This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities

This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities

by Jim Rossignol


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"In May 2000 I was fired from my job as a reporter on a finance newsletter because of an obsession with a video game.

It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

So begins this story of personal redemption through the unlikely medium of electronic games. Quake, World of Warcraft, Eve Online, and other online games not only offered author Jim Rossignol an excellent escape from the tedium of office life. They also provided him with a diverse global community and a job—as a games journalist.

Part personal history, part travel narrative, part philosophical reflection on the meaning of play, This Gaming Life describes Rossignol’s encounters in three cities: London, Seoul, and Reykjavik. From his days as a Quake genius in London’s increasingly corporate gaming culture; to Korea, where gaming is a high-stakes televised national sport; to Iceland, the home of his ultimate obsession, the idiosyncratic and beguiling Eve Online, Rossignol introduces us to a vivid and largely undocumented world of gaming lives.

Torn between unabashed optimism about the future of games and lingering doubts about whether they are just a waste of time, This Gaming Life also raises important questions about this new and vital cultural form. Should we celebrate the “serious” educational, social, and cultural value of games, as academics and journalists are beginning to do? Or do these high-minded justifications simply perpetuate the stereotype of games as a lesser form of fun? In this beautifully written, richly detailed, and inspiring book, Rossignol brings these abstract questions to life, immersing us in a vibrant landscape of gaming experiences.

“We need more writers like Jim Rossignol, writers who are intimately familiar with gaming, conversant in the latest research surrounding games, and able to write cogently and interestingly about the experience of playing as well as the deeper significance of games.”
—Chris Baker, Wired

This Gaming Life is a fascinating and eye-opening look into the real human impact of gaming culture. Traveling the globe and drawing anecdotes from many walks of life, Rossignol takes us beyond the media hype and into the lives of real people whose lives have been changed by gaming. The results may surprise you.”
—Raph Koster, game designer and author of A Theory of Fun for Game Design

“Is obsessive video gaming a character flaw? In This Gaming Life, Jim Rossignol answers with an emphatic ‘no,’ and offers a passionate and engaging defense of what is too often considered a ‘bad habit’ or ‘guilty pleasure.’”
—Joshua Davis, author of The Underdog

“This is a wonderfully literate look at gaming cultures, which you don't have to be a gamer to enjoy. The Korea section blew my mind.”
—John Seabrook, New Yorker staff writer and author of Flash of Genius and Other True Stories of Invention

digitalculturebooks is an imprint of the University of Michigan Press and the Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan Library dedicated to publishing innovative and accessible work exploring new media and their impact on society, culture, and scholarly communication. Visit the website at

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472033973
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 08/04/2009
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jim Rossignolis a habitual gamer who grew up in a tediously middle-class village in the south of England. He is also a world-renowned games journalist who currently writes for Wired, the BBC, PC Gamer, and many other media outlets. His populist group-blogging project continues to expand its cult popularity. He lives in Bath, England. 

Read an Excerpt


By Jim Rossignol

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2008 Jim Rossignol
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-03397-3

Chapter One


How Games Make Gamers


In May 2000 I was fired from my job as a reporter on a finance newsletter because of an obsession with a video game. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

The job had two parts. The first part was desperately dull but easy enough for me to bumble through. Each morning I drove out to a farmhouse office complex located deep in the English countryside and sat on a Herman Miller chair in front of a large curvilinear desk. There I processed articles about how to format corporate curricula vitae or occasionally attempted to make sense of the information I had gathered in the second part of my job. Most of the time, however, I spent clicking through a series of online forums where people discussed the ups and downs of recently released video games. Anything would do.

