Book Review – “This Is Not A Game”

Regular reader and frequent commenter Erf submitted this review. Erf says, “Many stories have studied the interaction between games and reality. Here’s a take on it by a master writer.”

General Information

Title: This Is Not A Game
Author: Walter Jon Williams
Original Publication Date: March 2009
ISBN: 978-0-316-00316-2
Cover Price: $7.99 US / $9.99 CAN
Buy from:


Dagmar Shaw is the “puppetmaster” at an alternate reality gaming company. But certain things about her company — and some of her old friends — are not what they seem. She soon finds herself tangled in a plot of nation-crashing global finance and very personal murder, and her only way out is to start pulling strings.

High Point

When we finally learn what’s going on with Charlie. It’s unexpected but all the pieces are in place so that it’s almost obvious in retrospect. Moreover, I like the way his character fully gels in the reader’s mind at that moment.

Low Point

Austin had almost no characterization, either directly or indirectly.

The Scores

This book is highly original. As I pointed out in the intro there have been stories mixing reality and games for as long as there have been games, I think, and ARGs are starting to capture writers’ imaginations particularly as the technology becomes feasible, but this story uses the games in a unique way. (For one thing, at no point are we unclear about what’s a game and what’s real, since that’s not the point of this story.) 6/6

The imagery is well-built. Details are put to good (and often multiple) purposes, and recurring elements serve to tie the story together and often contrast the different stages. (And I really wish I’d looked up Harlem Nocturne (Dagmar’s ringtone) while I was reading the book!) 6/6

The story is simply brilliant. So many separate elements, each independently interesting, all pulled together in fascinating ways by the end. (And accomplished almost entirely from a single POV.) 6/6

The characterization is what pulls this book together. Dagmar is a fully realized human being with a variety of interests (as varied as somebody buried in her work can be), and the supporting cast generally have a depth that suggests there’s more to them than what’s on the page. Austin is an exception, which is unfortunate since he’s important to both the plot and the other characters. 5/6

The emotional response was great. I felt accomplishment, frustration, and relief right along with Dagmar. For some reason I didn’t feel her fear, although I certainly believed it. 5/6

The book is consistently very well edited. The pacing has a nice rhythm to it, with places to run, places to catch my breath, and places where pieces fall methodically into place. The whole thing holds together very well, and I didn’t feel anything was extraneous or missing. 6/6

Overall, this was a great ride. 5/6

In total, This Is Not A Game receives 39/42.

Additional Notes and Comments

One important touch that really made this book was its verisimilitude. Judging by the acknowledgments, WJW wasn’t a gamer before he wrote this book, but the culture surrounding the games and the nature of the forum conversations very much rang true. The power of research, apparently!

3 replies on “Book Review – “This Is Not A Game””

  1. The best thing about this book is the author’s imagination. Who would think to use millions of alternate-reality gamers as a resource to accomplish tasks and investigate difficult problems? But it totally makes sense.

    Here’s what I wrote about it after I read it. Spoiler text is tagged.

    Rated 2.5/5.0. Williams creates a story that explores one possible side-effect of the power of the internet and the social web. Dagmar Shaw is a designer for alternate reality games, where the game takes place in the real world, and the players aren’t always sure what’s real and what’s part of the game. Early on she discovers the power of having millions of gamers at her command, when she needs to escape Indonesia after its government and currency collapse. Once she returns to the United States, someone begins killing her friends and business associates. It’s up to Dagmar and her legion of gamers to find the killer and also stop the rogue computer programs behind the collapse of several world currencies.

    Since Walter Jon Williams is a science fiction writer, I expected this book to be science fiction. And while it could be loosely considered part of that genre, the story takes place in the very near future and is more of a thriller type of novel.

    • You might be interested in Halting State by Charlie Stross. It also involves ARGs (though in a completely different way), as well as online games and a host of other neat technologies, and it’s extrapolated a bit farther into the future than TINAG. (It’s also excellent.) The plot centres around tracking down the culprits behind a heist in an MMORPG.

      • You might be interested in Halting State by Charlie Stross.
        Stross recently said about TINAG: “a book which made me very glad indeed that I squeezed ‘Halting State’ into print first.”

        High praise indeed. It’s on my list to read.

Comments are closed.