20 Dec

Podcast interview: Life. Leadership. Video Games. And me.

Classically Trained

I really enjoyed my conversation this fall with Jon Harrison, author the upcoming book Mastering The Game: What Video Games Can Teach Us About Success In Life, who interviewed me for his ClassicallyTrained podcast (“Life. Leadership. Videogames”).

We got to talk about video games (of course), fatherhood, Joey Spiotto’s art, the diversity of characters represented in Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet, the trickiest letter in the book (not Q, X, or Z), my Games & Books & Q&A interview series, and my earliest experiences as a reader and writer.

And let the record show that I caught myself (eventually) after declaring that there are 28 letters in the alphabet.

06 Oct

Games & Books & Q&A: Rachel Simone Weil

partytimehexcellentI’m really pleased to be joined in this installment of my Games & Books & Q&A series by a video game historian, and by the creator of NES games and glitch art under the alias Party Time! Hexcellent!, and by the curator of computer museum FEMICOM, and by an organizer of Juegos Rancheros, a monthly indie games event here in Austin, Texas.

Bringing all of those folks together would have been a lot of work on my part, except for one thing: they’re all the same person, Rachel Simone Weil. Rachel took time out from her latest batch of projects to answer a few questions via email about games and books she’s loved, and I really appreciate it.

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

RSW: It’s perhaps not strictly a video game, but the first electronic game I recall playing is a handheld LCD baseball game by Konami called Bottom of the Ninth. The graphics were on par with those you might see in a calculator or alarm clock — not terribly sophisticated — but I found the game to be quite fun and to have a good replay value. I never really outgrew the game, either; it continued to be fun for me as I got older.

If you’ve ever played an old LCD handheld game, you know that the motion of images on screen is not fluid. In Bottom of the Ninth, after a pitch was thrown, the ball would rapidly pop in and out of predetermined places to suggest movement. Each time the ball populated a new position on screen, the game would produce a little beep. Audio cues became incredibly important in knowing when to take a swing. The sound of those successive baseball beeps is still firmly implanted in my mind.

CB: What did you like to read when you were a kid? What did you love about it?

First Dictionary of Cultural LiteracyRSW: This is a hard question to answer because I consumed books so rapidly as a child. I enjoyed some traditional children’s literature (Madeleine L’Engle, Judy Blume), as well as poetry, classics, teen magazines, religious texts, guides to rocks and minerals, knock-knock joke anthologies, books about fortunetelling and witchcraft, comics… just about everything!

As odd as it sounds, the books I remember reading the most were encyclopedias and dictionaries. I had a copy of E. D. Hirsch’s A First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy that I read to the point of it completely falling apart. I even read through a thesaurus cover to cover once! I had a general love of words and language that carried over into adulthood a bit; before beginning my research and artistic practice in video games, I worked for a number of years as a book editor.

CB: What book that you read while growing up had the most influence on who you became as an adult?

sophiesworldRSW: Around the age of 12, I read an English translation of Sofies verden (Sophie’s World), a Norwegian novel about the history of philosophy. There were two things about Sophie’s World that left an impression on me. The first of these was the way in which the novel blended fiction and nonfiction, entertainment and learning (“edutainment,” if you must). It appealed to my weird, thesaurus-reading sensibilities but had little dashes of mystery novel and Alice in Wonderland thrown in, too.

Secondly, Sophie’s World was my first introduction to philosophy as a subject matter, and I found it so interesting that a conceptual problem could be considered through different frameworks or ways of thinking. In the book, Sophie’s teacher, Alberto Knox, makes it a point to note different philosophical approaches throughout history: “Socrates would have thought X was the solution, but Kant would have argued that it was in fact Y,” for example. This was radically different than the kind of thinking I encountered in school: one right answer, one knowable fact at a time.

Through my current work with video-game development and FEMICOM Museum, I am interested in the destabilization of knowledge and history and facts, and I suspect that Sophie’s World has played some role in seeding that interest.

***

I expect to continue this series through the publication later this month of my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet. (I suspect that this book will appeal to a few of those reluctant readers we just discussed.) If there’s anyone in the gamer or kidlit camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments.

