This is not a book I would have picked up on my own, and the only reason I read it was that the author handed me a copy after my GDC presentation. In the end, I'm really glad he did, because I found the book extremely interesting and engaging, and so hopefully by throwing up a post about it here, I'll drive a few folks like me, who would not have otherwise considered it, to give it a read.
The book is an analysis of competitive gaming and a kind of philosophical handbook to understanding the challenges of becoming a competitive gamer. A good chunk of the book is a re-examination of Sun Tsu's Art of War as it applies in the context of competitive games. Weird, I know, but it works.
I have read the Art of War and have always had some problems with analyses of it that try to make it applicable to endeavours other than war-fighting. I find that such attempts often simply turn something highly literal into something pointlessly abstract and metaphorical. Because Sirlin is writing literally about (simulated) fighting, his adaptation of the original work holds up much better.
In particular, I appreciated the fact that he was able to maintain his analysis through his chapter 'Attacking with Fire', which is (in other analyses I have read) a troublesome chapter to extend into other spaces. It's clear in Master Tsu's original work that he's not talking about attacking with fire metaphorically - he's talking about torching fields and forests to cut off escape routes so you can massacre your enemy without dividing your forces. Deliteralizing this principle and trying to apply it to diversifying a junk-bond portfolio always seemed like a bad idea. Sirlin smartly confines the scope of his chapter and doesn't overextend himself. His chapter on attacking with fire is only a page and a half long. He talks about the use of fireballs and ranged attacks in Street Fighter as a way to create a pin and then attack from a different direction - the time required for the fireball to cross the screen means the attacking fighter and the fireball can arrive on the enemy at the same time - enabling an attack from two directions at once. He also points out that pins and forks in chess are essentially the same thing (though they are slightly different mechanically because in chess they must operate in a turn-based play-space).
Another cool part of the book is his comparison of play-styles of famous chess masters and (admittedly less) famous competitive Street Fighter players. I don't know enough about the history of chess, and I know almost nothing about the history of competitive Street Fighter, but even I have heard of Capablanca. Sirlin illustrates that there are certain styles of play that cross game-specific boundaries, and points out that in any community that surrounds any game you will find some of the same types of people. His point - I think - is that by studying other kinds of competitive gaming he was able to develop a more robust perspective on the competitive sphere surrounding his own game, which maybe he could not have seen from the inside. He was able to identify and categorize his competition and develop a deeper understanding of the psychology of different players. He was also able to identify and categorize his own strange play-style and use his new found understanding of himself to improve his game (and to migrate toward a more robust play-style).
In some sense, it is his 'warriors approach' to understanding competitive gaming that makes the book so interesting and makes Sirlin himself a compelling author/character. Sirlin appears to be as dedicated to his 'war art' as any real warrior. He studies the art itself, and practices constantly, but acknowledges also that a hundred thousand matches is not going to make you a master without also studying related arts, without studying the relevant history, without adopting the necessary competitive mind-set, without putting yourself in real situations that test your capabilities.
What I think is most interesting though is that Sirlin gave me his book right after my presentation on designing to promote intentional play. I some sense I was directly attacking the notion of competitive play which Sirlin seems to think requires (what I called) 'seeing the Matrix in the Matrix'. He talks about competitive players who 'know the algorithm' and about the quest to find the optimal peaks in the game-space described by the mechanics of the game as part of the job of the competitive gamer. People playing games like this is not something I particularly want, or at least something I would discourage. So part of me wonders if Sirlin gave me his book to say 'dude - wake up - games are about the quest to understand mechanics'. On the other hand, maybe he felt there was some underlying similarity between what I was saying and his own philosophy.
In some sense, there is a pretty clear case to be made that Street Fighter has brought more to Sirlin's life than any of my games brought to anyone else's life (to my knowledge) - so who am I to say we should design our games to appeal to these people here, but not those people there? This isn't to say I'm going to start designing games to be more suited toward competitive tournament play - merely to say that I need to be careful not to invalidate or fail to recognize that there are many, many ways to enjoy a game and that any of those ways is potentially equally valid.