As a genre, the video game memoir is in full bloom. No other art form has made such lightning strides in our lifetimes, which makes it an irresistible subject for some writers looking to process the changes in the world around them. Thinking about how our conception of video games has evolved leads one to bump up against other subjects such as military history, technology, aesthetics and psychology, which Andrew Ervin’s “Bit by Bit” dutifully does.
Ervin, a novelist, brings a literary sensibility to his study of the medium. Quotations from Shakespeare to Melville fill his text. He uses Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” to explain his decision not to fully refurbish a “Donkey Kong” arcade cabinet.
Midway through his 40s, Ervin decided to catch up on gaming. He was inspired by watching his nephews play “Minecraft” on Christmas. Ervin had been away from gaming since he sold his Nintendo system in college and used the proceeds to buy books. In “Bit by Bit,” he states that he got out “at exactly the wrong time, right before the release of Mario 64,” which helped standardize how characters move in 3D environments — a milestone he equates with the rediscovery of linear perspective in the Renaissance.
If you’ve struggled with the controls on a modern video game, then Ervin makes an affable guide through the history of the medium. But players more au courant will find things to quibble with.
When Ervin refers to “Fallout 4” and “No Man’s Sky” as “magisterial,” he implies that they are uncontested masterpieces; they are not.
Also, when he recommends the PlayStation 3 to new gamers rather than the Xbox, which he associates with “ultraviolent, artless games,” one may recall that it was Xbox Live Arcade that launched artsy games such as “Limbo,” “Fez” and “Braid.”
Although Ervin goes on to pay his respects to “Halo,” he still projects his discomfort with first-person shooters. (I found myself wishing he’d play “Overwatch.”)
When Ervin reflects on the “insidious” quality of the military using video games as recruitment tools, one may ask why that’s more egregious than a TV ad. Should the Army not try to recruit young people?
For me, the book’s key statement is this: “Today, if there is in fact a distinction between mass entertainment and the fine arts, it gets complicated more effectively by video games than any other medium.”
“Bit by Bit” plumbs these complications with welcome intelligence.
The book lacks the feeling of an insider’s account of the gaming scene, but for the uninitiated, it makes for a good starter class.
Christopher Byrd writes about video games for The Washington Post. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, the Guardian and elsewhere.
By Andrew Ervin
Basic. 290 pp. $27