Book Review – Harold Goldberg’s All Your Base Are Belong to Us

Harold Goldberg’s All Your Base Are Belong to Us epitomizes the central ideological premise of much of games journalism today–in both the good and the bad ways. Goldberg gets his facts right, but the book is ultimately an homage to a strange kind of cult-of-the-genius that permeates games, a tendency of both journalists and fans to hero-worship the “giants of the industry” in blatant disregard of the fact that games (like movies) are made by teams of dozens to hundreds of people.

At its core, All Your Base is a history of the personalities behind videogames, despite the subtitle’s claim that it will tell us “How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture.” With a subtitle like that, I fully expected to read about how pop culture itself was transformed by the arrival of interactive entertainment and user-generated narratives. I thought the book would talk about the rise of videogames as a cultural phenomenon which transformed the way we think and interact with both technology and one another.

It isn’t. At all.

All Your Base is a who’s-who of videogames pioneers, and, as such, is an interesting artifact which charts the important people whose ideas transformed the industry, if not the genre, from the 1950s all the way up to the early 2000s. Goldberg pinpoints games which revolutionized the genre, yes, but he does so less in terms of ideological transformations and more in terms of individual decisions.

For example, Goldberg looks at Roberta Williams, the narrative intellect behind the King’s Quest series, and her husband Ken, who did most of the initial programming for the early Sierra games. Although Goldberg does a little gendered pandering to our sympathies by framing the chapter in terms of Roberta crying under the covers (which did annoy me quite a bit), he also makes the very salient point that she is one of the most influential people–not just women–in gaming’s history, and that we all-too-often fail to recognize that precisely because she is a woman. I also did not, for what it’s worth, appreciate his remark that “sadly, no woman since Roberta has had such a long-running impact on games and on game companies. Decades later, Sierra still represents the high point for women in videogames” (158).

I think we could have done without that.

I suppose I’m also having trouble with the overall hero-worship attitude of the book, which frames most of the developers featured therein as men (and Roberta) working at the edge of a wild digital frontier, great heroes in the scope of Daniel Boone or Natty Bumppo who had inspirational ideas which appear to have been visited upon them from some sort of cyber-deity and could never be had by mere mortals like us. This is an attitude I have witnessed both first-hand and online from fans, particularly those who all-but-grovel before the shadows of Great Men like Peter Molyneux or Ken Levine. Goldberg is particularly laudatory of Levine, whom he characterizes as an artist fighting to defend the ideas of his beleaguered creative staff.

I can’t help but call shenanigans on the whole concept of the cult of the genius that has, in general, not just in All Your Base, become central to games journalism and fandom. The men and women–yes, women, plural–who work in the games industry are ALL doing a lot of very hard, very good work. Games like BioShock are the product of thousands of hours put in by hundreds of people–it did not spring, fully-formed, out of Levine’s head. Certainly, it would not have been what it was without Levine’s steering, and, as such, he absolutely deserves credit, but to focus on individuals (Levine or any of the other examples in All Your Base) is to ignore the inherently collaborative nature of the genre.

For what it is–a collective biography of a collection of innovators in the industry–All Your Base is a smooth-reading narrative of the people who catalyzed most of the major genre-shifts in gaming. What it is not is a history of how games changed pop culture. It is non-critical, non-theoretical, but still interesting, if you can (unlike me) get over its hero-worship.

Summary: All Your Base is not a critical history of games so much as it is a biographical history of the most influential people in gaming from the 1950s to about 2010. If you are interested in success stories and videogames, it’s an interesting read, but it doesn’t really provide a good history of the games themselves.