28 Sep

Games & Books & Q&A: P.J. Hoover

TutI knew as soon as I saw how P.J. Hoover was promoting her latest book that she would be a great addition to the Games & Books & Q&A series of interviews with gaming professionals about books and with children’s and YA authors about video games. She discusses her neato approach below (yes, I just said “neato”), but first let me get you caught up on P.J.’s career so far.

Central Texas is fertile ground both for technology companies and for books for young readers, and P.J. has been part of both of those worlds. She made the switch from electrical engineer to author, debuting with the Forgotten Worlds trilogy. Last year saw the publication of her dystopian YA novel, Solstice (Tor Teen), and this year she’s followed up with her middle-grade adventure novel Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life (Starscape).

On a personal note, having gotten an early glimpse at the manuscript for this book six years ago, let me just say how satisfying it is to see Tut arrive on bookstore shelves — and how glad I am that P.J. took the time to talk with me about gaming.

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

PJH: You mean besides how quickly I could go through a roll of quarters? The thing I remember most about those early games was what a fantastic job they did transporting me to another place, even with their limited graphics. Maybe it was the way the arcade machine blocked out the sides, but when I played Jungle Hunt at the skating rink, I was there, swinging on the vines, swimming underwater. I also remember how much better some kids were than me. I’m pretty sure their parents gave them more quarters than mine gave me. :-)

CB: What games did you play the most when you were a kid? What did you love about them?

PJH: Games I played the absolute most were the ones I had at home (because there was no roll of quarters required). On the Commodore 64, I had Jumpman, M.U.L.E., Q*bert, and Wolfenstein. Q*bert I adored because I was actually better than anyone I knew at it. I loved how, if I executed certain patterns, I would evade all the obstacles. And Wolfenstein I loved because it had a whole story behind the game. I was trapped in a castle full of bad guys and I had to escape! Also, I was good at it, too. I escaped the castle almost every time. Achtung!

CB: What role do games play in your life today?

SONY DSCPJH: With two kids at home (ages 10 and 13), one of our favorite things to do together is to play games. Mario Kart 8 on the Wii U is a great family time activity (actually the whole Wii mentality is very family based). One of my kids still plays Wizard101 with me (imagine World of Warcraft meets Harry Potter). I’m proud to admit that I am a Level 71 Fire Wizard in the game (which translates to many hours played). I’m also trying to improve my Portal 2 skills on the Xbox (the cake is a lie). So to say video games play a role in my life today is an understatement. I encourage parents to take time out of their lives and play games with their kids. They’re actually a ton of fun.

I see how much time kids want to be on the computer, and given my love of gaming, I’ve developed some fun gaming tie-ins for Tut. There’s a Minecraft server developed for the book where kids can explore both ancient Egypt and modern-day Washington, D.C, unlocking hidden clues as they go. There’s also an old-school 10-level video game, written using Scratch (a fun programming platform created by MIT). The game requires basic evasion, puzzle solving, and decoding. (Cheats are available on my website.)

I had to delete Candy Crush from my phone because I was playing far too much. :-)

***

I expect to continue this series through the October publication of my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet. If there’s anyone in the gamer or kidlit camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments.

22 Sep

Games & Books & Q&A: Glenn “Commander” Banton of Operation Supply Drop

OperationSupplyDropGlenn “Commander” Banton, the board chairman and executive director of Operation Supply Drop (OSD), is the next interviewee from the field of gaming in my Games & Books & Q&A series.

OSD is a 501(c)(3) charity that provides video-game-filled care packages to American and allied soldiers, both those deployed to combat zones and those recovering in military hospitals. The organization plans to increase on-base activities stateside, contribute further to peacekeeping and humanitarian missions worldwide, and help soldiers leaving the military to transition into entry-level game-developer jobs.

For reasons that you’ll read for yourself below, my exchange with Glenn brought to mind the much-needed focus and attention that “reluctant readers” receive from librarians today, as exemplified by this session at last year’s American Library Association conference. If you could use some “strategies for turning reluctant readers into ‘eager readers,'” I highly recommend it.

