Joystick Nation

Joystick NationOrder this bookStory: This fascinating, but painfully short, book provides a look into the history of video games in both the home and the arcade, and the various evolutionary steps that led from their creation to the present-day media marketing blitz that surrounds a form of entertainment most of us consider commonplace.

Review: Actually, that description barely does justice to “Joystick Nation”, which covers a lot of ground, and is certainly intended for that portion of the gaming population which was around for the early days of arcade video games, not for those who were young when the first NES hit American shores. The book spends a great deal of time discussing sociological issues, ranging from players’ basic mental, emotional and instictual reactions to video games, to the degree to which the iconography of video games (and game-related marketing) have entrenched themselves in our culture. There are also diversions into the moral ramifications of video game violence, the growing connection between animè, manga, comics and games, the military’s use of high-powered video game engines as training tools, and more.

This book had so much potential, and while it does have a lot of text, it really hits me, in the end, as a book that could’ve been much, much thicker (especially for that price tag). While some more specific, and perhaps illustrated, forays into the development and game play of individual arcade and home favorites would’ve given this serious sociological tome a somewhat more fannish tone, it also would’ve been endearing and could’ve opened the book up to a wider audience. J.C. Herz talked at some length to Eugene Jarvis, the original programmer of Williams’ arcade chestnuts Defender, Stargate and Robotron, but despite the travel or long-distance phone expenses, would it have been any less important to find and talk to whoever created Pac-Man, Space Invaders, or Donkey Kong? The end result, a single interview with Jarvis, and an interview later in the book with Richard Garriott (programmer of the Ultima series of games), is a decidedly American ethno-centric feel…even if that wasn’t the intention.

I sincerely hope that the upcoming PBS adaptation of “Joystick Nation” expands on the text in these directions. The subject matter is certainly serious enough for a scholarly program (along the lines of the show a few years ago that documented the rise of the personal computer industry), but desperately needs the sound, the visual aspect, and the feel of the games themselves to give it a visceral kick in the pants that the book sadly lacks.

This book has been widely criticized among classic video game fans and collectors…and I feel that this is because the book is more of a sociological and psychological study of the culture that has embraced these games, as opposed to being a history of the games themselves.

Year: 1997
Author: J.C. Herz
Publisher: Little & Brown
Pages: 230 pages