Video games are telling great stories, but there are also great stories being told about video games. The generation that first grew up with video games in their homes is now telling stories that feature this influence. As a result, gaming has become an important plot point in many popular series.
Snow Crash, Scott Pilgrim, and Ready Player One are great reads, but they’re so much more. These video game books reflect the impact of gaming culture on society—in terms of how we view ourselves and the role that gaming ultimately plays in our lives.
Snow Crash and the Cyberpunk Utopia
Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel created shared-world MMOs before they existed in real life. The novel, in part, centers on the fictional Metaverse, a blend of virtual and augmented reality that most people inhabit in addition to the physical world, with some people choosing never to leave. Players create online versions of themselves with almost complete freedom, allowing them to be whoever they want to be in the Metaverse.
The plot begins when the story’s hero—the aptly named Hiro Protagonist—discovers that a drug called Snow Crash is being distributed at a Metaverse nightclub and killing users in real life. Hiro—part-time Mafia pizza deliveryman, last of the freelance hackers, and greatest swordfighter in the world—uses his skills to track down the origin of the drug.
It sounds like a ten-year-old’s power fantasy, but Snow Crash is much more than that. Hiro’s journey through the Metaverse and discoveries lead him to find mind-bending information about language, data, history, and power that challenges his concept of reality.
Though it was written in 1992, Stephenson’s novel anticipates some really interesting concerns we have today, like the division between online and real life, and the ways that data and information shape our existence. The book has also been hugely influential in the tech world, popularizing (but not inventing) the term “avatar,” networked 3D worlds, and even Google Earth. It’s a fascinating read for anybody interested in gaming, programming, and data. However, unlike many video game books, its intense focus on history and language occasionally make it a little dense.
Scott Pilgrim vs. Nostalgia
Your first introduction to Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim is with the information he’s dating a high schooler. That sums him up pretty well—Scott is a total slacker whose entire life is about his band, Sex Bob-omb, and his obsession with his too-cool-for-him girlfriend-to-be Ramona Flowers.
The series is heavily influenced by ’90s pop culture, especially video games. Scott, like many video game heroes, is inexplicably the “best fighter in the province,” and when he defeats one of Ramona’s exes they explode in a shower of coins. His dreams revolve around video games, several in-universe bands take their name from games (Sex Bob-omb, The Clash at Demonhead, and Sonic and Knuckles), and Scott even gets an extra life at one point. But defeating Ramona’s exes isn’t the only way Scott earns the right to date her—each over-the-top battle instills him with confidence, allowing him to stop living in the past.
While Snow Crash was all about the future, Scott Pilgrim is very much about the past and the way our experiences shape us. Nostalgia is everywhere in the series, in Scott’s video game-ridden battles and Ramona’s mysterious evil exes. Though Scott seeks escape from the real world, he’s still the hero—overcoming each obstacle earns him the confidence that lets him grow as a person.
Like Easter Eggs? You’ll Love Ready Player One
If you mashed video games books like Snow Crash and Scott Pilgrim together, you might end up with Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Set in a futuristic dystopia where most people live the majority of their lives in the OASIS, a virtual utopia much preferable to the disappointing state of reality, the novel tackles the notion of escapism. In the OASIS, players explore a series of virtual worlds inspired by beloved pieces of pop culture, including traveling to Star Wars planets, traversing famous Dungeons and Dragons settings, and doing it all in a Firefly class spaceship.
The hero, Wade Watts, is on the hunt for a series of clues hidden in the OASIS by the game’s creator, James Halliday. The first person to find all of the clues inherits Halliday’s estate and control of the OASIS, and the hunt is fierce—players from around the world compete to find out who knows the most about the pop culture that inspired the OASIS’ creation.
Ready Player One is a love letter to late-20th-century pop culture, reveling in the things we’re nostalgic for. The book tackles the way the internet is shaping our culture, causing some to become greedy and antagonistic, and raising others up to new heights.
These books aren’t the only ones out there looking at our culture through a gaming lens, but the boundaries between real life and gaming are tenuous in each video game book. Many of us have spent our childhoods so steeped in pop culture that it influences our lives in ways we don’t expect. Seeing other media address this pattern of gaming influence is a fun and interesting way to explore how video games impact who we are and how we live.