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A Brief History of Video Games delivers a great big story

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As a significant cultural organism, video gaming is approaching its 50th year. Its history can be seen less as a youthful blur of potential and more as a body, with its own shape and destiny.

Richard Stanton's recently published A Brief History of Video Games is the latest attempt to give outline to that shape, to explain what has gone before, rather than merely record.

History

Stanton's History is a compact volume that presents its story in the form of bite-sized facts and perspectives connected into a rolling narrative, all punctuated with plenty of pictures and an agreeable quota of white space. This all adds up to a volume that can be read at leisure.

It manages to cast gaming history as a whole, crafted from a bounty of pleasing little side-notes and weird facts. The mention of Atari's first ever employee — a young woman called Cynthia Villanueva, who worked as Nolan Bushnell's PA — pleased me immensely because I enjoy trivial facts.

Short early chapters detail the divergent tribes that first discovered gaming and sought to shape it. Here was a coming together of grizzled home computer makers, idealistic programmers experimenting with text adventures, Japanese toy manufacturers and the artists they hired as well as American visionaries with big ideas and little patience.

Stanton doesn't linger too long on any single aspect of gaming. Familiar stories, like the early days of Nintendo's foray into games, are presented without fuss in a way that feels like a renewed pleasure.

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An early console

Game histories are nothing new, and there are plenty to choose from, though few that bring us right up to the present day.

Steven Kent's Ultimate History of Videogames (2001) is now seen as a major source, tracking the people and events that took gaming to the end of the last century. I asked Stanton which books he admires. He mentioned Kent's, calling it "the greatest."

More recently, Tristan Donovan's Replay: The History of Video Games (2010) successfully takes us beyond the products to look at the people who made them. All Your Base Are Belong to Us by Harold Goldberg (2011) is an engrossing read that dedicates individual chapters to great games and franchises and the people who made them.

Some books look at specific time-frames or episodes within the era of gaming. Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff (1993) tells the story of a ruthlessly entrepreneurial toy company's search for its own place in the world. David Kushner's Masters of Doom (2003) and Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto (2012) are both pacey and entertaining. Generation Xbox: How Videogames Invaded Hollywood (2010) by Jamie Russell tells a fascinating story that is often overlooked.

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Doom

Blake Harris' Console Wars (2014) is a business biography that's all about people and relationships, often seeking to place the reader in the meeting rooms of Silicon Valley or Kyoto, circa 1990.

Games themselves can sometimes seem sidelined in game histories, muscled out by the mad egos and sexy dramas of human protagonists.

Stanton's book just sets up the human or cultural circumstances and then gets down to the resulting games. It's quite literally a history of video games, with business, culture and personalities playing supporting roles.

One example: The early 1990s Senate hearings on game violence and the founding of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board merits a single paragraph. Sega's failed console, the Dreamcast, gets an entire chapter. There were, to be fair, a lot of good games on Dreamcast.

Stanton takes the time to talk about individual games and the detail of their genius or their failings.

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Oregon Trail

A game journalist formerly on Edge, who now writes for The Guardian and others (including, occasionally, Polygon), he has clearly spent a great deal of time with these games, and is happy to share his energetic views of them. Example: "Mortal Kombat was an appalling game compared to Street Fighter 2."

He even talks about how best to play certain games. "Tomb Raider received criticism for its so-called 'leaps of faith' but, in fact, patient inspection of the surroundings rewarded players."

He's not afraid to celebrate his own love of games. He describes, in adoring detail, the death throes of enemies in Doom and glories in the mesmerizing sound of a BFG9000 powering up.

This is not an entirely impersonal history, nor is it presented as a series of dry facts. His chapter on the original Xbox is titled "An Ugly Motherfucker," a reference to a quote from the late Charles Bellfield, who worked at Sega during this period. Two entire chapters are each dedicated to single franchises — Grand Theft Auto and Metal Gear — while massively popular genres like military sims, sports and strategy gain only a passing mention.

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Grand Theft Auto 3

Even so, the nature of the book's short, sharp chapters means you can skip or skim anything that you don't much fancy.

Chapters like those that deal with first-person shooters of the 1990s are almost listicle in format, working their way through the canon, like Universe's 2010 compilation 1001 Games You Must Play Before You Die (one of the few books I have on desk at all times). But unlike listicle-mongers, Stanton weaves the individual elements into a story of progress and creativity, each new game taking lessons as well as sharp turns from the ones that went before.

This is not to say this book is entirely without personalities. Stanton is frugal with quotes, keeping them short and generally using major players like Miyamoto, Kalinske and Wright. But he tells their stories and gives them the space to take credit for gaming's achievements.

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Counter-Strike

If there is a broad theme to be found in the history of gaming — as presented by Stanton and in general terms — it's that great games are the cherished work of individuals who have either been encouraged in their art, or who have fought to bring it to the world at large.

A Brief History of Video Games covers a lot of games and a lot of stories spanning many decades. It's well worth your time.

Disclosure: I freelanced for Edge for a short period when Richard Stanton was on the team, though we had no commercial dealings and were mainly on friendly nodding terms. Stanton has written for Polygon.