The second part of the job took place in London. Rising at dawn, I traveled up to Charing Cross in the old slam-door train carriages and watched in silent despair as the City drew ever closer. The country office might have been unapologetically quiet and slow, but the City was numbingly, achingly boring. I longed for someone to talk to, someone who was even remotely inclined to escape the world of banking. Inevitably I would find myself isolated in a seminar that focused on the workings of debit systems and direct payment pipelines. I would stand up, say my name and that of my employer, and then attempt to avoid speaking for the next four or five hours. I carefully filled my notepads with poorly understood jottings. As a graduate, I had assumed that I wanted to be a journalist of some kind, but I clearly wasn't coping with this. What should have been tight, insightful reporting ended up being vague, impressionistic, often unusable information. The world of finance remained a forbidding mystery, and the stack of John Kenneth Galbraith books by my bedside wasn't doing much to kindle my enthusiasm for economics either.

But there was something else going on in my life that ran parallel-almost contrary-to my suit-and-tie day job: a kind of double life. During my spare moments, I was submerged in a different activity, one in which I was completely at home. It was a video game called Quake III Arena. Gaming was a daily release, a few hours of energy and color to counterbalance my career in corporate tedium. With a cup of tea and late-1990s soundtrack (Britpop with a smattering of electronica), I launched myself into evenings of gleeful acrobatics. A torrent of explosions and power-ups vigorously erased the memories of boredom.

The Quake games are the direct descendants of that most notorious of modern video games, Doom. They are combat games set in a first-person perspective and filled with the latest in spectacular graphic effects. You control your character directly, seeing things from his or her perspective, shooting when you hit the trigger button, and picking up weapons and ammunition as you move. These games seem straightforward and approachable, since they are so close to how we experience things in real life-you run around, see things from the character's point of view, and so on. Yet the experience of Quake and its kin can be baffling for anyone who hasn't already sunk hours into mastering them. Beginners find themselves in a state of confusion, unable to avoid looking at the floor or the ceiling for extended periods. Bumping into walls, unable to aim, or finding yourself obliterated by your enemies-the list of frustrations grows by the second. And they are all due to a dastardly control system that expects you to maneuver a keyboard and mouse in unison (or two thumbsticks when playing on a gamepad)-no small feat for any novice. Then there's all the arcane rites involved in using a desktop PC to play games: install the patches, update the drivers, tweak the gizmometer.... This kind of gaming doesn't make itself easy, and it's tough to get yourself up to speed. Of course, anyone could, theoretically, pick up and play these games; yet, like riding a bike or driving a car, they'll need a guiding hand to get out on the road. At weekends and during spare evenings, I was such a guiding hand.

Quake III has the capacity to connect to "hosted" games on the Internet. This means that a dozen or so people can connect to a server and fight each other remotely from the comfort of attics, offices, and bedrooms across the world. They can make up ad hoc teams or simply run amok, blasting each other with rocket launchers and lightning guns. I played on these online servers for countless hours, chatting away, fighting, learning new techniques. In fact, the days and weeks I poured into playing this single game meant that I had become unnervingly precise. I soon played at a level that combined detailed knowledge of the game's workings with acute learned reflexes. To those who had just started playing, this kind of play seemed almost superhuman. The experienced few used weapon physics to fly up walls or demonstrated innate spatial awareness that defied tactical expectations of less experienced players. Landing a missile right on top of an enemy without having seen him for several minutes, just because you knew he would be right there, right then, became a routine experience. It was considered a great honor to be accused of cheating. How else indeed could anyone play a game with this kind of proficiency?

Being accused of cheating wasn't enough for me though, and I began to desire some kind of greater recognition for my dedication. I realized I could get something more out of the time I had invested: I could start my own team. Toward the end of the 1990s, games like Quake had become popular as competitive enterprises. Amateur teams played (and still play) scheduled matches over the Internet. Online leagues blossomed, and net-based communities were formed to help run the events. These communities provided servers for the online games and orchestrated league structures for the players to battle it out. I had already been involved in one casual online team while playing the Quake clone Kingpin, which had a theme of 1920s gang violence. So when Quake III was released in 1999, I decided to enter these new gladiatorial arenas with my own squad.

