Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Book Triad: Try to make a game out of your crippling alienation at the bottom of the ocean.

Welcome to the second edition of triple book reviews.  If you missed last time, the rules are simple. I read two nonfiction books and one fiction, write a paragraph long review of each, and then spend a paragraph on general musing. And them we can all go home. That sounds nice, doesn't it? Without further ado, then, this installment's books are:
 Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal
Starfish by Peter Watts
 Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as Cultural Practice
Reality is Broken.  Jane McGonigal argues for the potential of games to change the world, and solve our most pressing global problems.  It's been a while since I've been so conflicted about a book, so let's start with one of the less controversial areas, the structure.  The book is divided into three parts.  First, there's a general section on what games are, why people feel depressed in modern society, and how games can combat that depression through their directed, goal-oriented nature.  The second section is about low-scale alternate reality games, small examples of how the games she describes can help, in local ways.  And the third section is on massive ARGs, with the potential to mobilize large groups of people to solve global issues.  The first section I disliked the most; it seemed a lot like pop psychology, with some big pronouncements on the nature of happiness.  In the other sections, at least, McGonigal had the benefit of drawing on the vast number of games she's invented to support her points.  It becomes clear very quickly that games are a very personal thing for McGonigal, and at times, the book comes off as a mix between a self-help manual and a gospel. The book is also an advertisement of sorts, since games are largely McGonigal's livelihood.  The tone is relentlessly optimistic as well, to the point where disagreeing with her felt almost like being unnecessarily mean.  I wasn't particularly enamored with the rather utopian view McGonigal predicts for the future, but I do admire and respect the depth of her conviction.

Starfish by Peter Watts.  In the near future, a corporation sets underwater energy stations in the world's biggest ocean trenches, and staffs them with people deliberately chosen for their social dysfunctions, as it's determined that the socially dysfunctional stand the best chance of surviving mentally under the living conditions. that makes sense. The first two thirds or three quarters of the book focus on the characters populating this underwater world, and it's the book's strength. The harsh environment, social deprivation, and corporate callousness reminds me of the movie Moon, and that's high praise, as far as I'm concerned. Watts really delves into the psychology of his characters, and what it means for them to live in this underwater environment. It's not a cure-all for their other problems, but it does grant them new perspectives. And I really liked the sinister corporation aspect, as it works well with some socioeconomic critiques I've been reading; if someone in our capitalist-driven system found a way to translate the socially maladjusted into use-value profit, wouldn't we do it? And that of course leads to more speculation on what it means to be "well" and useful to begin with. The big fault of the book is that there's a huge plot shift in the later portion, one that doesn't sit well with the established themes. I originally gave this book a lower rating before I found out it had sequels, just because it felt like such a jarring change from what came before. If Watts is continuing on this plot course, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. The ending doesn't really whet my appetite for more stuff taking place in this world, but I'm glad to know it wasn't totally tacked on.

Inventing the Medium.  Murray presents her philosophy of digital design, that we are still inventing the digital medium, and we need to consider how improving it improves human communication. Her thesis, taken from her earlier book, Hamlet on the Holodeck, is that the major representational forms enabled by digital technology is the procedural, the spatial, the encyclopedic, and the participatory. The book is divided into five sections; the first section of the book of media design, with digital technology in particular. The other four correspond roughly to the four forms Murray identified. There's a section on expressive procedures that resembles the abstract portion of a first year computer science course, involving pseudo code and feedback loops. Section 3 focuses on spatial design strategies, with one chapter on spatial exploration in digital spaces, and one on libraries. It's probably the section that's the most short-changed, as that second part fits more closely with the fourth section, designing encyclopedic resources. Chapters include database types and marking metadata. The final section, scripting interaction, looks at four broad models for designing human/digital interactions: as tool, as companion, as machine, and as game. The text is ideal for undergraduate course on design, or those looking for an update of Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck; for anyone else, there may not be a lot of interest. It's got excellent exercises at the ends of the chapters, makes great use of full-colored examples, and has a very detailed glossary--again, clearly designed for an undergraduate audience.

In retrospect, I was a lot kinder with Reality is Broken than I really felt.  I know it was not meant to be overly deep, but neither was Murray's book, and at least that one felt like it had some scholarly standards.  McGonigal's was much looser, and the big problem I had with the relentless optimism is that it seemed as if we only got one side of the story.  These games she proposes have the potential to be hugely exploitative, and to pretend that this problem isn't there is a little disingenuous.  At the same time, it was a strange sort of contrast to move from Starfish, which depicted a bleak future where all of the characters were broken creatures ignored by society, to Reality is Broken, which is so swelled with hope for the future that it just might burst.  Murray's book, in case you're wondering, sticks to a more middle course, though she has her utopian leanings in the design potential of digital stuff.  It was a not great choice on my part to choose two nonfiction books that were around 400 pages each.  I put a lot of effort into them over the last few days (read: "I didn't have anything better to do for the long weekend") so I still finished them fairly quickly, but I can't say I enjoyed the experience--it doesn't help that neither is really essential reading.  Actually, Reality is Broken probably is essential reading for game studies at this point but... well, I still didn't enjoy it.  Yeah.  Although the descriptions of the games and applications in both Inventing and Reality were usually interesting.

Later Days.

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