Constellation Games

I have a half-written post in my queue about Leonard Richardson's Constellation Games from years ago, when it was first unfolding as a serial. I loved it then, and became frustrated with not being able to read more of it all at once, so I stopped... and didn't pick it up again until woefully later. But I've read it now, and I am so, so glad I finished it.

You guys. You guys. This is the book I wanted Ready Player One to be. This is a book that speaks to gaming as it is now, and will likely be in the future.

For one thing, Constellation Games engages deeply with the idea of games as an interactive art form that reveals a lot about the society that it springs from, and not mere ephemeral entertainment. Along the way it delves deeply and creatively into diverse mechanics and aesthetics games might have if they were developed with different underlying psychologies and priorities. And almost as a side note, this book delivers some of the most biting criticism of the games industry and what it's like to work in it than I've seen anywhere -- even in trade publications whose entire purpose is being critical of how the industry operates. This is a book that is deeply true. Painfully true. If you've ever wondered what it's like to work in games, this is it. Ponies Brilhantes 3 or poverty. This is exactly what it's like.

I also loved this book's treatment of aliens as both more and less alien than usual. Often in science fiction, alien interactions are clothed in militaristic layers of protocol on both ends. Differences between species are for some reason danced around in the moment. But that's maybe a little unrealistic. If another species, as in Constellation Games, uses constant bonobo-like sexual activity as a social lubricant (so to speak), then surely both species would be aware of the difference, and individuals might communicate with one another regarding how to deal with it? Typically you'd see an all-or-nothing approach: either a human must accept this about an alien species and come to terms with it, or else a human must accept that an alien species cannot come to terms with some element of human behavior and must unfailingly refrain from it.

But in Constellation Games, the aliens and humans are equally aware of their alien-ness to one another, and their relationships are constantly and explicitly negotiating how to make everyone as comfortable as possible, considering those differences. "Are you OK with this?" At one point, the alien Curic makes a reference in passing to killing and chopping up a bunch of other sentient aliens to make crates out of them, and clearly thinks it's funny. It's just a detail, but that's the heart of alienness to the core: it's obviously acceptable behavior in the context of that society, but the idea is profoundly foreign and appalling in a human context. So how do you cope?

The aliens also don't have the hierarchical or militaristic social structures we're used to seeing in fiction. There really aren't chains of command or leaders, as such; the aliens who contact us are something of a communo-anarchistic society working multiple angles all at once, and trying to build consensus about where to best devote their resources and time to accomplish shared goals.

And then there's the human-AI interaction. Though the book is on the surface about first contact and about games, there is a substantial subplot dealing with human relationships with technology, with artificial intelligence and true sentience, and with a creator's responsibility toward the beings it creates. It's a very thoughtful examination of how those things can and would be treated both by our society as they emerge, and by an advanced society that has dealt with those questions for millions of years.

Constellation Games is in all a very thoughtful book full of ideas you don't see very often. Breath of fresh air, and fun to read, too, especially if you're in any sense a gamer or engaged in gaming culture. There's a lot going on under the hood of this book. You should read it.

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