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Books You Should Own: Trigger Happy

Posted on 3rd Apr 2009 at 13:32 by Alex Watson with 16 comments

Alex Watson
Trigger Happy, by Steven Poole
Fourth Estate, 2000

The importance of criticism in relation to the actual art or products it discusses is matter of debate and criticism itself. Elvis Costello was neatly and completely dismissive of the very idea of music journalism, declaring that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’

Still, it was, in part, the traditions of music writing – and Rolling Stone in the 60s and 70s – that video games writers turned to when they wanted to redefine the point and purpose of games criticism. New Games Journalism was a reasonably successful attempt to widen games writing’s remit and claim a role for it that was bigger than just slapping 9/10 scores on run-of-the-mill sequels and churning out breathlessly keen previews (and it’s also what we here at Bit-Tech practise, at least if you believe Wikipedia).

Before the debate over New Games Journalism, though, was another of my favourite books about computers: Steven Poole’s Trigger Happy. Originally published in 2000, Trigger Happy isn’t subtitled ‘The Inner Life of Videogames’ for nothing. It’s a conscious attempt to push writing about games beyond identikit phrases ‘good graphics’ and ‘great playability’ ‘interesting gameplay’ – and if anything, to think about what words like ‘gameplay’ really, actually refer to.

Trigger Happy takes in the history of games, tracing their development from the late 70s onwards and contemplating what the future will bring for them. Poole is well-read and not afraid to show it: the bibliography lists Plato, Wittgenstein and William Gibson, while the title page mixes epigrams from T. S. Eliot alongside Lara Croft. The writing is enthusiastic and ebullient, weaving gaming concepts together with music, film and philosophy and literary theory.
Books You Should Own: Trigger Happy
There are times when this results in empty posturing - "If film, as Jean-Luc Godard said, is ‘truth, twenty-four times a second’, then modern videogames are lies that hit the nervous system at two and a half times the frequency," Poole writes, which reads well, sounds exciting and has as much specific meaning as the average U2 lyric.

For most of its 262 pages, however, Trigger Happy contains some of the most compelling, convincing and thoughtful writing about games you’ll ever read. Academic though his background may be, Poole knows and loves his games, and when he gets hands on, he’s very perceptive, as in this description of camerawork:

"Videogame camerawork was developed in order to enable the player to see the action from the most useful angle... Cinematic camerawork of the kind that is immediately noticeable or stylish, however, often depends for its effect on hiding something from the viewer, not letting you see everything. When the detective mounts the staircase of the Bates house in Psycho, Hitchcock deliberately chooses a very tight shot on his hand moving up the banister, inducing tension through dramatic irony, as we know what awaits him at the top of the stairs, although he does not. But there can be no dramatic irony in videogames, because dramatic irony depends on a knowledge differential between spectator and protagonist – yet in a videogame the player is both spectator and protagonist at once. Film manipulates the viewer, but a game depends on being manipulable."

When you read that, it seems remarkably obvious that there is a huge and perhaps unbridgeable gap between films and games – despite the fact that many games try and ape classic movies, some successfully (Metal Gear Solid), some less so (the latest Silent Hill, for instance).

I like it because it strikes to the core of what I personally find so exciting about games – the idea that they are both a simulation of strange new worlds, but also a commentary on what we can, and can’t do, in the current one:

"On a very basic level, Pac-Man and Lara [Croft] do in fact share one important attraction. If you swing the joystick to move Pac-Man around his maze, he opens and shuts his mouth automatically while on the move. If you press a button to make Lara walk forward she walks in a fluid, hip-swinging motion that is the result of hundreds of frames of painstaking digital animation. These are both examples of how characters give us videogaming pleasure: through a joyously exaggerated sense of control, or amplification of input. All you do is hold down a button, and you get to see this wonderfully complex, rich behaviour as a result. This is one very basic attraction of all types of interactivity, and it also seems to be a near-universal pleasure among humans in the modern industrialised world. Why do people enjoy driving cars? Amplification of input: you just lower your foot and suddenly you are moving at exhilarating speed."