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

G”C”B: This is a great question! While I’m not 100% sure what the actual first game was, it almost certainly was on one of those Tiger handheld systems. Maybe the Bo Jackson Football/Baseball combo, Paperboy, or electronic football. We didn’t have a console-type system, so I remember saving up the $20-30 for these individual games. Also, around the same time frame I recall the long days and nights on Super Mario Bros. as well as the day we beat the game… and the utter disappointment in that it just starts the game over. I still know the house I was in when that happened and have even shown my kids. I’m not sure they’re impressed.

CB: What did you like to read when you were a kid? What did you love about it?

SuperfudgeG”C”B: When I was a kid, I had a love/hate relationship with reading — meaning I loved to hate it — which is quite odd given how much I now read as an adult. I remember very clearly reading (and enjoying) books like Henry and the Paper Route by Beverly Clearly or Superfudge or How to Eat Fried Worms as well as what I’m sure a lot of kids’ favorite library checkout was around the same time, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, but that was very small window during 4th/5th grade.

In order to encourage more reading late in elementary school into middle school, my parents even offered to pay me 10 cents per chapter, and for some reason this didn’t work, either. As I got older, entering high school and then college, I can’t honestly remember reading much other than the Cliff’s Notes versions of books unless they were nonfiction. I believe this had a lot to do with the number of books being assigned in school and not having the time time to actually explore what I would have liked to read. I’d rather read books on computer programming or historical books, but those weren’t a part of the curriculum.

As I mention, though, I read a lot these days, probably 2-5 books each month. And even with both of my kids, they’re the types that telling them they cannot read would be a punishment.

CB: What book that you read while growing up had the most influence on who you became as an adult?

G”C”B: There are actually two, with one being more of a series of books. The first and most influential is the Bible. There is no other book on the planet from which a kid, or adult for that matter, can draw such wisdom. I still read the Bible every day. The second would be the Cub Scout, then Boy Scout handbooks. I was a scout for 7+ years, and nearly everything we did was also taught or narrated from one of these books. I’ve had the pleasure of recently starting up scouting again with my son, so it’s great to share these same lessons with him.

***

I expect to continue this series through the October publication of my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet. (I suspect that this book will appeal to a few of those reluctant readers we just discussed.) If there’s anyone in the gamer or kidlit camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments.

15 Sep

Games & Books & Q&A: Sam Johnson of KingsIsle

Wizard101The next interviewee from the field of gaming in my Games & Books & Q&A series is Sam Johnson.

Sam aspired to be a game designer as early as high school, and he began his career as a writer for Shadowbane. Now, as Lead Creative Designer for KingsIsle Entertainment, Sam creates and writes the storylines for the company’s massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, which include Wizard101 and Pirate101.

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

SJ: There’s a few ways I could answer this, given the nature of video games today. I’m one of the old guys, who actually remembers the birth of the medium – I’ve seen a lot of stuff come and go. So I’ll cheat and give you 3 answers, one for each of the major platforms:

Coin-Operated stand up: The first video game I ever played, ever, was a coin op — it was a black and white game called Tank: Think of the main tank game on the old Atari 2600 Combat cartridge, but not in color. No narrative, graphics beyond primitive, sound crude as well. For all its crudeness, I remember how fun it was, in a visceral way — the competitive nature of it (I think you had to play against another player — no AI tanks on screen) instantly amped everything up. It didn’t matter that my collection of little squares barely looked like a tank, or that the shots from my cannon barely traveled faster than my tank did. As soon as a match started, my heart was racing and my adrenaline was through the ceiling. I remember trying to dodge the little obstacles without getting stuck on them.

Console Game: The first game I played in the comfort of my own home was Pong. Yup, straight up Pong. It was on a console the size of an Atari 2600, but there was no cartridge — the game (and like one or two variants) was hard-wired into the thing. I remember how responsive the controls were: if you spun that wheel too fast, you’d miss the little square ball and lose — it was my first experience of having to get zen and concentrate in a video game — the heart-racing that was so fun in Tank was counter-productive.

Computer Game: The first computer game I had was Ultima III: Exodus on my good old Apple 2. What I remember about that one was how big and rich the world seemed — new mysteries would open up all the time: dungeons I missed, or hidden cities that were illustrated on the cloth map but that I couldn’t find for the life of me when I stomped around that tiled landscape. I also remember thinking it was silly that they pluralized “Orcus” as “Orcuss” — I played DnD, so I knew “Orcus” was unique.

