Best of 2009: Books (fiction)

I read about 25 fiction novels in 2009, which is pretty average for me. I try to limit my nominations for ‘best of’ awards to books that were actually published for the first time in 2009, which narrows the pool somewhat. Out of what’s left, here’s the short list of my favorites:

  • Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest
  • Leviathan, by Scott Westerfield
  • This is Not a Game, by Walter Jon Williams

Obviously, my tastes tend pretty heavily toward the Sci-Fi and technothriller end of the spectrum. Boneshaker is a very good Steampunk story set in an alternate 19th century Seattle. The action is thrilling, and characters are well-crafted and likeable. There’s zombies, destruction, mad science, and zeppelin chases. If you like those things, you’ll like this book. That’s about all I can say.

Leviathan is another alternate history tale, this time giving us a new version of World War I. Mechanized powers of central and eastern europe face off against the ‘Darwinist’ allies, who evolved their technology biologically. I wrote a lot more about it on Goodreads, so I’ll just link you there:
Summary: I like it a lot.

This is Not a Game latched onto my ARG-playing experience, and twisted it into a thriller novel. Williams creates fascinating characters and extrapolates some ARG trends to slightly insane heights. The opening portion of the novel is self-contained and centered on a character’s escape from an economically collapsing Indonesia. This is the strongest section of the story, and in some ways I wish the book had ended there – it’d be my (short) book of the year if it did. The adventure uses near-future technology in mostly realistic ways, and doesn’t push suspension of disbelief. The later portions push more than a bit into ridiculousness territory, and the overall narrative suffers as a result.

Boneshaker was very very good, but in some ways I’m starting to feel over the whole zombie/steampunk/etc craze. There’s too much of it out there too fast. This is Not a Game started out excellent, then dropped off. But Leviathan stayed at excellent the entire way through. So it eeks out the competition as my favorite book of the year! It may be theoretically a young adult novel, but it doesn’t talk down to that age group at all – adults will enjoy it just as much as younger folk. Again, check out my Goodreads review for more detailed thoughts.

Dept. of Public Information

Walking out of work recently, I encountered this flyer on the library’s public bulletin board:

To find, please contact the UNC Department of Public Information and receive your

The pulltabs to take with you have this link:

The blog is an interesting collection of links and chronicle of events staged by this group around campus to promote knowledge of student rights on campus.

This is a great example of a semi-ARGish method being used to promote distribution of knowledge and education! One event even led people to relevant books on the library’s shelves.

It’s sort of odd to see the blog promoted now, when there hasn’t been an update for almost a month, but maybe something new will be happening soon. The flyer seems to be grabbing students’ interest – yesterday afternoon there were five pulltabs remaining, and as I write this there’s only one.

Alternate Reality Games and Information Literacy

One area where ARGs have near-unlimited potential is in teaching information literacy skills. By placing the skills’ use in the framework of a game, students/players become more invested and enthusiastic about learning these skills. In fact, they often may not realize they’re being taught at all. Here’s some random bits & pieces from the ACRL’s Information Literacy Competency Standards, with brief notes on how ARG players develop and use these skills while playing an ARG:

  • “Recognize that existing information can be combined with original thought, experimentation, and/or analysis to produce new information.” – ARGs require exactly this kind of thinking. Players must use their original thoughts to solve puzzles and interact with characters (existing information) via analysis and experimentation.
  • “Identify the value and differences of potential resources in a variety of formats (multimedia, database, website, book)” – Many ARGs require balancing information from a variety of source formats including websites, books, raw data, music, games, movies, etc.
  • “Create a system for organizing information” – Take a look at the amazingly in-depth and well organized wiki for the recent Dark Knight ARG here: This was entirely player-made.
  • “Utilize technology for studying the interaction of ideas and other phenomena” – ARGs by their very nature require the use of many kinds of technology including GPS devices, smartphones, computers, cameras (still and video) audio recordings, etc. Players are encouraged to study and investigate the world around them.
  • “Validate understanding and interpretation of the information through discourse with other individuals…” – The Unforums are an example of a vibrant community of ARG players discussing and playing games with each other.
  • “Apply new and prior information to the planning and creation of a particular product or performance.” – Players must take information from previous parts of the game and decide where to apply it in order to move forward.
  • “Manipulate digital text, images, and data, as needed, transferring them from their original locations and formats to a new context.” – This is a very generically worded skill, but ARGs can still teach it. See any of the examples I’ve listed above.

Games4Learning: Alternate Reality Games

Last Friday I gave a presentation as part of UNC’s wonderful Games4Learning initiative on Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). I think these games have a huge potential to be used as a teaching tool for both social issues and information literacy. I’ll be writing more about this topic in coming days & weeks, but for now here’s my slides:

They may not entirely make sense without my narration, but I wanted to get them linked. I’ll try to give some context in upcoming posts.