Since the arcade boom of the 1980s, there have been countless books about electronic gaming. The initial wave of these titles were quickie cash-ins aiming to tell Pac-Man jokes or give you tips on how to achieve a top score on Galaga. As the years wore on, these types of publications began to get more sophisticated by focusing on the cultural impact and importance of videogaming.
These days, the majority of videogame-based books are either novels based on best-sellers, strategy guides or intellectual treatises that are best left unread while you idle away the afternoon playing Donkey Kong instead. But the question remains: which of these books are worthwhile? Because fiction based on games could merit a list of its own, today Topless Robot will be taking a look at the seven best non-fiction books about gaming. Due to the sheer volume of titles available, a few favorites are bound to have been left off this list, so be sure to mention your picks in the comments. Now grab some quarters (or a console controller) and check out what books make your inner Pac-Man start to wocka-wocka-wocka.
7) Gamers: Writers, Artists & Programmers on the Pleasures of Pixels
Is playing Tetris better than having sex? Can you actually become addicted to video golf? What’s the dude who possesses the highest score ever on Journey: Escape really like? These are amongst the topics explored in Gamers: Writers, Artists & Programmers on the Pleasure of Pixels. Written by a diverse group to whom gaming is much more than just a time killer, this 2004 anthology from indie publisher Soft Skull Press explores the importance that firing up a Nintendo or spending time in an arcade have in our lives. The contributors range from the creator of Asteroids to neo-beat poets. From vastly different realms of experience all of these diverse strangers share the common bond of being irrevocably changed by electronic gaming. It’s impossible to come away from Gamers and not contemplate how time spent in front of consoles or at the arcade has impacted your own life. Apparently a quarter was more than just the price of admission to a Tapper session. It was also the cost of enlightenment.
6) Score! Beating the Top 16 Video Games
A decade before the Game Genie made cheating a breeze, the best way to enhance your gaming abilities was the glut of tip books that flooded the market during the early 1980s. Of the various titles that were available, this guide from Ken Uston (a writer and notorious blackjack player whose card-counting skills raised the ire of casinos the world over) was the best of the bunch because it focused on the 16 most popular games at the time — including Donkey Kong and Space Invaders. That combined with his no-nonsense writing style, a commitment to providing obsessively detailed information about his subject matter and taking the time to discuss the finer points of arcade etiquette make this a work that is as classy as it is useful. True, this book was rendered almost immediately obsolete with the release of subsequent era-defining games. With the exception of serving as a Bible for retrogamers too lazy to Google strategies, Score!‘s time has passed.That bums me out too.
5) Pac-Man: The Ultimate Key to Winning
Even though hints on winning at Pac-Man were featured in the previous entry, this book is equally worth mentioning because it does feature easy-to-follow tips that will help anyone improve their game or perhaps even reach the fabled 256th level. (Even to vidiots lacking hand-eye coordination like myself). Here you’ll find detailed maps of game screens, info on ghost migration patterns, and other tactics that will have you strutting around like a low-rent Billy Mitchell. Truth be told, the main reason this book is on there is the jaw drop author’s bio that reads as follows: “John D. Mulliken is twenty-three. He is a Master Pac-Man player. Everytime he enters a store or arcade to play Pac-Man he exits a legend. He leaves with the reputation as the man to beat. They talk about his score and dream about beating it.” FUCK YES! To repeat, not only are they talking about his score but actually so freaked out about it that it haunts their dreams. Surely, this must be one of the symptoms of Pac-Man Fever.
4) High Score!: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games
Maybe you want to learn about the history of game companies like Sierra, Coleco or Atari or see beautiful screenshots from NES favorites. Perhaps you are interested in the secret dramas and forgotten triumphs of publishers like Fairchild and Broderbund. This illustration-rich book serves as a thrilling Cliff’s Notes to the videogame industry that provides a rundown of all the players and the best games ever released. And yes, it features sexy Lara Croft pictures too for those who get off on looking at pixelated British explorers. Hey, no judgment!
3) More Pac-Mania!
Some context for you youngsters in the audience. Back in the much-missed era that is the early 1980s, Pac-Man became so popular that he spawned everything from bedsheets to a silly board game (all of which a young Chris Cummins enjoyed). Wacky ancillary products were commonplace, including several books that consisted of nothing but Pac-Man jokes. Naturally things got a bit out of hand:
Puns and suicide jokes? That’s a license to print money as far as I’m concerned.
2) Arcade Fever
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the arcade boom was just how bizarre many videogames were in concept and/or title.(Pooyan, anyone?) Realizing that the games of his youth were just as strange as they were wonderful, pop culture writer John Sellers — who also penned the college rock valentine Perfect from Now On — released this snark-heavy book in 2001. Tremendously funny and meticulously researched, it may be the only place where you can read about the game show Starcade and find out about what “Pac-Man Fever” hitmakers Buckner and Garcia are up to in the 21st century. There’s even a helpful arcade lexicon spanning from “arcade” to “wocka-wocka-wocka.” It’s easily the most irreverent book about the classic gaming experience, and narrowly missed earning the top slot on this list. That honor goes to…
1) Video Games
Before Lana Del Rey was even born came this gem from the writer of such indispensable tomes as The Monsters of Star Trek and Creatures From UFOs. Video Games is nothing more than an overview of the 1980s videogame craze aimed directly at the Scholastic Book Fair set. Yet like the best dog-earred schoolyard books of yesteryear it is a tightrope walk between
entertainment and education. Beginning with a look at how games work, it features a glimpse at oddities like the Pac-Man rip-off K.C. Munchkin and Monkeyshines — a game whose ad campaign promised both computerized monkeys and unlimited action. I’m sold. Better than these obscure offerings are the probing questions that the book asks. (“Will Pac-Man join the ranks of the immortal superstars of our time, like Snoopy or Miss Piggy?”) The cover proudly proclaims that the book is “illustrated with photographs,” which seems like an odd thing to boast about until you see gems like this inside:
You can almost smell the Quaaludes, can’t you? Video Games is a campy time capsule of 1982 and the electronic wonders that it offered. We may not be able to go back there, but with fun books like this one we can at least revisit a time when the world first fell for videogames.