CB: What did you like to read when you were a kid? What did you love about it?

SJ: I’d have to say comic books more than anything. They actually taught me a lot of vocabulary, and the old Marvel ones were fraught with little literary nods: “Ours is but to do and die,” “The Light That Failed,” that kind of thing. I also read a ton of classics comics — to this day I haven’t managed to finish The Odyssey and I haven’t read a word of The Count of Monte Cristo, but I know those stories because of what I read. I also dearly loved science fiction, as much of it as I could get my hands on. I loved learning words, and seeing how you could make such awesome phrases and sentences out of them. I ended up a writer, go figure.

CB: What book that you read while growing up had the most influence on who you became as an adult?

Lizard MusicSJ: Boy, that’s a tough one. It all depends on what you mean by “when growing up.” So again, I’ll give you two answers:

Elementary School: Lizard Music, by Daniel Pinkwater. I really identified with the main character — he was a nerd like me, an outsider, with his distinct loves (Walter Cronkite, pizza) and the things he worried about: getting the glue right on his model airplane, or the pockets of superhot cheese that might be lurking under the surface of that piece of pizza. That book taught me it was okay to be me. Also, the mystery and the adventure he got into helped me really cherish my imagination, and hang on to the idea that I could find really wondrous or special things buried under ordinary life if I looked at it through the right eyes.

High School: The Stand, by Steven King. I felt like I knew those characters, like I’d lived with them my whole life. They turned into my role models. I learned about love in that book, and devotion, and faith, and endurance. Stu Redman taught me to do whatever it takes, and how to endure hardships without despairing. Looking at Stu, I saw the grown up I wanted to be. Harold Lauder showed me the dark side of the nerd I was growing up into, who I might end up if I let jealousy and ego consume me — he taught me what kind of man I did not want to be. I’ve had some really hard times in my life, and the example of all those characters helped me come through them intact. And I have to say, at the darkest moment in my life (I was still growing up at 23), Glen Bateman’s realization and sacrifice literally saved my life.

***

I expect to continue this series through the October publication of my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet. If there’s anyone in the gamer or kidlit camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments.

07 Sep

Games & Books & Q&A: Kelly Milner Halls

Ghostly EvidenceYou know that saying about great minds thinking alike? Good. Then I don’t have to repeat it here. But I will point out that among author Kelly Millner Halls‘ next projects is a video game book — a history of them, called Game On — and let you draw your own conclusions.

While we wait for Kelly’s gaming book, we can enjoy her latest one, Ghostly Evidence: Exploring the Paranormal (Millbrook Press). Booklist says of Ghostly Evidence, “This engaging selection takes a nonsensational, rational look at aspects of the paranormal: ghosts, haunted locales, ghost hunters, and supernatural hoaxes. Incorporating personal accounts from both believers and skeptics, the author presents balanced coverage, exposing obvious frauds and deceptions alongside occurrences that defy rational explanation.”

We can also pass the time by talking with Kelly about her own gaming experiences in this latest entry in my Games & Books & Q&A series.

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

KMH: As a teenager, I watched my mom save all her quarters so we could go to the pizza parlor to play Pong as a table top game and Pac-Man in a traditional arcade cabinet. We spent hours burning through those quarters — even more when a real arcade opened in our town. I was hooked. Video games would never be absent from my life again. But what really sealed the deal was getting one of the first NES in 1983 as a new mother. When my first daughter couldn’t sleep, Mario kept us company and stole my heart. It was ON!

CB: What games did you play the most when you were a kid? What did you love about them?

KMH: Because I’m old (*smile*), I cut my teeth on pinball, then the very first video games like Space Invaders, Asteroids, and Donkey Kong — the Golden Age of classic consoles. But my mom bought the first Atari system for herself, so I explored all of those games early on at home. I followed the same pattern with my kids, visiting arcades to play Centipede, Frogger (thank you, David Lubar), Primal Rage, Ms. Pac-Man and the lot. My daughters have literally never known life without video games.

