Couple's book a play-by-play of the video game culture


Growing up in Baltimore, Heather Chaplin never played video games. Arcades made her scared and anxious, and she looked down on her peers who pumped quarters into game machines.

When she got married, she made it clear to her husband, Aaron Ruby, that video games were not allowed in the house. So Ruby, who was in graduate school, secretly played the games on campus at Rutgers University.

One day in 2000, he spirited a video game system into his home office. He thought he could get away with it. He was wrong.

"I noticed strange noises were emanating from my husband's office," Chaplin recalls. "He was getting his Ph.D. in philosophy, and he had brought a PlayStation 2 into the house. I was fairly horrified."

But instead of doing the sensible thing - like, say, chucking the PlayStation out the window or filing for divorce - Chaplin thought she saw a story. A business journalist at the time, she thought that the world of video games, and the people behind them, cried out for a layman's explanation.

"There hadn't been anyone who had translated what gaming culture was about for people like myself who didn't get it," says Chaplin, 34, a graduate of the Park School. The result is Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution, written with Ruby and published this month by Algonquin Books.

The book goes inside the video game industry in the past five years - just as it was breaking into the mainstream and earning respect as a viable form of entertainment and art - and profiles the people who have made it credible.

Chaplin and Ruby attended video game conventions, game development conferences, as well as industry summits and parties. They watched as the game makers became celebrities in their own worlds and bought expensive cars and wardrobes.

"We started this in 2001 and finished it in 2005 and really got to watch video games slip into the mainstream, from being the elephant under the bed to the bed tipping over," Chaplin says, on the phone from a book tour stop in Austin, Texas.

She found that the older game designers, such as Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo or Will Wright of The Sims franchise, were reluctant celebrities. But the younger designers cared deeply about being recognized and flaunting their status.

"It's a celebrity-driven culture, and these guys are media-savvy and know that making themselves [celebrities] can help their careers," Chaplin says. "And they have that thing that everybody under a certain age in this culture has - the belief they're only valid if they're famous."

But even though the designers featured in Smartbomb differ widely in their age and take on celebrity, they are all serious about having fun, Chaplin and Ruby say. And the designers see the computer as a tool for a new kind of entertainment.

"One thing that cuts across all the designers is this notion that the computer in a lot of ways sets these people free," says Ruby, 38, "and it gave them an outlet they almost didn't realize they were seeking until they found it."

The authors, who live in New York, acknowledge that video games have lost some of their creative edge. As the games become more expensive to produce, the manufacturers are less willing to take risks on untested titles. So they churn out endless iterations of Madden Football or Grand Theft Auto.

Some of the games are also becoming horrifyingly violent, with graphic depictions of shootings and maimings. One game designer laments in Smartbomb that all games are becoming MMMFs - "murder made more fun."

But Chaplin says, "It's a problem that goes far beyond video games. It's really a part of our culture. There's a lot of really lousy media that have pumped out values I don't ascribe to. The video games can be hyper-violent, but it's a feedback loop: The games are reacting to the culture, and the culture is reacting to the games."

If you go

Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby will read from and sign copies of Smartbomb, and game designer Sid Meier will make a guest appearance, at 7 p.m. tomorrow at Atomic Books, 1100 W. 36th St. in Hampden.

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