Steven Poole, author of Trigger Happy

Published in 2000 by Fourth Estate, Trigger Happy is probably the most dense, fascinating and clever book ever written about videogames. Its author, Steven Poole -who notably writes for the Guardian, the Independent and Edge-, talks about the genesis of the book, the reactions it provoked, the artistic value of games, and its favorite ones.

Polygon : What made you feel like writing Trigger Happy ?

Steven Poole : Around the end of 1998, I was looking for a book that treated videogames seriously and offered an aesthetic analysis of them. The best book in the field I found was L'Univers des Jeux Vidéo, by Alain & Frédéric Le Diberder. But that was mostly (very good) sociological analysis. I couldn't find any lengthy artistic analysis. So I figured I would try to write such a book myself.

What were your purposes, your intentions while writing it ?

On the one hand, I was trying to describe the pleasures and sophistication of videogames to a general audience, so I decided to characterise the videogame experience by comparison and contrast with other artforms that people are familiar with, such as painting, cinema and literature. On the other hand, I was trying to interest people who already knew videogames, and to develop the beginnings of a vocabulary for videogame criticism. Words such as "playability" and "addictive" had been used for so long without anyone really trying to deconstruct them. That was the reason for the material on three types of incoherence, psychological strategies and muscle memory, semiotics, and so on.

How was the writing of the book ? How long did it take to write it ?

The writing was exciting and frustrating in equal measure, because I didn't have much to go on besides my own notions : there wasn't much of a field of serious videogame criticism to engage with, so I had to make a lot up as I went along. It took ten months to write.

Was it hard to find a publisher ?

I was lucky in being commissioned to write the book from the start by Fourth Estate, who were at the time probably the country's most forward-thinking general independent publisher.

How were the reactions of the readers ? Of the people of the videogame industry ? Of the press ?

I got a whole spectrum of reactions. They weigh in at about 50 per cent wildly positive ; 50 per cent wildly negative. I was pleased that the book provoked strong opinions.

At first I got a lot of aggressive emails from readers pointing out factual errors in the book. The first edition did have a lot of factual errors : this is partly owing to the fact that there is little reliable printed material on videogame history (Game Over, Phoenix and Joystick Nation were all I had to go on at the time), and internet research is notoriously unreliable. However, a few readers (Stuart Campbell especially) were kind enough at my prompting to provide corrections to the errors, which were then rectified in the second edition.

I got a lot of emails from readers that effectively said : your book is boring and too hard to read and anyway videogames aren't anything like art, they're just fun. That's a point of view. But it doesn't seem like a very constructive one to me.

I was very pleased with the reviews the book had from the videogame press, in Edge (I didn't work for Edge at the time) and Arcade magazines especially. They seemed to share my opinion of what I was trying to do with the book - essentially, to offer a modest start in the field of serious artistic analysis of videogames. I was also lucky in getting a lot of reviews in the mainstream press, most of which again were kind, even if the reviewers didn't quite understand what I was getting at.

Over the last year-and-a-half of reader emails, two major complaints have been repeated very often, so I'd like to answer them here :

1) If you hardly played any games between giving up the Spectrum and getting a PlayStation, what gives you the right to write a history of games ?

Of course I went back and played a lot of SNES/Megadrive-era games on emu when I was researching the book. Film writers can watch films they didn't see first time round on video ; you can also do that with games. The chronology of my experience doesn't matter. But the big point is that Trigger Happy was never supposed to be a thorough history of videogames. That is why there are certain biases in the historical selection. I chose only those games that would most easily illustrate the general aesthetic arguments I wanted to make.

2) Your book spends too much time talking about Tomb Raider and a handful of other console games.

That, again, is deliberate. Because I wanted the book to be comprehensible to a general audience as well as a specialist one, I didn't think my purpose would be served by festooning the pages with single references to obscure games when a handful of more recognisable products would do just as well to make my points. Tomb Raider was a groundbreaking videogame that also illustrates very well some of the limitations shared by other products.

In your opinion, what videogames currently lack (or don't lack) to be termed "art" ?

The best ones I don't think lack anything. Legend of Zelda : Ocarina of Time is a work of art. So is Rez. But they are art in a different sense to that in which we usually understand it (that is part of the argument in Trigger Happy). The worst ones in my opinion tend to focus too much on competing with rival artforms (especially cinema) and become a mess of bad scriptwriting and low levels of interaction, such as the last few Final Fantasy games.

In your opinion, what will give videogames a mainstream recognition ?

I think it's just a matter of time, of attaining a sort of critical mass of acceptance that games are made by highly intelligent and creative people, and that the best of them are sophisticated artworks in their own right.

What's your favorite game and why ?

It's a three-way toss-up. Defender, for its savagely sensuous kinetic gameplay, wonderful sound design, and deep controls ; Legend of Zelda : Ocarina of Time, for its music, its environmental atmosphere, and its constant joyous sense of discovery ; Metal Gear Solid, for its freedom in problem-solving, its sound effects, and its compactness in packing many great moments into a length that doesn't outstay its welcome for a minute.

What do you intend to add in future editions of Trigger Happy ?

The current edition has an extra "Afterword" chapter building on arguments in the book in relation to events between first and second publication. This will expand as needed in future.

Interview by Pierre Gaultier.

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