I loved competing with myself — trying to beat my personal best every time I played. Carving your electronic initials as a high scoring player was nice, but beating your own score was better. And video games spirit you out of your own world and into an alternative universe. While you play, you don’t have to think about anything but the game. And that can be cleansing, in healthy doses. Besides, it’s FUN. I also played tennis everyday, and I found that if I was frustrated with a parent, a class or a teacher, I got the same opportunity to safely vent my feelings on the court AND in the games. Also healthy.

CB: What role do games play in your life today?

VideoGameConsoleKellyKMH: Today, my daughters play video games — my oldest, Kerry, plays casually; my youngest, Vanessa, plays with absolute devotion. We own just about every console and hand held systems, plus MANY, many games because Vanessa has worked for GameStop for years. We play for fun, for research, or for family connection. Some contemporary games are story driven — expansive games like HALO or Red Dead Redemption, Final Fantasy or Assassin’s Creed. Even Chrono Trigger is story driven. To me, those game experiences are very much like good fictional books. Some are driven by gore, like classic horror movies, games like Left 4 Dead or Dead Rising. Others are just good solid fun like Mario Kart, Castle Crashers, Pokemon, and Rayman. No matter what game we play, we play as a family, so it’s a bonding experience. And that’s what I love most about video games — they really can serve to strengthen a family.

***

I expect to continue this series through the October publication of my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet. If there’s anyone in the gamer or kidlit camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments.

17 Aug

Games & Books & Q&A: Adam Gidwitz

grimmConclusionBCI confess that I’ve never played video games with Adam Gidwitz, but on the occasions when Adam has joined my family for board games while visiting Austin, he’s shown himself to be a fun, vigorous competitor. I figured he’d be a good author to include in the Games & Books & Q&A series.

Adam is the author of the fairy tale-inspired (to put it lightly), occasionally a smidge gruesome (to employ a bit of understatement) middle-grade trilogy consisting of A Tale Dark & Grimm, In a Glass Grimmly, and The Grimm Conclusion (all published by Dutton).

His upcoming books include a retelling of The Empire Strikes Back, part of a series that will also feature previous interviewee Tom Angleberger‘s take on Return of the Jedi. Before we get into talking about video games, here’s a little more information on their Star Wars books.

But enough about Star Wars. (I’m kidding. There’s no such thing.) Let’s talk about video games.

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

AG: Is this question just an excuse to gauge your interviewees’ age? I know it is. I find it offensive and embarrassing. What if I said the first computer game I played was Halo? You’d think I was 14. Or Dr. Babbage’s Automated Loom-Game? You’d think I was 200.

In truth, the first game I played was Mario Bros./Duck Hunt, for the original Nintendo. I remember a friend of mine, Chip Martucci (isn’t that a great name for a kid in a nostalgic memory?) had the first Nintendo of anyone I knew. It was the freshest thing on the market. I coveted it, and coveted my time playing it. I would sleep over at his house, and wake up at 5 a.m., and just lie there, starving, waiting for him to wake up and praying he would want to play Nintendo.

I had a problem.

CB: What games did you play the most when you were a kid? What did you love about them?

AG: The game I have been devoted to since it appeared was Sid Meier’s Civilization, as well as its many retreads and spin-offs. I had the original game on its seven floppy discs. When I want to update the most recent iteration (Civ V, for those counting at home) with an expansion pack, I can download it wirelessly. Despite the fact that one hundredth of the expansion pack couldn’t have fit on those floppies. How far we’ve come. All so I can conquer the world again and again and again.

CB: What role do games play in your life today?

adamgidwitzAG: Honestly, I try to limit my gameplay these days, as I have an obsessive personality ONLY in regards to games (of all types). Whenever you try to close Civ, it says, “Are you sure?” And you can choose “Exit Game” or “Just one more turn…” Oh, if only it was “one more turn.” I literally threw my Civ III and IV discs down the trash chutes at college because I was not working — only to buy them again. And again throw them down the chutes. Sadly, if I threw the wi-fi router down the trash chute, I would not be able to participate in interviews like this.

So these days, I try to channel my desire for world domination and epic battles into my fiction. Adults often bemoan those parts of my books. But kids, especially gamers, get it. If I can make a kid feel like I did playing those games, if I can transform “One more turn…” into “One more page…,” I will have done a good thing.

