This Is Not A Game

Walter Jon Williams

496 Pages, Orbit Books, UK

I picked this up purely on the basis of my impressions of Williams’ earlier work, Hardwired. Hardwired is a book that has a fair amount of influence in the Cyberpunk genre, and Williams wrote a supplement for Cyberpunk 2020 based on Hardwired as well. Though I was expecting the book to be Cyberpunk-ish, I had no idea how much of a gamer’s book it was until I started reading it.

The book centers on Dagmar Shaw, a writer working to create and run alternate reality games (ARGs) as part of the company started by one of her gaming friends. Starting with an incident in Jakarta, Indonesia, Dagmar is dragged deeper and deeper into a financial conspiracy that is bringing down world markets, all the while involving the players of her game in a series of events that start out mostly personal, but turn out to be something much more sinister.

I’ll admit it, I decided I was a fan of the book as soon as Dagmar is described as a GURPS player. From a more objective standpoint, Williams is a very entertaining writer, and This Is Not a Game is a much more nuanced book than Williams’ works from the 1980s. The book is an entertaining mystery novel, and works in the science fiction elements well.

This book seems to leverage something of a fetish for science fiction authors recently: Alternate Reality Games. My own experience with Alternate Reality Games was minimal, being limited to a brief fascination with a game by EA called Majestic in 1999. The idea of Majestic was that the players were involved in a conspiracy, and the game would contact them by phone, IM, and through special websites. The game was not terribly popular and finally shuttered after complaints regarding the faux-“threatening” phone calls coincided with 9/11, and continuing the game was seen to be in poor choice.

Between this book and Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, it seems that modern Cyberpunks love ARGs. They do exist, but are at the fringes of the entertainment sector, even more so than paper-and-dice and even traditional LARP (I say traditional, because ARGs are a derivative of LARP, though with no IC/OOC distinction at all). Both Williams and Doctorow seem to heavily overestimate the significance of ARGs in their writings; though they do exist and I’m sure some people get very involved in some, I honestly don’t think they will become mainstream entertainment anytime soon. Like William Gibson in Spook Country, these authors are seemingly overestimating the power and significance of digital art in current culture.

ARGs or not, this novel is about gamers, and it’s a good one. Gaming is worked into the story well, and doesn’t seem forced. The near-future setting never hurts (at least for me), and Williams is just as entertaining as I remember him. This is Not a Game is a good book for gamers, and anyone else who likes a techno-thriller and a decent mystery.

[tags]Role Playing Games, Science Fiction[/tags]

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