Anybody who's ever dropped their Virtual Boy in the bath will know the sad truth: there are some places gaming can't go.
That's where books come in. Aren't books great? They're cheap, plentiful, and you can take them practically anywhere, with no nasty consequences (unless the book in question is a Gutenberg bible, in which case you should probably be prepared to take a few rounds in the back from overzealous security guards). But why stop there? Why not combine activities, and ensure what you're reading is a book about videogames?
I've spent the last few months looking at a handful of the best titles available. This isn't an exhaustive list, and I haven't mentioned game tie-ins or strategy guides or, by and large, art books. But it does contain a couple of genuine classics, and will hopefully ensure that you never have to take Dostoevsky or Dom DeLillo on the morning commute. After all, you won't learn anything about Howard Lincoln's strategy for fighting Universal's Donkey Kong lawsuit reading Underworld, unless it's in the subtext somewhere.
Despite six thousand years of the written word, there is precisely one really good novel about videogames that I'm aware of. It's hardly surprising that it took so long. First, novels had to be invented. Then, videogames had to be invented. Finally, videogames had to become sufficiently respectable for novelists to consider writing about them.
Happily, DB Weiss couldn't be bothered to wait for that. His book's called Lucky Wander Boy, and concerns a twentysomething's search for a classic arcade game. Although the narrative starts off exploring blokeish Nick Hornby territory, it then takes a handful of unexpected left turns and ends up somewhere far more mysterious. It's funny, it's clever, it's got a lot to say about why Pac-Man's good and Double Dragon isn't, and last time I checked, it was out of print. For shame.
Swirling and multiplying in Lucky Wander Boy's wake, at least a couple of other fiction writers have tackled gaming. Complicity, by Iain Banks, features a made-up strategy game, but is still mainly about the hypocrisy of the left. Then there's JPod, a spry Douglas Coupland ramble about life working for a thinly-fictionalised EA studio, and Charlie Stross's Halting State is a very readable crime thriller partly set inside an MMO. All are readable, but none have Weiss's mixture of analysis and invention. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is also worth a read, assuming you can forgive the Metaverse for inspiring Second Life.
While he may not be writing novels about videogames, Martin Amis has at least written something about them. Invasion of the Space Invaders is desperately hard to get hold of, changing hands on the internet for the kind of money you might expect to spend on Radiant Silvergun. I had to claw my copy out of the broken, lifeless fingers of a fallen enemy, and if I ever had to get another, it would probably involve one of those movie montage treks across the planet, including a lengthy stumble over the crest of a blizzardy snowplane, and a fight with at least one wildebeest. Either that or eBay.
Invasion is a bit of a departure for Amis: it's not filled with nasty sex or the lives of disenchanted Londoners, yet it's still interesting to see what the author of Dead Babies thought of Defender (he liked it) and whether he reckoned Donkey Kong would stand the test of time (he didn't).
Steven L Kent's detailed and enthusiastic Ultimate History of Videogames is the obvious starting point here. Opening with the birth of Nintendo in the late 1800s, and zipping through pinball and the Atari years before sailing on to modern consoles, it's an excellent introduction to the broad sweep of history, even if it stops rather suddenly around the release of the Xbox. Throughout, it's written with a quiet charm, and has convincingly removed the need to slog through Leonard Herman's Phoenix: The Fall & Rise of Videogames, which was comprehensive, but hardly fun.
Also fitting into general history, just about, is Chris Kohler's lovable and sprawling Power-Up, which provides a highly personal tour of Japanese videogame culture. Kohler often lacks a game plan, and his book is a bit shapeless, but it's charming and smart, and the section on shopping in Akihabara will make you feel a little jealous, unless you're reading it in Akihabara, whilst shopping. Almost as wide-ranging, but a lot more serious, is Steven Poole's Trigger Happy. It's got a lot of interesting things to say about the aesthetics of games, all of which you can discover for yourself, as it's now available for free download from the author's website.
Taking a case studies approach, Smartbomb, by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby, offers a series of character snapshots including figures like Will Wright, and (with surprising tenderness) Cliff Bleszinski, alongside a chapter looking at a bunch of losers who play MMOs all day. (As an aside, the ultimate book on losers who play MMOs all day is Play Money, Julian Dibbel's account of a disastrous year spent gold-farming in Ultima Online. Dibbel's another Wired writer, and his book manages to be simultaneously touching, thoughtful, and frightening.)
There are also a range of books looking at the histories of specific companies. Game Over, David Sheff's history of Nintendo, is a classic, even though it's aging now, and many, such as Kohler, have questioned its overall accuracy. I wouldn't know, alas, but I can tell you that the chapter on Miyamoto's childhood is a brilliant read. Switching sides, Dean Takahashi has written two books about Microsoft's foray into games consoles: Opening the Xbox and The Xbox 360 Uncloaked. The first is the best, as Takahashi has a genuinely engaging protagonist in Seamus Blackley, while the second was published before the full extent of the 360's design problems were apparent. Judging by the author's recent journalism, such as his coverage of the Red Ring of Death scandal, when the next Xbox comes along, I wouldn't expect a third book to go with it, unless Takahashi's getting onto the Campus with the help of wire cutters, a stepladder, and night-vision goggles.
Elsewhere, taking opposite approaches, On the Edge is a tirelessly detailed, and brutally index-free look at the history of Commodore (short version: you wouldn't want to work there), while Rogue Leaders offers a lavish visual trudge through Lucasarts' story. Not only is the book beautifully illustrated, with plenty of concept artwork and a trippy lenticular cover, it's also big enough to use as a makeshift club when robbers break into your house to boost your copy of Invasion of the Space Invaders. Yet despite the lush presentation, as Rogue Leaders lurches into the mid-nineties, the company's quirky, interesting projects are increasingly relegated to sidebars and boxouts, while Jar-Jar and his ilk hijack the narrative. It's a fitting metaphor for the collapse of the company as a creative force.
But I've saved the best for last: Masters of Doom, a long, hard look at id by David Kushner. Due to the pacing of the story and the relentless focus on the characters involved, it's about as close to a videogame Godfather as you're likely to get, and as the book grinds towards its conclusion, each page brings another surprise offing of a beloved central player. It's fact, but it reads like fiction, and while nobody emerges looking wonderful, Johns Carmack and Romero are wonderfully opposed leads.
As videogame courses sprout up around the world, game theory books are likely to undergo an exponential leap. There are already a few worth looking at, and the best give you a sense of what developer themselves might be thinking even if you have zero interest in making games.
Starting with a textbook, but a very readable one, Andrew Rollings' and Ernest Adams' On Game Design is a detailed primer for the world of development. It manages to cram in insights into designing for almost every genre, and even includes a section on how to create a pitch document.
Postmortems from Game Developer, edited by Austin Grossman, is even better - a collection of magazine essays in which designers look back at their own titles and discuss what went right and wrong. With entries from Bungie and Lionhead, Postmortems contains first-hand deconstruction from some of the industry's biggest teams, and alongside a good deal of illustrations, it's the first place to go to hear creators speaking with real honesty about the games they've made.
Finally, A Theory of Fun, by former SOE luminary Raph Koster, is definitely worth looking at, although Koster's central premise - that the fun of games lies in learning - is disappointingly unsexy. After a slow start, however, and a faintly patronising tone, there's a lot of solid thinking going on from someone who has a real skill for taking games apart as well as making them.