***

I expect to continue this series through the October publication of my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet. If there’s anyone in the gamer or kidlit camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments.

13 Aug

Games & Books & Q&A: Melissa Wiley

inchrolysunnydayMy friend Melissa Wiley is the next children’s/YA author that I’m featuring in the Games & Books & Q&A series.

Melissa is the author of more than a dozen books for kids and teens, including The Prairie Thief, Inch and Roly and the Sunny Day Scare, Fox and Crow Are Not Friends, and the Martha and Charlotte Little House books. She lives in San Diego with her husband, Scott Peterson, and their six kids. Melissa has been blogging about her family’s reading life at Here in the Bonny Glen since 2005. She is @melissawiley on Twitter and @bonnyglen on Instagram.

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

MW: First video game I played had to be Pong. I think my dad brought it home from Radio Shack, if I recall correctly. My little sisters and I were enthralled. There is a certain shade of glowing green that always brings Pong rushing back to my mind. Was it even really green? That’s how I remember it.

CB: What games did you play the most when you were a kid? What did you love about them?

MW: We got an Atari 2600 when I was around 8th or 9th grade. I. LOVED. THAT. THING. Fave game: Adventure. The way the dragons curled up when you stabbed them! I went through a whole blissful nostalgia-binge not long ago, revisiting Adventure on a desktop version. It’s amazing the wave of feelings it conjures up. That exhilaration of discovery; the happy state of tension I love in a game.

We also had Atari Pinball and my prowess at that game became a badge of honor — I rocked it. Nobody could skirt just this side of a tilt like I could. For a kid who was hopeless at sports and miserable in gym class, excelling at a video game was a confidence boost beyond measure. I was this tiny, scrawny, late-blooming kid, but at Pinball I could whip my best friend’s older brothers. I’m still proud. :)

Other friends had a ColecoVision, and I spent hours at their place playing Donkey Kong. They also had an Indiana Jones game (Atari? Coleco?) that I loooved. Those snakes, the music, the ankh. To this day I love adventure games where you have to puzzle your way through.

CB: What role do games play in your life today?

Melissa WileyMW: Pretty major, I’d have to say! I have six game-enthusiast kids, and playing together is truly one of my greatest joys. My favorite group game is Minecraft — I’m fond of sandbox games. We have our own server and I love logging in to see what new marvels they’ve built in our world. In my own world (created before we set up the server) I have a giant Tudor mansion and English garden. I’m constantly tearing down wings and renovating. :)

We play a fair amount of Wii Mario Kart and Wii Sport together (especially Scott and the kids, for the latter). I also like the ski jump game in Wii Fit.

We love World of Warcraft but unfortunately my computer is the only one in the house that can handle it, so the kids can’t do much there and it’s been a long while since we’ve logged on.

The game I loved most of all and mourn deeply is Glitch. Another sandbox game, but with art and music like none other, and a charming, deeply creative community. All my phone ringtones are from Glitch which means constant nostalgia pangs. We were so sad when it shut down! Tiny Speck released all the assets to the public, though, and a couple of teams of volunteers are working to recreate the game, so I have high hopes of feeding sloths and milking butterflies again someday.

***

I expect to continue this series through the October publication of my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet. If there’s anyone in the gamer or kidlit camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments.

06 Aug

Games & Books & Q&A: Anastasia Salter

Anastasia SalterThe next interviewee from the field of gaming in my Games & Books & Q&A series is Anastasia Salter, an assistant professor of digital media at the University of Central Florida.

Anastasia has two books forthcoming in 2014: What is Your Quest? From Adventure Games to Interactive Books (University of Iowa Press) and Flash: Building the Interactive Web (MIT Press), co-authored with John Murray. She also writes for ProfHacker, a blog on technology and pedagogy hosted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, and is currently chair of the North American Simulation and Gaming Association and a member of the THATCamp Council.

CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?

