This Is Not a Game
Walter Jon Williams, 2008

the twenty-sixth book in the visitor recommendation series;
suggested by Jesse Clark

The upcoming installment of Radio K will feature a game called Return to Ditch Day, which begins in Southeast Asia but is mainly set in Southern California, specifically at Caltech.  This Is Not a Game begins in Southeast Asia, specifically Jakarta, but is mainly set in Southern California and tells the story of a quartet of Caltech grads.  This is a meaningless coincidence but it gave me a chance to mention that Radio K is returning from its hiatus soon.

Anyway, This Is Not a Game tells the story of Dagmar Shaw, who designs online games that pursue players into real life, much as in the 1997 movie The Game.  Actors playing characters in the game might call you up on your home telephone, for instance, or terrorists in the game might poison the water supply in selected cities, and you have to test your own water in real life to see whether your city was hit (as the game company has indeed "poisoned" certain cities' water supplies with a harmless chemical that the players' gear is wired to detect).  Stranded in Jakarta as Indonesia collapses into anarchy following a currency crisis, Dagmar calls her billionaire boss for help; he hires a team of Israeli mercenaries to get her out, but they prove incompetent, and Dagmar has to fend for herself.  Eventually, she hits upon an idea: call upon her players for help, to see whether one out of those three million people might have some strings they can pull in Indonesia to help her escape.  And it works.  So when one of her best friends is killed in Los Angeles a few weeks later, she weaves the real-life murder case into her current game, hoping to leverage the power of three million puzzle experts to solve a real mystery without them even knowing it.

This book is a decent page-turner, but it isn't really about anything other than "Hey, crowdsourcing is hot these days. What if there were a mystery with a crowdsourcing detective?"  If it's the gaming angle rather than the mystery that strikes your fancy, you're in for a disappointment: we never see the game world from the players' perspective, and the few glimpses we get of it from the creators' perspective make it seem a little wonky.  (For instance, at one point we're told that Dagmar has posted a puzzle that will reveal the phone number of a character named Maria, played by Dagmar.  The first person to call the number and answer some questions about the game is given the location of a package to be retrieved and mailed to another character.  Only that one caller, out of three million players.  Then again, even though we're told that Dagmar's games have millions of players, we mainly get to know the gamers through posts on a message board on which only nine people seem to participate.)  I did some poking around to see what kind of background Williams had in the gaming world, and discovered that he had written a number of role-playing game sourcebooks back in the day, which made it all the more confounding that, as important as the characters' history playing RPGs together turns out to be, we are told about it rather than shown it.  Here's how one character's game-running style is described: "His games were full of twists and cunning. Traps lurked around every corner. His nonplayer characters all had agendas, and all were faithless."  If Williams had spent a chapter giving us a flashback to one of these campaigns rather than summarizing the style in a paragraph, that alone would have made This Is Not a Game an order of magnitude better.  And I know a "Huzzah!" should go in here somewhere but I'm not sure where.

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