"Pilgrim in the Microworld" by David Sudnow

The early examination of the interaction between a video game and its player Pilgrim in the Microworld (Warner Books, 1983) is available free from the website of the late author David Sudnow. At about 150 pages it’s a quick read. Printed copies are also readily available at used book webshops.

The book is an examination in surpassing detail of how it feels to learn to play a videogame (Breakout for the Atari 2600) for the first time. The author was a scientist, a musician and a writer. His reportage of sensations, gestures and thoughts engendered by the neography of the silicon chip, the video tube and the plastic controller treads the same ground as the longer pieces of the current travellers of the electronic borderlands like Jim Rossignol or Kieron Gillen but with the added wide-eyed wonder of a professional adult entering these vibrant visual vistas as a virgin vis-à-vis virtual worlds.

Here’s some quotes:
“I stuck the control in my mouth, not turning the knob but its receptacle, and even this way I could hit shots. Put it on the floor and use my big toes to swing the paddle. Again I hit two shots right. Unbelievable.”
“Here I am alone in a pitch-black hotel room, a middleaged man with some time to kill, getting ready to check out some jazz clubs in Greenwich Village, in possession of an early cretinous offering from a gold rush grab bag of tuby thingies coming our way from hundreds of decision-making puzzle peddlers throughout the new electric “entertainment” industry. And now instead of playing the game it’s packaged up to be, I’ve gotten into more or less occupying myself by outlining invisible triangles across the screen of a TV doodling machine. What am I doing?”

Following Sudnow’s efforts to understand Breakout and bring it to heel using his experience as a man of science and a piano player gave me new insight into how videogames work and what playing them does to us. In his struggles it is made plain just how much we of the first player generations have unknowingly absorbed. The book also revealed a lot of details about the game I was unaware of even though I played it myself at the time.

The middle section was a little plodding as he minutely tests his theories of how to achieve a breakthrough in gaming skill but overall reading it felt like a worthy exercise.