Compared to other art forms, the video game industry is still in its infancy. The publishing industry is still catching up to the medium’s rapid rise. While there aren’t as many books about games as there are about film and literature, there is definitely a growing canon of fascinating books about gaming and its history.
In no particular order, here are 15 of the very best books about games, touching upon a wide variety of subjects and games that influenced us to gravitate toward this interactive creative outlet.
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Spelunky by Derek Yu
From game-centric publisher Boss Fight Books, Spelunky by Derek Yu details the development of his rogue-like platformer, now regarded as one of the greatest indie games of all time. Yu’s autobiographical story lays out his influences and his emergence in the game industry. What’s most fascinating about Spelunky, though, is Yu’s incredibly in-depth explanations — including graphs and diagrams — of how he designed his procedurally generated platformer. It’s a great book for fans of the game, as well as aspiring game developers.
Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation by Blake J. Harris
Tom Kalinske isn’t a household name by any stretch of the imagination, but his role in the video game industry in the early- to mid-1990s was staggering. Sega was floundering against Nintendo in 1991 when Kalinske, a man who revived both Hot Wheels and Barbie at Mattel, was brought on to shake things up. The result? A toe-to-toe console war that still defines the video game industry. Harris’ book provides a fascinating look inside the grand battle between Nintendo and Sega — a war in which, many of us forget, Sega was winning for a time. It’s a can’t-miss history for anyone who grew up adoring 8- and 16-bit games on Nintendo and Sega consoles. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are currently working on a film adaptation.
Masters of Doom by David Kushner
It isn’t entirely unreasonable to describe John Carmack and John Romero as the Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of video games. While they shared a love for games, Carmack and Romero had vastly different personalities and styles. Their personal differences likely contributed to their success as a team, but also created rifts that would eventually end their partnership. Kushner’s now-classic biography of the men behind Doom, Quake, and Castle Wolfenstein follows the duo’s path from their troubled youth, to menial jobs, to the founding of Id Software and the creation of their most well-known games, titles that changed PC gaming forever.
At Id, Carmack and Romero became the video game equivalent of rockstars. It’s a gripping read, one that touches on their games’ influence on popular culture at large, the good and the bad, and will give you a greater perspective on the FPS genre and PC gaming in general.
Gamelife by Michael Clune
Michael Clune fell in love with video games the first time he played little-known computer game Suspended when he was 7 years old. After that, the young introvert jumped into more solo adventures, learning what he would later write as “the things you can’t learn from people.” Unlike some of the other entries on this list, Clune’s book revolves around his personal experiences with comparatively lesser-known titles, including Elite, Ultima III: Exodus, and Pirates! Clune’s meditation on the games that shaped his understanding of the world provides a considerably deeper look at how the human psyche is influenced, and sometimes even altered, by the games we play.
Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell
Critical looks at the video game phenomenon aren’t as widely available as you would think. The industry, which has surpassed even Hollywood in revenue, is still in relative infancy. In a mix of personal essays, interviews, and criticism, game writer Tom Bissell attempts to answer the question: Why are we so drawn to video games? Why does this interactive form matter? If you’re interested in analyzing video games from a critical — but highly readable — lens, look no further.
Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal
We typically view entertainment as a means to escape our everyday lives for a temporary interval of time. Your everyday gamer most likely views controller sessions as a way to destress, and as an avenue to block out the real world by taking control of the life of a fictitious character. Game designer Jane McGonigal knows this to be true, but she also presents an admirable case for games as a solution to the world’s constantly multiplying problems. From retooling education, to revolutionizing business, to more personal issues like mental illness, she posits that the games that most of us play can, in some capacity, provide for the greater good. It’s a book that will get you thinking about games as more than just a medium for fun.
The Tetris Effect: The Game that Hypnotized the World by Dan Ackerman
Tetris is probably the most recognizable video game of all time. The seminal puzzle game debuted nearly 33 years ago, but as CNET editor Dan Ackerman points out, the game is still played today — a rarity, since most games fail to hold players’ attention for more than a few months. Ackerman’s book sets out to examine why the world has remained so enamored with the puzzle game to this day. In a book that’s half origin story, half cultural commentary, Ackerman leaves no block unturned, fitting the pieces together with effortless precision.
The Making of Prince of Persia: Journals 1985-1993 by Jordan Mechner and Danica Novgorodoff
Have you ever wanted to know what it’s like to be inside the mind of someone on the verge of a creative breakthrough? In 1989, game developer Jordan Mechner released Prince of Persia, on the Apple II. The game, which Mechner made entirely on his own, was roundly applauded by critics, and eventually became a classic that inspired a major cross-media franchise spanning more than 10 games and a feature film.
