Last year, my housemate and I attended the California Extreme Arcade Show, a fan exhibition that offers 350 video and pinball games set on free play. We only attended five of the 23 hours, but by the time we got home my housemate's hands had started to bruise. He was sore for three days but still smiling about it several weeks later, and I could see his point: Attending California Extreme is less like going to an arcade than going to a playground. There's something about free play that makes people playful. Strangers eagerly engage in competition and conversation; grown men giggle like children and race each other from one game to another; women slap each other on the back, shake hands, and burst out laughing; children offer advice and dance around like they have to go to the bathroom. It's just a flashing, blinking, beeping good time. This year's show includes a display of modified pinball games featuring remote controls, foot-activated flippers, and one-handed play; and a "How To" seminar presented by classic video game experts Dwayne Richards and Billy Mitchell. (Mitchell was the first player ever to achieve a perfect score on Pac-Man, a feat that takes six consecutive hours.) Even the "vidiots" and the "pinheads" can play nice at California Extreme, which will be held on Saturday, Aug. 7, from 11 a.m. to midnight and Sunday, Aug. 8, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the San Jose Convention Center. Tickets are $20-25; visit www.caextreme.org.
I use the words "burning" and "man" sparingly in print. But there will be no avoiding it this week because This Is Burning Man, the first book by Reason magazine Senior Editor Brian Doherty, cannot be overlooked. It might seem peculiar that a Los Angeles-based reporter should be the first to publish a comprehensive book about the San Francisco-born festival, but few writers are as qualified. Doherty is neither a slavering devotee nor a "spectator." He has faithfully attended Burning Man every year for the last nine, immersing himself in the beauty and madness of Black Rock City, but, much more important, he has spent the last two years plying his investigative skills and iconoclastic tendencies, doing interviews, digging up facts, stirring up memories, hearsay, and experience, compiling them as history and testimonial. With a deft and thoughtful pen, Doherty manages to invoke the magic and whimsy of life on the playa without giving way to idol worship in the form of obeisance to "community," acknowledging, at once, the pejorative nature of the term "Burner" and the sense of identity thousands of people have drawn from it. Unlike other books that have attempted to capture Burning Man, Doherty's leaves little room for photographs. His volume is not a catalog of art and excess but a historical narrative driven by the larger-than-life characters who have inhabited the festival from its earliest days as an anarchic camp-out to its present incarnation as a sprawling metropolis of 30,000. It is to these characters, not the festival itself, that Doherty pays the most deference, capturing their brilliance and blemishes with a shrewd yet empathic eye. He reads from This Is Burning Man on Tuesday, Aug. 10, at the Odeon Bar at 10 p.m. Admission is free; call 550-6994 or visit www.odeonbar.com.