Monday, January 30, 2006

Smartbomb


Last month, authors Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby did me the distinct pleasure of letting me interview them about their fantastic new book "Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution." The article finally saw print last Sunday, which means I can now post it to the blog for your enjoyment. Hopefully it will spur you to pick up a copy of the book, which is really one of the best looks at the video game industry I've read in a long time.

My sincere thanks to Heather and Aaron for their time.

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It all started when Aaron Ruby did the unthinkable.

He bought a PlayStation 2.

A former gamer turned graduate student, Ruby was interested in the new, next-generation games he saw his fellow students playing and decided to sneak a console into the home he shared with his new wife, Heather Chaplin.

Chaplin was less than amused. In fact, she had not been exposed to video games as a child, and her reaction was closer to horror.

But as Ruby slowly exposed Chaplin to more games and the gaming culture, she be­came intrigued. A business re­porter who had written for The New York Times and Fortune, Chaplin realized the subject was a rich and un­mined topic.

That’s when the couple came up with a proposal: Why not work together on a book about games, an unobjective look at the hobby and the peo­ple who help shape it?

Ruby and Chaplin spent the next four years attending con­ferences, hobnobbing with folks like Will Wright, creator of "The Sims," and exploring the niches and offshoots that make up the video game world.

The end result, "Smart­bomb," is an engaging, fasci­nating look at the current state of the video game indus­try. "The Quest for Art, Enter­tainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution" looks at how quickly the gaming culture has grown and where it might be headed.

Rather than focus on tech­nobabble or try to provide an all-inclusive history (though some back story is included), "Smartbomb" gives us glimpses into personalities be­hind games like "Doom" and "Star Wars Galaxies"

It follows "Unreal" creator CliffyB as he nervously at­tends one E3 conference after another. It talks to "Sims" mastermind Wright as he talks about his vision for the ultimate video game. It looks at how the military is using games to train its troops. And it takes a look at the world of MMORPGs like "Galaxies" and how friendships and even entire communities are creat­ed through these virtual worlds.

In researching the book, Ruby and Chaplin were sur­prised at how willing to talk most developers were.

"Most game designers were really open," Chaplin said during a recent phone inter­view. "You didn’t have to go through people’s PR."

"We really wanted to get certain people come hell or high water," Ruby added.

The writing chores were di­vided evenly between the couple. Ruby talked to gamers and handled some of the more technical discussions while Chaplin talked to people like Wright and Id Software founder John Carmack.

The pair, who live in Brook­lyn, N.Y., were married six months before they started the book, and working on it together caused a bit of mari­tal strife at times. There was a lot of "throwing furniture around at each other," accord­ing to Chaplin.

The smashed chairs were worth it, though, because the book provides a stunning look at just how popular and influ­ential the video game industry has become, to the point where the military courts de­velopers and some creators are seen taking on celebrity roles.

"I was taken off-guard by the magnitude of the indus­try," Chaplain said. "How cor­porate it had become so quickly. It has gone corporate faster than any other medium."

Chaplin also was surprised at the intelligence of the game community.

"I was not expecting to find games creative or intelligent. These [developers] really are the greatest minds of our generation," she said.

To some, "Smartbomb" will disturb and confirm the fears of those who see video games as a tool of Satan. Others will regard it as confirmation that their favorite hobby is more than just a time-waster.

Such viewpoints are not be surprising to Ruby and Chap­lin, who say their main goal was to recognize that the ex­perience you have with a game is real, authentic and equal to that you have with a book or movie.

The pair have created a blog at smartbomb.us and have other books planned, including a guide for parents on how to look at and evalu­ate games.

Plus, there’s all that materi­al that didn’t make it into "Smartbomb"

"There’s an entire cabinet of stories that never made it into the book," Ruby said.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

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