The book was published in 2000, so it’s interesting to see which predictions came true and which were wildly wide of the mark. Dreamcast nostalgics will thrill at a book that comes from a time when Sega weren’t just about churning out rubbish Sonic games, and it’s curious to see how negative Poole is on PC gaming. This is a book from the pre-World of WarCraft/MMO era.

Trigger Happy is out of print at the moment (although there are lots of copies on Amazon Marketplace), but you can download it for free as a PDF from Steven Poole’s site.

Incidentally, while Trigger Happy missed out on MMOs, Poole himself has plenty to say on them, and the curious way that ‘work’ is so crucial to something that is ostensibly, fun.

16 Comments

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WilHarris 3rd April 2009, 17:12 Quote
I found Trigger Happy had far too much posturing and not enough actual insight. Poole is good at coming up with paragraphs, as you quite rightly point out, that sound grand but mean nothing. The best writers take a complex thought and simplify it down to understandable language: Poole does the exact opposite.

I am yet to actually read a book that creates any form of engaging commentary on games. I am personally not interested in a history of gaming development: I would rather understand gaming as a mental and physical activity.

Syd Field has written a great book on how to write a screenplay, and it includes a fascinating and clear dissection of the few archetypal movie plots, how they work, and how successful movies are all variations on a theme. I would like someone to write something similar about movies.

There is lots of good writing on the web about how games work - from developer diaries to the oft-feted New Games Journalism to insightful forum comments. I think there would be more value in collating and editing these into a book then there is from sitting down to read Poole's paperback.
Sifter3000 3rd April 2009, 17:24 Quote
There are plenty of good books about narrative structure, both in films and in general - Robert McKee's 'Story' often gets a mention, along with Christopher Vogler's excellent 'The Writer's Journey' - and essentially all of them are looking back to myths and Aristotle's theories in Poetics.

Part of the problem with doing something similar for games is that in no other media does technology so radically effect the designer's ability to communicate - you can do things in games now which were literally impossible 10 years ago (for instance, World of Warcaft). In movies, yes, special effects get better and the surround sound more precise but fundamentally, you can watch the Big Sleep or Psycho from years ago, and they work in the same way (or better) as modern films.

I think that's what makes Poole's book so interesting is that while he doesn't have any answers, he does have questions (cleverly phrased) that show up how radical a departure games are from what has come before.
CardJoe 3rd April 2009, 17:35 Quote
...I still couldn't get on with Trigger Happy. I just felt that nearly everything he said was incredibly obvious and just put together with a lot of long words to make it look clever. That sounds snobby of me, but I think it has more to do with the fact that it was written in the PS1 - 2 era and I only read it last month, so the ideas had dated awfully.

For anyone who actually wants to understand the history of gaming and how it's grown I still think Rogue Leaders (lucasarts), Raising the Bar (Valve) and Masters of Doom (id) work best, albeit from a snapshot-case study POV.
arcticstoat 3rd April 2009, 17:39 Quote
Rogue Leaders is indeed a great book - it's almost worth buying for the cover alone. I read Trigger Happy when it came out in 2000, and thought it was an entertaining read. At that time, gaming was still derided a lot in the mainstream press, and I remember thinking that it was good to have such an eloquent champion on our side. I'm not sure if I'd enjoy it now, though - it's probably dated a fair bit.
Major 3rd April 2009, 17:46 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by CardJoe
...I still couldn't get on with Trigger Happy. I just felt that nearly everything he said was incredibly obvious and just put together with a lot of long words to make it look clever. That sounds snobby of me

From those paragraphs in the article, it sounds exactly how you have stated it, nonsense stuff.
Sifter3000 3rd April 2009, 17:52 Quote
Man, maybe I'm just on a different planet in terms of what I like...
evanbraakensiek 3rd April 2009, 18:22 Quote
“Part of the problem with doing something similar for games is that in no other media does technology so radically effect the designer's ability to communicate - you can do things in games now which were literally impossible 10 years ago (for instance, World of Warcaft). In movies, yes, special effects get better and the surround sound more precise but fundamentally, you can watch the Big Sleep or Psycho from years ago, and they work in the same way (or better) as modern films.”

