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Gamepunk: the next big thing in literature
by Ben Freund
11.11.11

Lately, more and more books about games are being published. I don't mean the Official Game Guide to Battlefield 3, nor the Gears of War novelisations either, although I hear they're surprisingly readable. I mean novels about the power and influence of games and gaming in the not-so-distant future.

io9's Annalee Newitz beat me to the punch on this subject just last week with an excellent list of novels that deal with the borders between games and reality. There aren't any hard feelings, though. It is an exciting new genre, and I'm glad I'm not the only one who's taking notice of it!

It needs a name, though, doesn't it? These books aren't quite like their closest cousins, the cyberpunks, but there's also an undeniable influence. So let's call these new books 'gamepunk'.

Hey, that was easy.

I don't want to make any grand claims about the rules or limits of gamepunk, but I want to suggest some elements that mark the genre as distinct from cyberpunk, and particularly appealing to the gamer-for-life.

Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is a cyberpunk classic that may come to mind. It features the MMO-like Metaverse, but it lacks a focus on games and gamers. Hiro Protagonist is an elite hacker and master swordfighter, whereas I emit hacking coughs and a practice a self-taught combat style called Not-In-The-Face-Fu. It's a great book, but it's not about you, me, or the games we play.

Ender's Game from Orson Scott Card seems like a strong candidate, but despite the promising appearance of the word 'game' in the title, the competitive games in it are more akin to tests, which our boy Ender generally wins by breaking all the rules. That cute little genocider is a CHEATER who uses HAX, and that can't be respected.

No, it seems to me that gamepunk is about real gamers and believable games. Ernest Cline's Ready Player One and Cory Doctorow's For the Win are two recent novels that take games seriously as social and economic forces, and feature strong hearted gamers as agents of positive change. For the Win is even available as a free download on Doctorow's website, thanks to his support of the Creative Commons license.

Both of those books appear on Newitz's list, but I'd like to make a couple of recommendations of my own.

Although Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End isn't solely about gamers, it takes place in a world that has become a game—whichever game you choose. If two people are standing in New York, looking up at the Empire State Building, their VR contact lenses would allow them to see a more compelling reality of their choice. A comic book fan might see the Daily Planet offices, where Clark Kent tries very hard not to be Superman, while a child might see a 102-story oak tree, inhabited by Disney animals. These realities are created and propagated according to the quantity of people who choose to inhabit and contribute to them. The book says a great deal about the technological singularity, cyberterrorism, and the advent of ubiquitous computing, but what managed to stick in my mind was a large-scale battle between rival factions of fanboys over the fate of a library.

And then there's a special book that doesn't quite fit the mould: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz takes place mostly in the 20th century, so it can't claim our futuristic gamepunk label. Instead, it settles for being serious modern literature about several generations of an immigrant family struggling to adapt to America, and come to terms with their Dominican heritage. The unlikely anchor of the story is young Oscar, a misfit obsessed with science fiction, fantasy, and comic books. If you consider yourself a gamer, you can probably find something to identify with in him, and you'll certainly find something unique and charming about how much humanity Diaz manages to pack into a character who superficially resembles the sedentary, apathetic gamer stereotype—albeit at a time when “gamer” meant Dungeons & Dragons, not World of Warcraft.

Oscar Wao aside, it's easy to dismiss these books as escapism. Which they are, certainly. But as the gamepunk genre grows, I look forward to finding out what shape these escapist adventures, and especially their heroes, will take. The world is already full of adult gamers like you and me, lifelong inhabitants of professionally and passionately crafted vehicles for escapism. What will that generation have produced, and what will it become a decade or five from now? Who will be playing games, and why? And how truly awful will the video games based on the movies based on these books based on video games be? I look forward to the creative and captivating answers that gamepunk will provide.

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- Ben Freund

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