I’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?
RSW: 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?
RSW: 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.