Video Game World Becomes Less a Stranger to Fiction

By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, May 25, 2006

Even for video game fans, the E3 trade show a couple of weeks back can be a bit of an overdose. So: This is the time of year we take a break from playing video games and read a book. About playing video games.

Timely enough, here comes Douglas Coupland's latest novel, "JPod," about life at a Vancouver-based game company. Famous guy Coupland, you'll recall, is probably still best known for his debut novel, "Generation X," published 15 years ago.

In the new book, a game developer's corporate suits have dictated that its programmers incorporate a lovable turtle character into its upcoming skateboard title. It's a dumb call, from a soulless executive with a secret agenda -- and so aggravated are the novel's main characters by the decision that they spend half their days creating a violent mini-game they hope to hide in the finished product to undermine "BoardX" when it is released.

As in an earlier book, "Microserfs," in which he wrote about the lives of Microsoft worker bees, Coupland is mining territory that has been largely ignored by the literary set.

Video games tend to get a sneer from novelists, if anything, and that's probably no shock announcement. Writer Mark Costello's novel "Big If," published in 2002, was a typical enough example -- where a character's job at a video game company demonstrates his failure to accomplish anything serious. That company's post-apocalyptic game, as Costello describes it, is funny, but the writing is filled with little goofs about how games and the industry work.

The video game company of "JPod" is mildly depressing in its own ways, but the novel shows Coupland did his homework. Coupland, who said in an interview this week that he's no gamer, builds his characters by identifying the video games they play -- and darn if his picks don't shed a little light on them.

The game company workers of "JPod" have to deal with parents and accomplished siblings who disapprove of their career choices and the downer of working in "an industry that's increasingly more corporate and bland and soul-killing." What's worse, their skateboard game starts out as a cool project but eventually gets watered down and subverted, then killed outright, when the company gives up on it.

Coupland wouldn't say if the company in the book is based on any particular game publisher, but the largest game company in Vancouver is Electronics Arts' Canadian division. There seems to be a whiff of EA in "JPod," anyway.

When he was researching Microsoft in the mid-'90s for "Microserfs," Coupland found that everybody he talked to at that company was a True Believer in the company's mission to make software. "There was the genuine sense that you were working on something that would make the world better," he said.

Not so much in the video game world, alas. In the video game industry, he said. "There's a pretty common moral dilemma: 'Are we the next Hollywood -- or are we junk food?' "

Game people don't often fess up to this on the record, so it's satisfying to see an author capture it in fiction.

In some ways, the game industry is still weirder than the day-to-day life Coupland dreamed up for his fictional BoardX team. Take the real-world company that made skateboard video games a phenomenon, developer Neversoft. It was founded by a former accountant, a heavy metal fan named Joel Jewett. When I visited Neversoft a few years ago, it seemed like half the programmers and artists I talked to were wearing casts: Publisher Activision bought skateboards for everybody at the studio to make sure they all had a deep understanding of the sport, but the team had more enthusiasm than skill. Hospital trips ensued.

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