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Book review: How to Play a Video Game

21 Feb 2012
FYI, this story is more than a year old

In the middle of last year, around five months ahead of the release of his book, Pippin Barr said that How to Play a Video Game was meant to ‘ease people into’ playing games.

If you're reading this review, chances are you don't need any easing: you're entrenched. Good for you. But where Barr's book really succeeds is as a key to your very world. When I was finished with How to Play a Video Game (a quick read – one sitting), what occurred to me is that this could be the book so many teenage boys have been waiting for. It's the book they can give to their mum that says, "This is what I am into. Now stop asking me if I want to get out and enjoy the sunshine.”

The author may not have meant anything so simple (or bleak) however. In fact, his argument is really that video games are a more accessible medium than people give them credit for; that they have things to teach us. And that they're fun. He covers a broad range of video game history, dropping references to his years of experience with various computers, consoles and individual games. He talks about them with real affection and wonder, and those years now make up part of his professional credentials, as he creates his own games and teaches at the IT University of Copenhagen.

Pacman and Donkey Kong rub shoulders with Red Dead's John Marston and Mass Effect's Commander Shepard. Barr uses these and many more to illustrate the form and function of video games – as we know them, as well as how we knew them. The march of technology and what that means for the industry is not lost, but where this book could have read as a warning, it's more like a welcome mat.

Barr is a great advocate for experimentation. Come on, he seems to be telling us, they won't bite. His everything-is-just-a-colourful-Fisher-Price-toy approach really lays out the basics, and his intent is pretty clear: How to Play a Video Game isn't a droll or merely catchy title. This is an atlas of new and strange countries. It's a manual. And while no two games are played the same way, as seasoned gamers will know, the title still manages to fit. Because this is big picture stuff. He uses phrases like ‘self-expression’ without irony.

A gameography is included; an index that lists the games Barr makes reference to. He also includes the publisher, developer and year of publication, which makes for a handy reference tool. To me, nothing spoke to the author's genuine desire to impart his love for games like the five books, movies and games he suggests people read, watch and play in order to get their feet wet. The games especially show diverse taste in genre as well as platform, plus a keen sense of what makes video games a unique medium.

This Wellington native clearly knows what he's talking about, and his objective look at a world many of us take so readily for granted ought to help plenty of head-scratchers take their first tentative clicks (or Wii Remote swoops). If you have someone in your life that might benefit from a no-obligation peek at what your hobby/obsession is all about, then think about How to Play a Video Game next time any celebration associated with gift-giving rolls around. Also, books are really easy to wrap.

Sam Prescott is a Wellington-based freelance writer who writes about video games for publications here and overseas. You can follow him on Twitter @samjprescott.

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