The act of video gaming in and of itself is a wonderful form of entertainment, allowing players to leave behind the real world and exist in a digital one for a short time. As virtual reality and augmented reality gaming are about to hit the world big-time, it’s worth taking a look at how authors have explored the virtual world and ferreted out the consequences and adventures only possible in the gaming world.
Press Start to Play, edited by John Joseph Adams and Daniel Wilson
John Joseph Adams is one of the genre’s leading anthologists, and one of his latest collections (with co-editor Daniel Wilson) is all about gaming. This is a great, diverse collection of stories, considering the medium from the earliest text-based adventures, all the way up to first person shooters. What’s even more awesome: the huge and diverse collection of authors: Charlie Jane Anders, Seanan McGuire, Cory Doctorow, Chris Kluwe, Austin Grossman, and quite a few more.
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
When it comes to books about games, Orson Scott Card’s fantastic military science fiction novel is hard to beat. This isn’t your typical gaming book: the stakes are enormously high for Andrew Wiggin and the rest of humanity as they face extermination from the alien Formics. Ender is sent to the military’s Battle School in orbit, where he undergoes a rigorous training cycle on a war simulator, intended to prepare him to lead humanity’s fleet. Even as he’s an unwitting player a larger game, one that will test him to the limits, he must cope with another type of game: a virtual reality fairy tale exploration of his innermost psyche.
Ready Player One, by Ernie Cline
Decades from now, Earth is wrecked from climate change, and much of humanity has retreated to a digital world known as Oasis, where just about anything is possible. When the founder of Oasis dies, he leaves behind his immense fortune to whomever can uncover three easter eggs hidden within the sprawling landscape of the game. Wade Watts is one such treasure hunter, and as he goes off in pursuit of the prize, he finds more than he bargained for. What sets Ready Player One apart from every other gaming book out there is its sheer love for the subject matter: Cline imbues his novel with heaping helpings of heart and nerdy behind-the-scenes knowledge that make it a fun, nostalgic read. The same holds true for his equally referential followup, Armada, about a group of gamers tasked with saving the world from alien invasion. Yes, it sounds a lot like Ender’s Game.
For The Win, by Cory Doctorow
In Cory Doctorow’s future, MMORPGs are all the rage, and there’s an enormous amount of money to be made farming for gold in the games. Kids are being exploited for their work, and they’re starting to rebel and go into business for themselves—only to be hammered down by those in power. One young player, Wei-Dong, helps lead the charge to free the enslaved gamers, and the war soon jumps from the digital realm to reality.
Mindplayers, by Pat Cadigan
Psychoanalysis begets gaming in Cadigan’s too-little-known cyberpunk thriller (her debut, and a Philip K. Dick Award nominee), in which the therapists of the future are able to hook machines up to their patients’ minds, giving a doctor the ability to literally wander a virtual landscape of memory and personality like a bundle of sprites exploring the overworld map in Final Fantasy. Because this is cyberpunk, an illicit trades rises up around the new tech: illegal “madcaps” that allow thrill-seeking gamer-types to temporarily experience psychosis—which is all well and good until your madcap goes on the fritz, and your madness turns out to be less than temporary.
You, by Austin Grossman
Austin Grossman’s brilliant second novel isn’t exactly science fiction. Set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it follows a programmer named Russell as he joins Black Arts Games, a company on the cutting edge of the gaming world. While he gets to work, he’s trying to get to the bottom of why his friend Simon died years earlier, just as Black Arts hit it big. As the company prepares to launch its next game, a glitch hidden in the source code of the software threatens everything, and Russell slowly goes through the company’s earliest releases to try and uncover the truth. Grossman comes to this book with considerable experience in the gaming world, and it’s a novel that dives in deep to the world and history of game development.
Arena, by Holly Jennings
This recent debut novel is all about the elite gaming competitions in a near future world where champion gamers fight to the virtual death before an audience of millions. The deaths might not be real, but the pain certainly is. When one of Kali Ling’s teammates dies after an overdose, she has to confront the truth about the nature of the tournament and the toll that it takes on the gamers, in the virtual world—and in the real one.
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is a classics of modern science fiction literature. Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza by day, but by night, he’s a warrior in the virtual reality environment of the Metaverse. After a computer virus begins taking down gamers, Hiro embarks on a quest to uncover the villain threatening to bring down the roof on everyone who has ever plugged in—and then, everyone who hasn’t. It’s hard to state exactly how important this book is to our modern understanding of virtual worlds and the internet; it’s the book that has defined gaming style for every author since.
Halting State, by Charles Stross
Charles Stross has written some amazing near-future thrillers that feel all too real. Case in point: Halting State, in which a bank robbery takes place in the MMORPG game Avalon Four. The robbery was spearheaded by a group of Orcs (with support from a dragon); the band of thieves made off with thousands of dollars of in-game gold and prestige items. Stross takes a look at the world of fraud and crime in the digital age—virtual crimes and their real-world consequences.
United States of Japan, by Peter Tieryas
Set in a world in which the United States lost the Second World War and Japan rules much of the North American continent, Tieryas’ debut follows Captain Beniko Ishimura, a censor tasked with rooting out subversive expression in a dystopian society. As he jumps the book through decades, Tieryas explores the spread of an underground video game, The United States of America, that depicts an alternate reality in which the US won WWII. As Ishimura weaves his way through a hidden world of gamers and rebellion, he discovers that there’s more to the game than he initially expected.
This Is Not A Game, by Walter Jon Williams
In Walter Jon Williams’ novel, the future of gaming is dominated by Alternate Reality Games. Dagmar Shaw is the producer for a game company, and while vacationing, she’s caught up in a revolution in Jakarta, only to face additional tragedy when she returns home. She weaves the death of a friend into a new game, hoping that it will help her identify the killer, but she gets more than she bargained for. Williams’ novel explores the blurring of real and virtual worlds and the impact of digital foul-play on real-world financial markets.
What’s your favorite book about gaming?