Friday, September 23, 2016

A Brief History of Video Games by Richard Stanton

This apparently is part of a series -- from Robinson in the UK, home of the Mammoth Guides and other things, and Americanized by the fine Philadelphians of Running Press -- of brief histories and/or guides to various things, from James Bond to Walt Disney, from the Magna Carta to France. So there's a bit of a whiff of product here -- it was made to fill a slot in a publishing schedule, and chosen presumably because there would be an audience -- but that could describe many more books than most people like to think.

A Brief History of Video Games is a well-illustrated look at the development of electronic boxes that play games, from arcade to home and back again, starting with the cathode ray tube and going just about to the present day (it was published in 2015). It's inevitably a bit British-focused, but I found that entertaining -- the UK market was quirkily different from the US market for a long time (and may still be), so it told me a lot of things I didn't know or suspect. And Stanton covers Japan as much as the US, obviously -- those two countries have been the primary global drivers of that industry so far. (Who knows if that will continue -- there's a pretty important Polish studio now, with one of the best games of 2015, and both India and China have enough smart, connected people to strongly enter any market.)

Like many histories, it's most interesting in the early chapters, when Stanton can focus on personalities and big changes. Stanton also struggles to tell a massive world-wide story in a coherent way, so the last third of the book turns into thematic or studio-based chapters from the more chronological organization of the early chapters -- and the book turns into thumbnail vaguely critical sketches of important games for pages at a time near the end, as well. Again, that's inevitable when writing about a huge industry with so many consumer products -- and, as far as I can see, Stanton does cover everything important, and his opinions are all reasonable and backed by facts.

The design is a little quirky: the type takes up only about the top two-thirds of the page, with the bottom mostly being given over to illustrations. But those illos sometimes move up the page, and there's also a lot of white space -- I suspect to make this book seem a bit heftier than its actual word-count requires.

Most history books are for people who don't know a lot and want to learn more, but video games are not like most things. The audience for this book will in large part be as knowledgeable as Stanton -- well, will consider itself vastly more knowledgeable than Stanton -- and I'm sure some subset of them will grumble, because such people always grumble. But they will have to go out of their way to find things to grumble about, because this is an honest and even-handed book that covers pretty well a big and complicated industry in a short space.

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