AS: I got into video games for the first time with my parents, playing on our DOS personal computer. The game we started out with was Rise of the Dragon, an adventure game by Dynamix with grainy images surrounded by black frames. Now that I think about it, it was a pretty violent game for a kid — it’s set in a cyberpunk world where we played as “Blade Hunter” fighting against an evil plot to destroy everyone with a mutating water-born virus, I think. I mostly remember drinking from a water fountain every time we failed and transforming into some sort of pink reptilian monster.

It was good preparation for the Sierra adventure games I would play soon after, with their many arbitrary death sequences. One of the best things about the game was its bundled manual — a comic books with a guide to being a private investigator, which I kept. This was back when games came in awesome boxes with lots of great printed material, definitely a golden age for game stories.

Adventure games cemented my love of PC gaming. I played a little on early consoles around the same time, but none of them stood out like Rise of the Dragon and the many games that would follow — Maniac Mansion, King’s Quest, Monkey Island, Doom, and so many more. PC games seemed like a lens into the grown-up world, and not just because of the “adult test” (a series of questions like “Does a pair of queens beat 3 deuces?” and “Which of these drinks is non-alcoholic?”) before Leisure Suit Larry. My parents did bring home educational games, but they mostly couldn’t compare.

CB: What did you like to read when you were a kid? What did you love about it?

AS: As a resident of my own imaginary world, I pretty much lived on fantasy novels. Anything that offered me lots of books in a world I could get lost in made it on my shelf for endless re-readings. My childhood hero was Raistlin Majere from the Dragonlance novels, with his perfect sarcasm and outsider image. Magic users (fantasy’s academics, appropriately) really appealed to me, particularly the nine-lived Chrestomanci of Diana Wynne Jones’s novels, the too-proud Sparrowhawk of A Wizard of Earthsea, and the sword-wielding seers of Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown.

I was completely devoted to the works of Piers Anthony, even if I didn’t quite get all the humor until later. My favorite elementary school librarian gave me a copy of Man from Mundania, which featured a story of an apparently average guy getting to cross from real-Florida to Xanth, and I loved the concept even more than Alice’s rabbit hole. It got even better a few years later, when Piers Anthony released Demons Don’t Dream, a novel about a game that allowed players to transport to Xanth — which was bundled with the computer game itself, Companions of Xanth, coming full-circle.

CB: What book that you read while growing up had the most influence on who you became as an adult?

Alanna_The_First_AdventureAS: I’m on my third copy of Tamora Pierce’s Alanna: The First Adventure, the first book of a quartet. I reread my previous copies so many times that they fell to pieces. The four novels tell the story of a girl who switches places with her twin brother in order to go into training as a knight, thus avoiding the fate of growing up to be a “lady.” The quartet should have been one novel, but this was before J.K. Rowling changed the standards for what could be marketed as a kid’s book. It deals frankly with things that never got discussed in any of my other books: having a first period, birth control, and sexual agency.

Great, complex women were in short supply in most of the media I encountered as a kid. Alanna stood out as a truly powerful character who wasn’t just a “strong woman” written for the masculine gaze. None of her story falls into the traditional happy ending traps that most fantasy women from books and games seemed destined to land. Most importantly, Tamora Pierce’s novels included greater diversity than any other fantasy novels I’d encountered, offering a fantasy world truly worth finding a rabbit hole.

***

I expect to continue this series through the October publication of my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet. If there’s anyone in the gamer or kidlit camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments.

01 Aug

Get your gaming guesses (and your guesser-gamers) ready…

For my upcoming book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet, it’s pretty obvious which video game terms the letters A, B, and C are for. But what about the rest of the alphabet?

In the Bartography Express newsletter sent to my subscribers this week, I announced that my publisher will be giving away advance copies of the book for correct guesses about D through Z. So, alert any gaming aficionados you know: For the next 23 days, on my blog and on Twitter, I’ll be offering clues in the form of bits of the illustrations for those letters, similar to the pieces of “A is for Attack,” “B is for Boss,” and “C is for Cheat Code” featured in Bartography Express.

I’m also giving away a copy of Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, a funny, twisty, middle grade sci-fi thriller by Greg Leitich Smith, to one subscriber to my newsletter. If you’re not already receiving it, click the image below for a look -— if you like what you see, click “Join” in the bottom right corner, and you’ll be in the running for the giveaway at the end of this week.

20140731 Bartography Express