attracted press coverage, Smartbomb takes a scattershot, anecdotal approach to gaming's creeping conquest of popular culture. The authors give Pong and Adventure their due, and worship at the altar of Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, but their real interests lie in the open-ended virtual worlds that sprung from role-playing games in the early '90s.
Sims creator Will Wright is Smartbomb's central figure, an oddball genius who builds models of human interaction because he can't fathom the real thing. The book climaxes with his profile, then drifts into the inevitable letdown of Star Wars Galaxies, the disaster that was supposed to be the greatest massively multiplayer online game of all time. When Microsoft releases the Xbox in the final chapter, it feels like the Empire has conquered the Republic; marketing and synergy have replaced the frontier's infinite possibility.
But there are rebels on Tatooine. In an epilogue, Chaplin and Ruby return to Wright's new project, SimEverything (since renamed Spore). Through the eyes of awed attendees at a 2005 conference, readers experience the mind-expanding rush of seeing civilization emerge from a single-celled organism, then scaling back to see that that vast empire as only a blip in a larger galaxy. Videogames have unlimited evolutionary potential, the authors believe, and on the cusp of its Great Awakening, this new medium couldn't have better evangelists.