clock menu more-arrow no yes
Cover of Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights Image: Electronic Arts

Filed under:

Your summer games reading list

15 books or stories for people who care about video games

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Remember the summer reading list handed out by your school teachers right before the start of summer? That was fun, right? No? Where are you going?

But really, I get it. When I was a kid, I dreaded those lists — not the prospect of reading itself, but what they wanted me to read. Not many of the books on those lists lined up with my interests. Why would I want to be reading Little House on the Prairie when I could be reading Goosebumps? That’s the thing with reading; I don’t think I ever disliked reading as a kid, even though I might have said that from time to time. What I hated was reading stuff I didn’t want to read.

Maybe that’s how you feel about reading. Or maybe you love books, and I won’t have to convince you to pick up any of these titles. But if you like video games — and that’s why you’re here, right? — you might just love some of these books. It’s a list of video game (and video game-adjacent) books that you just might like. It’s got fiction, non-fiction, comic books, and more.

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

Cover of Exhalation: Stores by Ted Chiang Image: Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang’s collection of short stories is not explicitly about video games, but so many of the themes and ideas will be interesting to video game enthusiasts and science fiction lovers. In particular, I loved “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” which is about artificially intelligent digital pets in a massively-multiplayer online gaming world. When the world they were created in starts to crumble, users must grapple with what that means for their pets — some of which have been raised for decades.

Broad Band by Claire L. Evans

Video games are intertwined with the history of the internet. In Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet, Claire L. Evans highlights the women who contributed greatly to the internet as we know it — from programmers to game developers. For instance, Evans discusses both Brenda Laurel, a video game designer who founded Purple Moon, a development company that focused on video games for young girls, like the Rockett and Secret Paths series. But really, all the stories told in Broad Band are fascinating.

A Game of Birds and Wolves: The Ingenious Young Women Whose Secret Board Game Helped Win World War II by Simon Parkin

Cover of A Game of Birds and Wolves Image: Simon Parkin

I’ve spent just one afternoon with A Game of Birds and Wolves, and I really can’t believe what I’m reading. Author and journalist Simon Parkin, who has written previously for Polygon, contributes regularly to The New Yorker and writes criticism for The Observer. Not only has he discovered a largely unknown story from World War II, he’s also managed to make its retelling absolutely gripping. This story — about a tactical wargame played on linoleum floor tiles — should be bone dry. But Parkin’s prose reads like a novel, a cinematic narrative filled with action and murder. I was hooked in the first 10 pages. — Charlie Hall, senior reporter

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem is the first in a series called “The Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy.” The science fiction book is large, complex, and engaging. It’s set during China’s Cultural Revolution, though it cuts back-and-forth in time, as an alien invasion threatens Earth — at least, eventually. Interspersed between all this is a virtual reality video game called Three Body, which ties into the larger themes of the book. It’s certainly not an easy read, but one that’s worth the effort of understanding it all.

The Art of Atari by Tim Lapetino

Cover of Art of Atari Image: Tim Lapetino

Moving on from the complexity of The Three-Body Problem, let me present you with something different: pictures! The Art of Atari, by Tim Lapetino, is a compilation of artwork from the Atari era — some which you’ll recognize and others that you may have never seen. It’s a stunning collection from an important and formative time in gaming history. It’s not only pictures and illustrations, though: Lapetino’s also pulled together information on the artwork and packaging in the book, with descriptions and history included alongside each piece.

Ship of Theseus by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

Ship of Theseus is a game in the form of a book. It’s also a story within a story, and a giant puzzle to boot. The book you page through is written by a fictional author, with the actual characters in the story writing notes in the margins. As they go along, these protagonists leave each other all sorts of inserts, from maps to historical documents, which not only inform the overarching narrative, they also provide clues for the reader to figure out the conspiracy fueling the events of the book. Expect to spend some time trying to crack codes, reading footnotes, and leafing back through previous pages, all in the name of trying to pin down what really happened. One of the most unique books I’ve ever read, and worth experiencing for the format alone. — Patricia Hernandez, senior editor

Woke Gaming: Digital Challenges to Oppression and Social Injustice, by Dr. Kishonna L. Gray and Dr. David J. Leonard

cover of Woke Gaming: Digital Challenges to Oppression and Social Injustice, by Dr. Kishonna L. Gray and Dr. David J. Leonard  Image: Dr. Kishonna L. Gray, Dr. David J. Leonard

This series of essays, edited by scholars Dr. Kishonna L. Gray and Dr. David J. Leonard, pulls together critical games research and experience on the topics of race, gender, and sexuality. It’s an important book not only for those interested in video games, the internet, and its culture, but for people who want to understand wider culture. It was published in 2020 after 2014’s GamerGate movement and the 2016 election, and it expertly connects gaming and internet culture to the rest of the world.

Debian Perl: Digital Detective, by Lauren Davis, Mel Hilario, Katie Longua

cover of Debian Perl: Digital Detective, by Lauren Davis, Mel Hilario, Katie Longua Image: Lauren Davis, Mel Hilario, Katie Longua

Debian Perl is a five-part comic book series for middle-school-aged readers. Debian Perl herself is a “technomancer known for her out-of-date computer programming skills,” and she’s solving a mystery with a “egg-headed” pal, to whom she’s got to teach stuff. In doing so, she’s also teaching the reader about white-hat programming ideas, including algorithms and more high concept ideas. It’s a delightful, colorful series for kids, but adults will enjoy it, too — especially if you want to learn about coding and problem-solving!

Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights, by Chris Bain, Patrick Weekes, Matthew Goldman, and Christopher Morgan

From a lot of the folks who write those games you like, Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights is an anthology of short stories set in one of the least-seen corners of the Dragon Age world: the magic-riddled, declining empire of Tevinter. Loaded with all the fruits of the franchise’s top-notch BioWare world building, this anthology series drips with clever spies, escaped slaves, and dashing heroes — not to mention cameos from some of your in-game faves and plenty of potential hints at where the franchise will go next, when it finally visits Tevinter in an actual game. — Susana Polo, comics editor

Die, Vol. 1, by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans

Die, Vol. 1, by Kieron Gillen + Stephanie Hans Image: Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans

Die begins with five estranged 40-something friends. 25 years ago they were six friends about to start a new tabletop campaign, when they were somehow transported inside the world of the game itself. It took two years, but most of them managed to escape. Now, these mid-life disasters are dragged back into a world built from their greatest teenage triumphs and failures, overseen by their vengeful gamemaster — the friend they had to leave behind.

The first six issues included in Die, Vol. 1 are about adult’s longing for the freedom of youth, and fear that it can never be recaptured. But that’s just one side of this polyhedron. Keep turning Die around and you’ll find the fantasy genre — in particular the aspects shaped by gaming — de- and reconstructed with the surgical precision that can only come from someone who loves gaming and fantasy so much that it has become a part of themselves. — SP

The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolf

The Book of the New Sun is probably the closest thing you’ll come to a book version of Dark Souls or Bloodborne, though it’s worth noting that Gene Wolfe’s series came first. Big picture, the fantasy novels tell the story of a secluded “torturer” who has to leave his post. But the world he goes on to explore is a wild one, where the line between magic, science, and myth is thin. Futuristic technology exists right alongside seemingly medieval scenes.

The series throws you in there without really stopping to explain how certain things or concepts are possible, but it does so intentionally. You’ll have to read between the lines and make inferences to figure out the wider lore, in the same way you might in a From Software game.

The cool thing is, there’s no right answer to any of it — many of the words are entirely made up through the use of history and dead languages, and there’s enough ambiguity that, at best, even people who have spent years studying these works can only offer a theory as to what it means. As my colleague Cameron Kunzelman put it over at Vice, When someone recommends his The Book of the New Sun or The Fifth Head of Cerberus to you, they’re imparting a curse. — PH

The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton

Stuart Turton’s The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a murder mystery in the stylings of Agatha Christie, but with a twist — it’s got a time-looping and body-swapping feature that’s reminiscent of video game mechanics. It reads like a game, but Turton told Eurogamer in 2019 that he wasn’t thinking about video games when he wrote it; he only realized it afterwards when people started mentioning it. It’s an innovative novel that’s easy to get sucked into.

”Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain,” by Jamil Jan Kochai

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain - bloody Snake and others Image: Kojima Productions/Konami

Jamil Jan Kochai’s “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” was published in The New Yorker in 2020. It’s a stunning short story that uses a video game, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain (and the experience of playing that video game) as a main throughline. But its writing mimics the video game experience, too: Kochai uses second-person to make the game feel “oddly intimate and alienating,” he told The New Yorker in an interview. It’s the sort of alienation that Kochai said he feels when playing these sorts of games — first-person shooters.

“For me this sense of becoming the shooter in first-person gameplay was often disrupted by the depiction of the enemies in video games like Call of Duty,” Kochai said. “There I am in the game, playing as a white soldier, and all of a sudden I’m murdering an Afghan man who looks just like my father. Or even like me. My status as the hero facing the enemy, as the subject facing the object, falls apart. ‘I shoot you’ becomes ‘I shoot me.’ I wanted to capture that sort of alienating intimacy in my story. Second person seemed like the best way to go about it.”

Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming, by T.L. Taylor

It feels impossible to talk about video games without mentioning live-streaming sites like Twitch. T.L. Taylor’s Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming investigates why. Taylor immersed herself in the scene and interviewed plenty of people during her research, all as a way to understand media and media audiences. Like with the video game industry as a whole, live streaming and its culture is no longer a niche endeavor. It’s just part of our world, now.

Delicious in Dungeon, by Ryōko Kui

Delicious in Dungeon Vol. 1 cover Image: Ryōko Kui

Delicious in Dungeon’s basic concept is one of the most unique ones I’ve heard in years. In it, adventurers dive deeper and deeper into an ever-changing labyrinth — except get this, they’re broke. Unable to afford rations for their journey, the crew instead resorts to eating the very monsters haunting the castle. Watching them try to figure out what’s edible and how is a joy on its own, but Ryōko Kui goes one step further by placing it all in an engrossing world with complicated politics. Better yet, the story reinvents even old and worn fantasy concepts in ways that will keep you on your toes. The manga series weaves masterfully between humor and drama, so not only will you play around with the silly thought of what any given monster might taste like, you’ll become invested in our heroes’ overarching noble quest. — PH