The appearance of impossibility is not strictly legitimate. The conception of World of Warcraft existed abstractly before the technology allowed it to become tangible. It is ironic then that you criticise the technological advancement in film but promote its use in computer games. The same relationship exists in all media.

The industrial revolution changed the way in which people lived and the novels' language changed to represent this change in conceptual reality. Consequently, realism and modernism was born. Language itself never changed, though. Only the way in which it was used. The same relationship exists within gaming. While technology may increase the tangible potentialities of how games are created and represented, the user still interacts in the same way.

Take 'Ocarina of Time; it splits areas geographically and in some cases had to physically stop the flow of the game to load the next area. It is not hard to see a dichotomy between now (x) and there (y) which governs your perception of the designer's ability to communicate. You can approach this in two ways: firstly, if Link is in area x but wants to move to area y, you know this requires a pause in game-play. Can another player inhabit the y area before Link wishes to move here, and if Link is there why should the second player be displaced – what is to stop them interacting? Secondly, instead of having to wait to transition between geographical area's it would be better to allow a fluid movement between the two areas? Again, technology allows the tangible movement between areas, but the abstract conception of this movement pre-dates the reality by some margin. This improved 'reality' is WoW.

Language (literature) in its raw form will always surpass any theoretical debate you have over game mechanics since there is nothing the novel cannot represent or do which film or games can. Just because games and film overtly disengage the user from using their imagination does not mean they are superior. Our conception of reality is based on language, which means that while games are easier to understand and engage with they are paradoxically undermined by this as well.
Major 3rd April 2009, 18:39 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by evanbraakensiek
snip

Still cheating in online games evan?

;)
evanbraakensiek 3rd April 2009, 19:09 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Major
Still cheating in online games evan?

;)


"Rolling in the mud is not the best way of getting clean".
Major 3rd April 2009, 19:15 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by evanbraakensiek
"Rolling in the mud is not the best way of getting clean".

Once a cheater always a cheater eh?

;)
evanbraakensiek 3rd April 2009, 19:25 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Major
Once a cheater always a cheater eh?

;)

Touché.
Major 3rd April 2009, 19:26 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by evanbraakensiek
Touché.

No, it's..

Touché :O

:D
Sifter3000 4th April 2009, 10:34 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by evanbraakensiek
The industrial revolution changed the way in which people lived and the novels' language changed to represent this change in conceptual reality. Consequently, realism and modernism was born. Language itself never changed, though. Only the way in which it was used. The same relationship exists within gaming. While technology may increase the tangible potentialities of how games are created and represented, the user still interacts in the same way.

Hmm, I'm not sure you can draw that parallel - yes, I do agree that it's true that the language of creative writing has changed over time, as writers seek to recreate, represent and critique their own and their society's circumstances. Stream of consciousness writing from the early part of the 20th century - Joyce, Woolf etc - is a good example of this, as they actively sought to break the Victorian social realist mode that had been established by writers such as Dickens, and instead focus on the individual's internal conception of reality.

This kind of evolution is, however, not technical - this is style and content. Yes, the words and style of the writing are changing, but the fundamental way that language works isn't radically changing - becuase, as you write:
Quote:
Our conception of reality is based on language

How creative writing/language works has, I think, remained the same for a very long time. It's why you can still read something from hundreds of years ago, and feel it talks very directly to you.

Games evolve in this way - style & content - too, although I think they lack the maturity of the novel's engagement with the world. But, crucially (and I think this is a point Poole makes particularly well in TH) they evolve in another way: that is, technically.

