A few times now, people have asked me for recommendations of where to start reading when you want to read about videogames. I don't just mean in the online videogame journalism/criticism sense (though here is my New Statesman post of recommendations if you are after that), but the kind of books you should read if you are interested in really comprehending how players engage with videogames, and if you want to start building a vocabulary to start doing your own (probably academic) writing about videogames. I went to reply to one such email today, and instead I thought I'd just make a public post so that when people ask me for recommendations, I can just point them here. This is The Official What Brendan Recommends You Read About Videogames If You Want To Write About Videogames list.
That said, this isn't every book worth reading about videogames. They probably aren't even the best ones. They are just what I think are an excellent place to start. Needless to say, I'm coming at this from a videogame critic slant, and few of these books will be useful for you if you are looking to get better at videogame development. I'll happily accept more recommendations (and rebuttals of my recommendations) in the comments.
Hamlet on the Holodeck - Janet H. Murray (1997)
The first few books I'm going to recommend are all a part of that whole (largely terrible but necessary) narratology/ludology debate (or un-debate) that happened in the early 2000s. The whole are-games-stories debate was fairly meaningless, but it provided some crucial groundwork (albeit in a slightly messy way) for game studies to distinguish itself. Murray's seminal book pre-dates that debate somewhat, but it still often gets lumped in as part of All That.
While Hamlet on the Holodeck spends less time talking about videogames directly than it does talking about hypertext and other digital media, it still has many ideas that are highly applicable today if you want to look at videogames as texts that often deploy narrative in some way. Of particular interest, I think, is Murray's thoughts on performance and enactment. She also has one of the only definitions of 'immersion' that doesn't make me want to vomit. Until recently I still defended the word 'immersion' largely thanks to Murray's definition of it (but I've since decided it is a lost cause).
As long as you keep in mind when it came out, Hamlet on the Holodeck is an excellent place to start thinking about these things in a really preliminary kind of way.
First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game - Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan (2004)
First Person is a collection of essays from a variety of perspectives that came out in the midst of those early, heady years of game studies. It's authors come from both sides of the debate and represent a rather wide range of (sometimes polemic) views on videogames. It was one of the first academic books about videogames I ever read and while only a few of the essays are still useful for me going forward, the entire book was useful as an insight into the discussions that had already happened before I came along, and I think that is pretty valuable.
Of particular interest is Henry Jenkin's oft-cited article about game design as narrative architecture, where he tries to find a compromise in the debate by looking at how games deploy narrative in uniquely 'game' ways. He outlines four different types of narrative that appear in games. They're all very interesting, but I'd argue he makes the mistake of setting them up as either/or narrative types, when I would argue every videogame narrative is a combination of all four. Either way, it is interesting stuff.
Half-Real - Jesper Juul (2005)
Half-Real is another attempt to find a middle ground in the narrative/ludology debate, this time coming from the the ludology side. In many ways, Half-Real is something of a response to Jenkins's article in First Person. Here, Juul tries to sidestep around the game/story binary by instead exploring games as a relationship of rules and fiction. It's a really constructive way out of the deadlock, but ultimately Juul just ends up setting up another dichotomy by saying rules are 'more essential' than fiction instead of focusing on how the two are intertwined. Still, as long as you approach it with a critical eye, I think it can be a good place to start. It was certainly formative in how I think about videogames—or, at least, my reaction against some of Juul's ideas was.
If you do read this one, I would highly recommend following it up with the third chapter of Jason Wilson's doctoral thesis, "Gameplay and the Aesthetics of Intimacy" (pdf). Wilson provides an excellent critique of Half-Real as well one of the better summaries of that entire debate that I've read. I actually recommend the entire thesis, actually, if you want a bit of a primer in nearly every discussion that happened in game studies in the early 2000s.
Game Feel - Steve Swink (2008)
Okay. Let's get away from that whole naratology/ludology debate. I feel a bit of myself die every time I write one of those 'ology' words. Game Feel is ostensibly written for game designers, but I think it is just as insightful and useful for critics. Game Feel tries to get at that kinaesthetic, bodily, corporeal language that games tap into. More than the intellectual understanding of systems, part of the pleasure of games is how they 'feel'. Game Feel is an excellent attempt to try to pin down and discuss this language. It looks at what it means when we describe the car in this game as feeling chunky or the avatar in that game as feeling floaty or the gun in this game feeling meaty. It cuts across a whole heap of debates to look at how audiovisual design, the materiality of the input device, and the player's own senses combine to create the feel of a game.
The only downside of Swink's work is this bizarre commitment to the idea that game feel is a thing some games 'have' and some games 'don't have'. He wastes pages forwarding methods to tell which games do and don't have game feel, when instead he should simply be looking at all the different ways games do feel. His argument is that only games with some kind of real-time control have proper game-feel. My issue with this is that every game has some level of real-time control, even turn-based strategy games. Even Final Fantasy Tactics feels a certain way kinaesthetically. I've been told that Swink apparently regrets making this distinction in the book, but I don't have any references for that.
But regardless of this one draw back, the model Swink builds is a really compelling step forward if you are looking for a vocabulary to talk about the pleasures players get out of their engagement with specific games.
