From In Real Life, illustrated by Jen Wang

Probably my favorite hobby next to playing video games is reading about people who love and design them. And I’m not talking licensed-by-Nintendo glory stories about CEOs overcoming their mistrust of Crash Bandicoot to make millions—I’m talking books about the rest of us, lovers on MMORPGs, struggling indie devs, self-hating gaming addicts, virtuous guild leaders, gold scammers and 10-year-old girls plugging in their first console.


Books populating the “gaming” section of bookstores often expand on lore or art, all in the service of boosting a franchise’s cred and pleasing its fans. These books are great, but I want to talk about the ones that are more critical of, or at least thoughtful about, the industry and its enthusiasts. Below are my top five books on gaming culture. Add yours in the comments!

The Proteus Paradox by Nick Yee

Author Nick Yee is a virtual worlds sociologist, which is the coolest job ever (he now works at Quantic Foundry). The Proteus Paradox expands on his groundbreaking “Daedalus Project,” for which he collected stories and data from over 35,000 MMORPG players over five years. In it, MMORPG fans describe falling in love online, gender-bending avatars and gaming addiction from a personal standpoint. Against those anecdotes, Yee leverages data he collected to expand on trends in online role-playing. Yee’s research explores the IRL-URL barrier with unparalleled sensitivity and charisma, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the culture of MMORPGs.

The Second Life Herald by Peter Ludlow and Mark Wallace

Ludlow and Wallace provide a glimpse into daily life on circa 2000s The Sims Online and Second Life by chronicling the day-to-day of their virtual newspaper, The Alphaville Herald. Setting up camp in a TSO gothic church in the early 2000s, Ludlow and Wallace’s paper churned out stories on scammers, virtual mafioso and cyber-brothels until, Ludlow alleges, it was shut down by higher powers. When the paper migrates to Second Life, that’s when chaos really ensues. I recommend this to anyone curious about the grim underbelly of virtual worlds and how to unearth it.

In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

This one’s a graphic novel, but its writing (a la Cory Doctorow) is superb. In Real Life follows a teenaged girl’s affair with the made-up MMO Coarsegold Online and, at the same time, with a mysterious Chinese gold farmer. Her struggle to assert her personhood and ethics in her fierce guild, as well as her grapple with the reality of virtual labor exploitation in China, is a challenging and inspiring story wrapped in some excellent art. I recommend this to, basically, everybody, but especially people interested in gold farming or being a young woman online.

Women in Game Development, edited by Jennifer Brandes Hepler

Thankfully, sexism against women in the games industry is receiving ample coverage from mainstream media. But hearing it first-hand from female game developers, artists and journalists is striking: In the male-dominated field, women are regularly harassed, devalued and alienated, or even altogether deterred from engaging in games professionally at all. Women in Game Development showcases female games professionals like Brianna Wu, Megan Gaiser and Jane Ng who struggled (or struggle still) through imposter syndrome and incessant harassment. The book humanizes the plight of these women, but also encourages us to celebrate their successes. I reviewed it last month and recommend the book to women considering games as a profession and to men in games who want to be allies.

Videogames For Humans, edited by Merritt Kopas

Twine is changing video games whether you like it or not. Game developer (and A+ Twitter personality) Merritt Kopas and her roster of over two dozen devs and games writers, delve into why this free-to-use, accessible game development platform is democratizing the industry. The book memorializes Twine development as a movement slated to open up game design and writing to those traditionally more marginalized in the field. Kotaku’s own Riley MacLeod and Patricia Hernandez are contributors as well. I recommend this to gamers interested in writing and writers interested in gaming.