Book review: "Joystick Nation."

I Find Karma (
Thu, 21 Aug 1997 03:05:42 -0700 (PDT)

(J.C. -- I've Cc'd you on this review I'm sending to the virtual
community that is FoRK; see the archives

for more details on what this list is about. This Cc is included to you
in case you were wondering what admirers of your new book were writing
about you to their virtual communities. :)

I bought a copy of J.C. Herz's new book, "Joystick Nation," while I was
in Hawaii. Actually, what happened was I was waiting for Pair-o-dice
Pizza to cook our food, and for some reason DanZ, JoeK, and DonaldD ran
off to the supermarket to get various types of alcohol for the evening's
forthcoming consumption, leaving me stuck talking with some woman on
break from her job at the bookstore, as she was chain smoking camel
lights and rattling off in pure Rohitesque fashion of the time on her
21st birthday when she did the "Texas Crawl" and took a free shot from
115 different bars in a 24 hour period. This woman had to be 110-115
pounds. Four to five shots an hour for an entire day is no small feat.

So after she poured out her soul to me as to how she ended up in Maui,
and with the pizza not yet finished and D/J/D still off buying alcohol,
I went into the bookstore and looked for something -- ANYTHING -- I
could purchase. I was all set to purchase the umpteen millionth Dilbert
book ("Earth to Scott Adams, would you please stop wasting all the
rainforests? Thank you.") when I spotted J.C. Herz's "Joystick Nation."

The subtitle of a book is usually what convinces me to buy it off the
shelf. When Robert X. Cringely gives a book a name like "Accidental
Empires", it hardly stirs a synapse within me. But when he subtitles
the book with some peppery spice like,

how the boys of silicon valley make their millions,
change the world,
and still can't get a date

, I know I have bathroom reading for a fortnight. Cringely kept me
"regular" during the first two weeks of July, 1996, and for that I am
deeply indebted (hence the phrase, "Full of shit? Try Cringely..." :).

Well, "Joystick Nation"'s subtitle is equally wonderful:

how videogames ate our quarters,
won our hearts,
and rewired our minds

I knew then and there to toss Scott Adams onto the dustbin from which he
came, and purchase the book. I then proceeded to pick up the pizza,
drive the four of us back to the Maui condo, put the book away, and get
so drunk that JoeK says he'll have blackmail material for both this life
and the next. Oy.

Two weeks later, I started the book, and I could have read it straight
through, but I chose to savor it instead. I didn't read Herz's previous
work, "Surfing on the Internet", because, frankly, I was too busy
surfing on the Internet to read.

<aside duration=quick>
Surfing and spilling on the Internet has literally made me perpetually
behind in my so-called life. I'm presently 1200 email messages and 2000
web pages away from ground zero. (Actually, I'm 3800 email messages
behind, but in December I filed away the 2600 emails I hadn't responded
to at that point in a place where I don't have to look at them, and I've
never since gotten back to the point where I can go back and look at them).

But okay, I started on "Joystick Nation" the first of August and savored
it over a score of days. I even put off finishing Gabriel Garcia
Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" (I'm still on page 285) to
read "JN." But it was worth it.

Like a good movie, a good book will open your mind to reflect on things
that might not otherwise have occurred to you through natural means.
And you know me, I'm a real Winnie-the-Pooh: most of my brain cycles are
spent just trying to think a thought. ANY thought.

So, the thing I took away from this book is the impact videogames have
had on the psyche of everyone under 30 currently living in America.
Sure, the book has the obligatory "evolution of videogames" that an
enthusiast would want, but what's compelling about the book is its
exploration of the psychological effects the various types of videogames
(from shoot-em-ups to logic puzzles) have had on impressionable youth.

Without even realizing it, the videogames I fed quarters into
perpetually from 11-17 have had a lasting impact on the way I think.

Now, I'm not going to attribute JoeK's punching me at least once a day
to the fact that he's obsessed with Quake. That I can attribute to his
lack of respect for me as a carbon-based life form.

No, what I'm talking about is something far subtler: I mean, an impact
on the WAY I think: parsing and filtering information. As J.C. says,
"when you grow up playing Missile Command, you come to expect some kind
of causal relationship between the choices you make and the images on
the screen... videogames are perfect training for life in fin de siecle
America, where daily existence demands the ability to parse sixteen
kinds of information being fired at you simultaneously from telephones,
televisions, fax machines, pagers, personal digital assistants, voice
messaging systems, postal delivery, email, and the Internet... you have
to recognize patterns in this whirl of data, and you have to do it fast."

Videogames didn't just impact the way you process information; they also
affected the way we think about our consumer electronic devices.
"America's Madonna/whore complex about the computer and the television.
Televisions are creates that exist solely for fun, bought and sold on
the basis of their looks and their ability to entertain. If they're
smart, fine, but their first duty is to amuse us. Computers, OTOH, are
[for the most part] serious machines for serious purposes, and we are
loath to view them as playthings."

Of course, entertainment seems to be the top priority in American lives:
witness how many hours in front of the boob tube the average American
sits, and then think that half of them log in even more hours than that.
(Yes, even I need my regular MTV fix, and "South Park" was cute tonight,
too.) But what we really seem to be longing for is the Baudrilliardian
experience of being there without actually being there (tantamount to
Disney taking Times Square in New York City and turning the street quite
literally into an amusement park). This is why the videogame arcades of
the past are giving way to the "family entertainment centers" of today.