Replay - Tristan Donovan (2010)
Replay is a commendable attempt to map videogame history. It's narrative might be too linear and tidy for some, but it is a gold mine for those that don't have much knowledge for what videogames were doing in the early days beyond the dominant stories of Pong and Space Invaders. Donovan tries his best to map out an international history and not just an America-centric one, looking at phenomena such as JRPGs and Pokémon as well as the Spanish and Australian development scenes. As detailed as it is easy to read. Though, like any reading of history, it is always worth remembering that there will always be stories that are left out.
Extra Lives - Tom Bissell (2010)
Extra Lives is perhaps less useful if you are looking for academic books to help form a way of thinking and talking about videogames, but I still think Bissell's writing style is really interesting and worthy of a look. Extra Lives is largely videogame criticism written for a non-gaming audience (it's subtitle is 'Why Videogames Matter'), and as such many videogame critics and players find it either too simplistic or too focused on Bissell's own confessional stories and flourishes. For me, I think it is interesting to see the New Games Journalism taken to the conclusion of one of its many possible roads. Bissell uses the subjective approach to describe what specific games mean to him in an effort to help those that don't play games understand why they matter. Interspersed with his personal stories are truly insightful anecdotes about the games he is playing.
Perhaps my biggest issue with Bissell's writing, personally, is that to get the attention of the videogame skeptic he plays up this kind of "Look, I know this is stupid but bear with me"tone that can come across as very patronising (and has occasionally landed him in hot water). But those aside, Extra Lives is an enjoyable read by a skilled videogame critic taking up the challenge of conveying why these things matter to a wider audience.
Videogame, Player, Text - Barry Atkins and Tanya Kryzwinska (2007)
Another academic book, Videogame, Player, Text, is a series of analytical essays, each looking at a particular game from a variety of methodological perspectives. It's the best compilation I've read of the kind of close reading of specific games that I love. What I like best about this anthology, I think, is the sheer variety of methodologies that the authors experiment with. The book puts forward no one way to analyse these games; instead, each writer approaches the game they are looking for in their own unique way. It's almost as interesting to read to see how each writer approaches their topic as it is for the insights they make.
Particularly memorable, for me, are Helen Kennedy's "Female Quake Players and the Politics of Identity", Bob Rehak's "Of Eye Candy and Id: The Terrors and Pleasures of Doom 3", Barry Atkin's "Killing Time: Time Past, Time Present and Time Future in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time", and David Surman's "Pleasure, Spectacle and Reward in Capcom's Street Fighter series".
On Criticism - Noël Carroll
Okay, this one isn't really about videogames at all. I only read On Criticism a couple of months ago, and it gave me a lot to think about in terms of what my role is as a videogame critic. I've known for a while now that what I do is 'criticism' and what I want to continue to do is 'criticism', but I had no vocabulary to say what, exactly, criticism is or why it matters. So I read On Criticism with the hope of finding that vocabulary for what it is I am trying to do and to help me form a kind of personal mission statement for what the point of doing that should be.
While On Criticism is talking about criticism generally and doesn't once mentions videogames, anyone with an interest in being a videogame critic but can't say what criticism is or does should read this book, I think. If you just want books to help you better understand how to talk about videogames for other reasons, then you can probably ignore this.
I don't agree with everything Carroll says in his book. In particular, his views on the significance of the artist's intentions rub me the wrong way a bit. Though, I think by the end of the book I see the point he was making and I might even agree with it, I think he overstates the significance of intentionality while he tries to explain why it is significant at all. He also has some views on objectivity I'm not sure I agree with, but they are well-argued views that provided a healthy challenge to my own views, so that was good.
Rise of the Videogame Zinesters - Anna Anthropy (2012)
Other's have already described Anthropy's excellent book far better than I could do it justice here. Rise of the Videogame Zinester is important for a vast range of reasons, but by far its most significant contribution for me is the way it effortlessly decouples the artistic quality of games with technological advancement or programming competency. For decades, we've judged videogames primarily as technological objects—the more advanced and complicated the technology, the better a game is. She succinctly shows how this narrative can't help but privilege those games created by the most privileged sections of society (straight white guys who can afford a computer science education), how it can't help but claim that subset of games as inherently 'better'.
Anthropy's book instead finds new ways to judge the quality of a single game, new qualities that greatly open the playing field and allows a far vaster array of people and experiences onto the playing field of this artform we call videogames.
I think the single greatest lesson I took out of Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is the realisation (that should've been super obvious, in hindsight) that we don't need to make games for a more diverse range of people; we need a more diverse range of people making games. Or, perhaps, we need to acknowledge that diverse range of people who are already making games but who are marginalised by the hegemonic idea of 'good' videogames as technologically advanced and complex.
This should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to think about and produce knowledge about videogames in a serious way. Anthropy's writing is accessible and a pleasure to read, but her ideas hit you like an uppercut to the brain and can't help but to then influence everything you write about videogames from then on.
So those are the books I would start with if you want to start thinking about videogames. As I said at the start of the post, these are not all the books about videogames worth reading and some of them are not even the best ones. They are just good ones to get started on, I think.