My initial recruitment plan consisted of simply talking to other players. Many of them had only ever played a few video games in their lifetime, having found the predictability and solitary focus of single-player games off-putting. But they experienced the online game as a revelation. Here was something more akin to a sport, with real spectators yelling hints from the sidelines and an army of human-controlled talent to show you how it was done. This human element transformed gaming for my players, and they each experienced minor epiphanies as they joined up with other, distant gamers for five-a-side Quake games of "capture the flag." "It was like exercising a new limb," recalled one gamer I spoke to about that time. "I was suddenly practicing and arranging matches every other night, as if I was in a pub footie team-even though no football team would ever have me!"

I knew how he felt. Cold mornings, adolescent disinterest, and a nagging hip injury had meant that I was banished from the sports field for many years. I wasn't going to be able to indulge in the camaraderie that sports teams felt or in the extended buzz of victory through dedication and cooperation. That entire swathe of experience had been cut off from me by cruel circumstance and a good dose of self-defeating apathy. Now, however, there was a possibility for some kind of redemption: a sport for the quick-fingered and the computer-bound; a space of possibility in which I could mold friends and strangers into a proficient gaming team.

And so I ran trials of sorts and trained players in how best to use Quake III's many weapons. The first few signups came from one-on-one duels, which, by their nature, meant you usually got talking with the other person. Usually the conversations were with someone whose native language was Russian or Portuguese, so the experience was often bizarre, occasionally awkward, but sometimes fruitful and friendly. After a few good fights and swapped instant messenger names, the founding team members began to appear. My extensive reading of Quake forums and fan Web sites (combined with seemingly endless practice) meant that I could rapidly improve the averages of my new players. I showed them how setting the mouse pointer to a slower speed improved their accuracy and how the in-game graphics could be stripped down and reduced to create a smoother, clearer experience. It was like fine-tuning a car, only I had figured out how it all worked through Web sites, forum posts, and some reverse engineering of game files.

Meanwhile, things in the world of financial journalism lurched along in an uneven fashion. My poor performance had been noted, and I knew that the situation was a downward spiral. I dreaded the 6 a.m. starts that would land me in central London, and I longed to get back to my increasingly successful foray into team gaming. The discussions about corporate finance inexorably turned into indecipherable droning as my brain reduced the non-Quake signal to static. I plodded on, trying not to draw attention to the idle creaking of my expensive chair. I did what I could but began to receive fewer and fewer assignments. I was worried. I felt doomed.

The team, meanwhile, had just signed its essential star player. A natural talent and an astute tactician, he gave the team a vital edge. Almost a year after signing him, I met this prodigy at a games weekend in a small town in Devon. Paul was accompanied by his brother-in-law. He was an unassuming IT technician with a receding hairline. He had an expensive car and ..., well, there's no accounting for people's taste in pop music. I think it's fair to say that we didn't really connect, but that didn't ultimately matter. Our shared interest in competitive Quake was all that we needed to worry about. The team needed Paul, and for at least a short time, Paul needed the team, too.

During that time, we entered competitions and even won a few prizes for participating in the demonstration matches that were shown on the early Internet TV station Network of the World. We knew that we could never beat the best that Europe had to offer, but our game nevertheless rose to the point where we began to hold our own against the lower echelons of the top few thousand Quake players. Even our casual play was now far from casual: we examined everything, analyzed every move in hour-long discussions after the games. I was by now an utterly obsessed player-coach. I arranged practice schedules and sparring teams to meet us on private servers. I watched recordings of famous matches, especially those featuring teams we were about to face. I filtered everything back to my players: game configurations that might give us an advantage, tactics that would give us the edge, player formations that might give my team members a split-second drop on their opponents. What my team lacked in raw skill with a rocket launcher they would make up for in preparation, computing finesse, and insider knowledge. I was delighted when I managed to snare top-class players and distraught when we weren't deemed talented enough to be worth their time. I constantly nursed egos in private chat rooms, trying to field the best team while at the same time giving everyone a go. "Honestly, Crazy Joe, you're a fine player, but the others turned up for more practice sessions ..."