Yes, you could have dreamed up WoW years ago, but it only became possible to do it recently. The way MMOs work is quite different to previous games - it really changes the fundamentals of gaming because it shifts the focus from a linear progression through a story/set of levels to direct competition with other players (if you're talking PvP) or simply existence in a never ending world.
CardJoe 4th April 2009, 16:14 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Sifter3000

How creative writing/language works has, I think, remained the same for a very long time. It's why you can still read something from hundreds of years ago, and feel it talks very directly to you.

My stylistics lecturer would beg to differ with you, though mainly because he'd be out of a job otherwise ;)
evanbraakensiek 5th April 2009, 03:34 Quote
@ Sifter3000

Language has not changed for a very long time due to biology (generative grammar etc) rather than the content or style of language in a particular context. CardJoe is moving in the right direction when he mentions stylistics since it is an appropriate analogy for your argument. According to Bakhtin, stylistics are “concerned not with living discourse but with a histological specimen made from it, with abstract linguistic discourse in the service of an artist's individual creative powers”. Technology or, more importantly, its limitations are merely arbitrary values within the stylistic context of game production, which takes into account history and technological capability. The fact WoW could only become a tangible reality recently is completely negligible since it already existed abstractly.

If finished games represent the 'real' then the imagination or conception of games which cannot be created in the real at a particular moment in time due to technological limitations inhabit a symbolic “unreal”. The real continuously assimilates new values (games) but it is representative of perception rather than tangible reality. There are lots of things which could possibly be created but that does not mean they have to exist, or use cutting-edge technology.

In this sense there is nothing different, new or unthinkable which does not already exist. The fact it is not tangible only means it is in the symbolic “unreal” at this particular moment in time. There is then no technical evolution or progression. The way in which MMOs work is not different to other games because other games provide a stylistic context (albeit metaphysically) which fed into the eventual development and “creation” of that genre – which I tried to prove with 'Ocarina of Time. The components which define MMOs as a genre always exist but WoW was an example that they existed in the real. WoW is stylistically representative of every game that existed before it and technology in 2004. You are being mislead by the fact technology appears to advance endlessly in a particular direction, i.e. forwards, and you are thinking too literally. The fact WoW is constantly patched and updated proves that new things cannot be “created”. Perhaps, games are the best example of this in fact.

To use a better example. Gravity always existed. Newton “discovered” gravity. There is a technological progression to read gravitational values more complexly. Gravities effect on two objects (symbolically – two different games) can be different but that does not change the fact gravity exists. To use a literary example; the teenager was “created” lexically but always existed naturally. Just because there is not a word for something does not make that thing new, or mean that thing does not exist. Inversely, something can have a word but its meaning or role as a signifier changes over time. It is then the perception of the real which is significant. You think too literally with regards to particulars rather than the relationships and structures which govern “development” – the assimilation of games into the market. Stylistically (i.e. contextually), this assimilation process appears to be based around linear technological advancement of 3D graphics and the use of existing narrative techniques.

As a CPC subscriber, I would love to see a feature dealing with the evolution of games “technically” in the magazine at some point. Though, I am not hopeful!
Sifter3000 5th April 2009, 23:35 Quote
Well, I think at this point it becomes clear that we disagree not because of misunderstanding each other, but precisely because we understand each other - and that both our approaches are grounded in different, and often opposing (or at least differing) schools of theory.

I would, for instance, disagree completely with the notion that:
Quote:
The fact WoW could only become a tangible reality recently is completely negligible since it already existed abstractly.

...On the grounds that it's a meaningless position justified by fancy theoretical footwork. Of course we can - and should - debate what is real, theories of perception etc - but it's ridiculous to claim that there is no difference between the abstract and the tangible. What you're saying is that everything exists, it's just waiting for a name: I am not necessarily convinced of that, in part because I think it robs the individual of power and leads you down some pretty shady moral roads as regards culpability.

I am aware, though, that various scholars and critics would hold that it is my own position which is too literal and limited. I don't think it's something we'll necessarily be able to hash out in the comments, though...
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