The Making of Prince of Persia compiles eight years of Mechner’s personal journals, which chronicle his thoughts as he broke into the video game industry and created Prince of Persia. From his missteps to his triumphs, Mechner’s book provides a raw look at his journey
All Your Base Are Belong to Us by Harold Goldberg
BioShock. World of Warcraft. Super Mario Bros. Grand Theft Auto. Madden. All five games represent vastly different genres and styles, but they all share one thing: They contributed to the rise of video games in popular culture. Game critic Harold Goldberg looks back at 50 years of gaming history to explain how and why the medium became so pervasive, and spoke with some of the industry’s most lauded designers, including Ken Levine and the famously closed-off Houser brothers, among others.
Hyrule Historia by Patrick Thorpe and Michael Gombos
You could call this low-hanging fruit, since a coffee table book about the history of Hyrule is bound to be of interest to anyone who has gotten their hands on one of the many excellent and often game-changing Legend of Zelda games. Then again, a list about video game books would feel incomplete without the tome that finally unraveled the series’s confusing, oft-debated timeline. Originally released in Japan alongside The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, this weighty compendium is meticulously detailed, with full-color concept art and a surprising amount of textual commentary and revelations about the long-running franchise. To put it simply, if you’re even a bit of a Zelda fan, it should be on your shelf.
The Nostalgia Nerd’s Retro Tech by Peter Leigh
The Nostalgia Nerd is one of the biggest nerdy channels on YouTube. As the name implies, the Nostalgia Nerd finds, researches, and plays around with games and tech of previous decades.
Now, some of the best nostalgia tech has been compiled into The Nostalgia Nerd’s Retro Tech. This book takes a particular focus on the first home PCs and game consoles. There are screenshots of classic games as well as photography of some truly retro computers and home devices.
The book is colorful and lovely to look at, and it’s a perfect way to casually look back on some of the cool tech of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier
Making video games is hard. While we all know this to some extent, the actual process of making video games — and the stress that comes with it — isn’t really known to the general public.
Blood, Sweat, and Pixels aims to pull back the curtain on the video game process. It shows how some of the most popular games of recent years came to be, and all the pain and despair that came with their creation. It follows some major AAA titles like Dragon Age: Inquisition, as well as the development of smash indie hit Stardew Valley.
If you have any interest in game development or what it takes to make a game come to be, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is essential reading.
Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto by David Kushner
David Kushner has already been featured on this list with Masters of Doom, but his follow-up is equally as engaging. Jacked follows the creation of Grand Theft Auto, the pioneering series that radically transformed gaming forever and brought the ire of the general public with it.
Kushner’s book follows the creators of Rockstar Games, Sam and Dan Houser, and the story of creating the first GTA game. It also follows them through the major events of the series’s lifespan, such as the Hot Coffee controversy and their turbulent financial struggles.
Even if you’re not a fan of the franchise, Rockstar’s story is thrilling and worth the read.
Stay Awhile and Listen by David L. Craddock
Blizzard Entertainment is one of the largest video game companies in the world. Thanks to games like Overwatch and World of Warcraft, the company has become a juggernaut in the video game industry. However, like many game companies that make it large, they found themselves facing severe backlash from their fans. From banning players who speak out on the Hong Kong protests, to their efforts to actively shut down classic WoW servers, it seemed the company was becoming a money-driven corporate machine.
Stay Awhile and Listen is a multi-volume series that explores how Blizzard North and Blizzard Entertainment came together to create Diablo, one of the many games that contributed to Blizzard’s success. It also gives insight into the corporate empire the company would soon become. Comprising hundreds of interviews, it shows the two distinct ideologies of the companies and the constant infighting surrounding the game and the souls of the developers themselves.
For some surprising insight into how Blizzard became the way they are, Stay Awhile and Listen is a critical text.
The History of the Future by Blake J. Harris
Blake J. Harris, the author of Console Wars, has a new book that explores the wild creation of the Oculus Rift and the race to create the future of gaming. It follows everything from Palmer Luckey’s initial inception of the idea to the Facebook acquisition of Oculus. The book also sheds light on all of the turmoil and headaches that went into creating the future.
The book is at first an intriguing history of one of the biggest breakthroughs in recent years. It is also a surprising study on the egos and secretive motivations that drive some of the most dramatic changes.
Disclosure: The author of this piece has written for the New York Videogame Critics Circle, which is edited by All Your Base Are Belong to Us author Harold Goldberg.
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