I cracked down on unsporting smack talk, gave (supposedly) rousing speeches (sometimes typed, then later over Internet voice communications), and played occasional Cupid between the extremely shy woman who had joined the team and the extremely shy man whom she clearly intended to hit on. We struggled, we played, we won, and we lost. We clawed our way up through the divisions. Each victory was a euphoric celebration, each loss a crippling disaster.

On the train to London, meanwhile, I routinely passed a placard advertising some kind of telephone help line. It asked me, in bright yellow-on-pink letters, "Are you cracking up?" I looked down at the frayed edges of my notebook and wondered how long all this could go on. How long could I hold down a job when my mind was lost in gaming? Was I lying to myself about even trying to be a journalist?

Soon thereafter the crucial moment came to pass. My manager, Richard, sat me down and fixed me with a clouded look. He had, he assumed, some bad news: "We're going to have to let you go."

The hallelujah chorus sounded. I felt the rush of sudden freedom: now there was nothing between me and pure indulgence. I could concentrate on the team seven days a week, without interruption, without tortuous journeys into the heart of finance. It was a moment of thrilling emancipation. I plunged into it, headfirst, playing for long days and late nights. Dawn was a familiar sight at bedtime. The team grew and became more cohesive. We found likeminded teams to spar with, allowing my players to grow more confident. Soon they could play and win.

Needless to say, my attempts to secure new employment were infrequent. Stacks of unprocessed job advertisements grew on either side of my desk, and my savings dwindled. Games refused to pay the bills, and I would eventually have to make a genuine effort to look for full-time employment. I made a few sullen forays to industrial parks and office blocks, and I even began to learn simple programming languages, but unbeknownst to me at the time, my break had already arrived. I had, thanks to the insistence of some friends, applied for a position on a games magazine. I expected nothing, didn't care, and told the interviewers much of the story you've been reading here. They conferred, unsure. Unsurprisingly I didn't get the job. But I did later receive a call asking whether I could possibly write something that would help the magazine's readers play a little better. I said I probably could and wondered if they could help me avoid having to return to London and the worrying question on the pink and yellow billboard. The answer was yes.


Video games changed my life. It's a pleasing convenience to be able to pinpoint a moment, or at least a period of time, that enables me to chart the change so precisely. Thanks to my Quake expertise, I was soon in a full-time job that didn't have anything to do with corporate treasury issues or early morning meetings in bank seminar rooms. It was a radical shift both professionally and personally, and it was almost entirely unexpected. After all, games might have been crucial to my day-to-day identity, but I had never admitted as much to myself. They were a distraction, an excellent waste of time. They had no specific value, and I never expected my obsession to pay the rent and focus my entire career.

As a games journalist, I went on to meet plenty of other people whose lives have been changed, defined-perhaps even saved-by gaming. Many of the gamers I've met have been involved directly in the games industry, but others are simply people for whom gaming is a continuous presence in their lives. Games have catalyzed major changes for some of these people, as they did for me. But they usually change us in subtler ways. These subtler effects have only begun to be mapped by researchers, commentators, and gamers. Sometimes the effects seem to be negative: people so distracted that they lose sight of their responsibilities-ignoring jobs, families, and everyday lives. Other times they are positive-stimulating intellectual and personal growth or awakening unrealized ambitions in creative minds. Gaming seems to be neither wholly positive nor entirely negative: its value (or lack thereof) is indistinct and undefined. Perhaps more critically still, many people lack the conceptual vocabulary to describe games in a positive way at all. One of the most routine complaints in the games industry is "My parents/partner/peers still don't believe I have a proper job." It's not just that many people don't take gaming seriously, they don't know how to take it seriously. And why would they, if their only experience of it was a drunken game of NHL Hockey after a night out at a singles bar or the weird Japanese cartoon creatures that a younger brother or sister seems to care so much about?


Excerpted from THIS GAMING LIFE by Jim Rossignol Copyright © 2008 by Jim Rossignol . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


How Games Make Gamers....................3
The Big Smoke....................35
A Gamers' World....................55
The Special Relationship....................111
Model Living....................152
The Window....................187
The Playlist....................203

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