Book review: "This Gaming Life" by Jim Rossignol

The recently released Pew Report Teens, Video Games and Civics has revived the question about whether video games can be a worthwhile activity. Another recent entry in this debate is Jim Rossignol's This Gaming Life, a survey of computer gaming culture and a chronicle of its role in the author's life.

This Gaming Life aspires to be several books: as the title suggests, it's an examination of the effects of games – specifically, computer games – on their players; its subtitle, “Travels in Three Cities,” points to its identity as a travel narrative. Finally, This Gaming Life is an autobiography about Rossignol's own experiences with gaming.

Rossignol begins with the statement “Video games changed my life,” which gives you a sense of his attitude towards them. At the beginning of the book he explains how, while employed as a reporter for a business newspaper, he became obsessed with the multiplayer combat game Quake. As he became more and more accomplished at the game, becoming more active in its online culture, Rossignol found his satisfaction with his day job steadily waning. When he was finally fired his reaction was one of “sudden freedom: now there was nothing between me and pure indulgence. I could concentrate on the [Quake] team seven days a week, without interruption.”

Eventually able to parlay his gaming experience into a job writing about the computer game industry, Rossignol turns his focus to others in similar straits. For how many other people, he asks, is computer gaming a positive and even life-changing activity? “Many of the gamers I've met,” he explains, “have been involved directly in the games industry, but others are simply people for whom gaming is a continuous presence in their lives. Games have catalyzed major changes for some of these people, as they did for me. But they usually change us in subtler ways. These subtler effects have only begun to be mapped by researchers, commentators, and gamers. Sometimes the effects seem to be negative: people so distracted that they lose sight of their responsibilities – ignoring jobs, families, and everyday lives. Other times they are positive – stimulating intellectual and personal growth or awakening unrealized ambitions in creative minds.”

Though Rossignol tries to be even-handed, considering the negative aspects of gaming as well as the positive, the book is in large part a defence of computer games and gaming as an activity. Later, he makes this more explicit, arguing that computer games provide a learning experience not found in other arenas: “The intellectual value of video games… has to do with the fact that they aren't explicit about their rules. Unlike a traditional game, such as chess, where the rules are fully spelled out in advance, you have to uncover the rules of individual video games as you go along. Most computer games are non-explicit ‘fuzzy' experiences.”

As well, Rossignol's defence of computer games goes beyond looking at their educational value – something already put forward by writers such as James Paul Gee – and argues that they possess a more existential value as well: “In a world where so many of us feel bored and alienated from our jobs,” he asks, “could games provide a special kind of amusement, one that instantly dissolves the memory of office-bound tedium?”

While the book's autobiographical side meshes nicely with Rossignol's broader arguments about the value of games, its subtitle – “Travels in Three Cities” – is mostly a conceit, similar to that found in nearly all recent pop-academic books, intended to provide some grounding and physical detail to what is essentially a series of essays and interviews. The “London” section, for instance, is really just a window on Rossignol's own life and experience, while in the “Reykjavik” chapters – in which the city plays host to a conference of players of the multiplayer game EVE Online – the offline setting is much less important than the game's fantastically (and fanatically) detailed virtual universe. The exception, though, is the section on Seoul, where Rossignol provides fascinating details on the differences between North American and East Asian gaming culture. Take, for instance, this description of a televised computer game match: “To a fanfare of Asian nu metal and the sound of a thousand screaming fans, a young Korean man entered a dazzling arena. Like an American wrestler at the heart of a glitter-glazed Royal Rumble, he strode down a ramp toward the stage. Adorned in what appeared to be a space suit and a large white cape, he stepped out to meet his opponent on the stadium's ziggurat focus. Amid a blaze of flashbulbs and indoor fireworks, he clambered up the steps, to be exalted by the thronging crowd.”

The differences between American and Korean gaming cultures clearly fascinate Rossignol, and it is in this section that his writing is most alive and insightful. Particularly interesting is his explanation of the differences between how Americans and Koreans play differently, in terms of the physical environment: “While Western gamers stay at home to play on their expensive Japanese consoles, the Koreans go out in search of a seat in a ‘PC Baang,' one of their dedicated PC gaming cafes. A rented PC, a game of multiplayer kart racing, and perhaps a sly cigarette in the smoking section – these were the main ingredients for a typical evening. The combination has inspired a vibrant, youthful culture, where people go gaming to meet potential partners and where popular bangs have double-PC ‘love seats,' allowing partners to sit close and play side by side, brushing fingertips as they reach for the conveniently placed drink holder.”

Although somewhat scattered in its focus, this book includes a great deal of thought-provoking material. For those unfamiliar with computer gaming culture, not to mention those sceptical of games as a subject of serious study, this book will be a valuable read. Rossignol's defence of games as part of a life well-lived may not convince every reader, but it will certainly raise questions that deserve to be answered.