Videogames have, slowly but surely, crept into our daily lives. Even excluding the recent woeful news about Sony's issues with the PlayStation Network, television shows, movies, and other forms of media have made fairly regular mention of videogames. Games have crept in at the edges and slowly become a regular part of pop culture. Home consoles are in an incredible number of American homes, the Nintendo Wii sits in rehab facilities around the country, and virtually every blockbuster film seems to be accompanied by at least one videogame.
In his new book All Your Base are Belong to us: How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture, Harold Goldberg traces a history of exactly how we got from a few folks making a dot travel from one side of a monitor to the other and back again to a moment when a large videogame release can earn more than a major motion picture. Each chapter within Goldberg's book tells of a gaming company or genre and propels the tale ever forward towards the present day in fascinating fashion.
I am, perhaps, slightly biased in my view on videogames and therefore potentially Goldberg's book as well, since I derive a portion of my income from the world of videogames. It would, quite obviously, benefit me to have videogames be seen as culturally significant, but the argument that they are isn't the main thrust of the book, but rather a foregone conclusion.
In his introduction, Goldberg states that "the videogame industry in the United States is now a $20-billion-a-year juggernaut, surpassing movie, music, and DVD sales—combined." You don't get those kinds of numbers solely from people playing in their parents' basements. He goes on to talk about other ways they appear in pop culture as well, from 30 Rock and South Park to car commercials, from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade to Mark Ecko clothes.
It truly is impossible to seriously suggest that videogames do not inform a significant portion of our popular culture. That is why that portion of the discussion is in the introduction and not the book proper. Goldberg makes a case for how significant games are, but one merely need look at the facts to know the truth.
No, where All Your Base proves most interesting is not in the creation of an argument surrounding the importance of games, but in telling how exactly the history of videogames progressed and how they became so important. Often, although not always, chapters within the book tend to be loosely tied together, with one moment in gaming history leading inexorably to the next.
Much of the book is written in a fly-on-the-wall manner, with Goldberg's clearly meticulous research showing as he documents specific moments in the development of titles and the formation (and deformation) of companies. Everyone reading will have their own personal favorite story, but perhaps the one most people will be instantly interested in is that of Electronic Arts. EA is behemoth in today's videogame world, and you would be hard-pressed to find someone who has not at least heard of the Madden NFL franchise. Of course, the story of Shigeru Miyamoto and the mustachioed plumber he created is another good choice for those only tangentially interested in the subject.
Fans of videogames will certainly be enchanted by the book and have an inordinate amount of fun playing "guess that game." Going through the book, one reads the ideas that developers had for titles and can instantly try to figure out what game the idea would turn into. For instance, the opening of chapter eight has a discussion about two guys driving a car, but thinking about "Sonic's Ass." Astute gamers will instantly recognize that there is but one character in videogame history which could possibly have come out of the idea of a game about Sonic's hindquarters.
Reading through the work, and despite my longtime love of the medium, I found myself shocked by both how many of the influential games I played without realizing what they were and also at how many I missed.
To be fair, a decent amount of the book repeats a sort of Horatio Alger-type myth, as young (or middle-aged) imaginative folks with little more than an idea and the clothes on their back (or a steady grind of a job) come up with the next big thing and make millions off of it (or should have made millions off of it). There also seems to be a horrible tendency for those same people and companies to lose all their money again as well. But, what Goldberg is doing is tracing a history of games and the rise (and fall) of genres that helped make games the force they are today – if the folks involved through the years were often of the same type, it isn't Goldberg's doing. On the other hand, what it does mean is that as compelling as the tales are—and they are all very compelling—if you read too much of the book in a single session the people in the chapters may have a tendency to bleed together.
Tracing the history of videogames isn't an original idea to All Your Base are Belong to us, but Harold Goldberg does create a narrative which is both compelling overall and which works beautiful as individual chapters. For anyone who wants to read about how Mario made his way into our culture, or how the idea behind The Sims' was developed, or how consoles ended up in our living rooms, All Your Base will not only provide you with the information you're looking for, but will do so in a very readable, enjoyable way.
Article first published as Book Review: All Your Base are Belong to us: How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture by Harold Goldberg on Blogcritics.