Herz notes this phenomenon with mindful irony: "In the arcade, fun was
something you paid for. In the family entertainment centers' redemption
scheme, fun is your job, or rather, an unpaid internship that you take
at your own expense so that you can EARN all those fabulous plush
prizes. Basically, the redemption arcade is a giant, overpriced toy
store housed in a high-tech, neo-Victorian circus, complete with
putt-putt courses, downsized indoor Ferris wheels, and merry-go-rounds
manufactured by Chance Rides, Inc., of Wichita, Kansas, which has
supplied over a hundred North American malls with quarter-million dollar

Not that these attempts to make malls more enticing and family-oriented
are succeeding. In fact, "from 1980 to 1993, America's mall time
halved, while its entertainment budget (for things like consumer
electronics, restaurants, and theme parks, preferably combined)
doubled." What we are witnessing -- as it unfolds, no less -- is the
combination of category killer stores (awful beasts like Best Buy,
Circuit City, Office Depot, Barnes and Noble, Starbucks, and the
nastiest of the evil empires Walmart) and Americans' feeding frenzy for
entertainment that videogames in their heyday helped to engender.

Meanwhile, Herz captures the essence of the geeks like me who fed
hundreds, nay, thousands of bucks into the quarter wells. Deep down, in
the days before I became the incredibly well-adjusted international sex
symbol you know and love today, I was an emotional trainwreck, and in
need of escape any way I could get it. Too scared of drugs, too shunned
by women, I turned to the ghost in the machine: "in the arcades,
everyone was en route from the physical world to cyberspace. Every
videogame cabinet was a gate from one world to the other." Looking back
and reflecting, I'm thinking, as she puts it, "God, I was a teenager in
the mall obsessing about this cheerleader who would never go out with
me, playing this videogame."

Videogames in one sense gave us the ability to escape our lives by
giving us the ability to die, over and over and over, until the feeling
was "totally euphoric. Because you knew that you were going to die,
that you were within seconds of everything going black. You're gonna
die in 3 seconds. You're gonna die at this instant. You're dying.
You're dead. And then you get to watch all the pretty
explosions... you're not just playing with colored light. You're
playing with the concept of death." Death, the ultimate escape.
Especially for a young screenager.

In the rest of the book, Herz probes different psychological archetypal
needs that videogames fulfill. For example, "we all crave the perfect
enemy," and games like Doom sublimate this need in a way that is deeply
satisfying. Another example is games that perpetually bombard you with
information, which teach us that "information isn't the valuable
commodity; the valuable commodity is information SORTING." (Score 10
points for the Ron filter arguments, now let's move on... :)

And then there's Microsoft, who bought up the rights to several games
for their "Return of Arcade" pack, only to forget to put in the bugs in
the original games that made those arcade games so enjoyable in the
first place. (Williams Arcade Classics pack, OTOH, does a fine job of
leaving all of the original bugs intact.)

Or the likening of videogame publishers to porno producers: "Like the
adult publishing industry, the videogame press prides itself on lavish
foldout sections, runs hotline advertisements, and cultivates a
throbbing channel of feedback from its readers."

Or the need of the player to connect with the character in the game
itself. For example, "Pac-Man had a personality. Sure, it was the
personality of a paramecium with only two behaviors -- engorge or flee.
But he had a certain prokaryotic flair. Women thought he was cute. But
most importantly, he gave the player something to identify with.
Pac-Man gave videogames a face."

Or the need in our lives to fulfill the craving for consistency.
"In a sense, Nintendo does to flying and hopping what Merchant-Ivory
does to drawn-out, tentative love stories among pale, repressed people.
If you go to a Merchant-Ivory film, you know certain emotional cards
will be played with a new set of hairdos and hats, corsets,
stagecoaches, and panoramas. If you load a Mario game, you can expect
the same kinesthetic conventions applied to a new set of castles,
catwalks, and clouds. The geographic novelty runs up against an
overwhelming sense of familiarity. It's like a Hard Rock Cafe or Planet
Hollywood, where different magical celebrity objects line the walls from
city to city but the menu stays the same. Only the eye candy changes.
Videogames are the purest kind of entertainment architecture --
architecture with no physical substance at all, just production values.
These are the theme parks of the mind."

In fact, this supports the main point of the book: that the fabric of
our society is becoming ever-more-fabricated. That we are ever
increasingly living in sim-society. That all of our Baudrilliardian
nightmares are slowly becoming the norm: THE SIMULATION IS BECOMING THE
REALITY. The insidious underlying reality, of course, is who gets to
make the rules in the simulation (and hence reality): "Once you're in
the game, you've agreed to let someone else define the parameters. And
so the question is who defines the parameters. Who has created this
environment, and what do they want you to believe? And as politicians,
media conglomerates, public relations firms, and management consultants
churn out more simulations, this question becomes proportionately more
important. Because if you're going to buy stocks on a simulated trading
floor or work in a virtual office or fight a computer-mediated war -- if
you're going to play these games -- it's a good idea to know who's
making the rules." As mind effectors, videogames become a good metaphor
for mind control, and realizing how these games affect your decision
making processes is half the battle to eschewing their control of you.

All in all, this was a very well researched book, and Herz's writing
style is eminently readable. I found it an enjoyable use of my time,
and will pontificate on several points in the book long after it gathers
inches of dust sitting on my bookshelf.


Put a lid on it, and everything will be all right.
-- Squirrel Nut Zippers