Fun Inc., By Tom Chatfield (Virgin)
A Casual Revolution, By Jesper Juul (MIT)
Reviewed by Pat Kane
Friday 15th January, 2010
Those of us who have been dented in a tender financial place by the latest tera-byte crunching games platform may be up for a little intellectual justification of our Xmas spending. So here are two crackers: Tom Chatfield's Fun Inc. is the most elegant and comprehensive defence of the status of computer games in our culture I have read, as well as a helpful compendium of research. And Jesper Juul's A Casual Revolution provides even more conceptual filigree to justify the refinement of your cyber-tennis forehand on the Wii.
But are computer games "the 21st century's most serious business"? The numbers surrounding the sector are certainly thudding. By the end of 2008, annual sales of video games - not including consoles or devices - was $40 billion, comfortably outstripping the movie business. In the same year, Nintendo's employees were more profitable per head than Google's.
The sheer pervasiveness of game experience - 99 per cent of teenage boys and 94 per cent of teenage girls having played a video game - means that instant naffness falls upon those who express a musty disdain for the medium. Chatfield wickedly punctures Boris Johnson's vestigial urban chic by quoting his description of video-gamers as "blinking lizards... without ratiocination, discovery or feat of memory".
In fact, as Fun Inc. elegantly explains, computer game-playing has a very strong claim to be one of the most vital test-beds for intellectual enquiry. Rather than shock-haired politicians bemoaning "vanished dreams of an unmediated society", they should be looking to massive multi-player online games (MMOs) as a laboratory for the better angels of our civic nature.
As anyone who has even tentatively stepped into the virtual world of games like Eve Online or World of Warcraft would corroborate, Chatfield finds there "elections, formal debates and fundamental discussions, self-organising task forces, mass communications and mass motivations", and every shade of human grouping. That you may be a citizen with bejewelled tusks, or a trader of interstellar cargo, does not for Chatfield signify a weird retreat from political engagement. In the spirit of the best play scholarship, he sees games as a tool for learning how to handle offline complexities - as social rehearsals that make us wiser and more sophisticated in our responses.
Corporations are now scouring CVs for evidence of "level 70 guild leader status" in online games, signifying responsibility and leadership skills. There is a clear-eyed chapter on the mutually-supportive relationship between the US military and computer-game players - one just as strong with medical trainers and environmental modellers. Economists are using virtual worlds to conduct controlled experiments on our spontaneous behaviour as traders. And there's an unequivocal thumbs-up to the Scottish education sector, which seems to be the global leader in adapting games for use in schools.
Where Chatfield inspires most trust is the way he handles the unavoidable fact that "a player is actually 'doing' rather than merely watching" acts of violence and cruelty - neither or which is "peculiar to, or even common in, games". He notes that of the top 20 bestselling console games of all time, only one - the infamous Grand Theft Auto - involves explicit violence. The top three are Wii Play, Nintendogs and Pokemon.
Even a figure as mainstream as TV supernanny Tanya Byron, in her report on children and cyberculture last year, came to the conclusion that we need to move from a model of games "causing harm" to "the adult business of education, contextualisation, responsible classification and regulation". All the violence-and-games research, exhaustively cited in Fun Inc., makes clear that the onus should be on identifying those who need social support, rather than hyping up the negative effect of one newer media over any other.
Chatfield concedes one medical scare-quote on the impact of games, on their addictive powers. Indeed, given the way games are designed to tap into our compulsive, species-deep desire to learn, it's perhaps no surprise that they tap into the same neurological joy-loops as alcohol or sucrose.
This is where the "incorporated" part of the title starts to seem a little less witty, and a little more creepy. Many cyber-critics are beginning to identify "playbour" in net culture - play as exploited information-labour. The fun of games online is, on this view, a commercial fly-trap. As their ludic gizmos entice our social and imaginative natures to keep pressing the fun-button, all manner of civic and consumer data is being harvested by corporations. And maybe worse - witness the mega-surveillant Chinese state's heavy investment in online game worlds, not mentioned in Chatfield's book.
These "casual" games, purchased cheaply or downloaded freely, and played across the screens that occupy not just our living rooms but our pockets and laps, are the subject of Jesper Juul's The Casual Revolution. In its way, this delightful, straightforward book is an exercise in what they used to call in my English course "practical criticism" - a theory-light disassembling of the essential components of an art form. We are introduced to robust concepts like "juiciness": the visual and aural rewards that these simpler games give their mildly distracted users.
Juul reveals a hightly entertaining schism in the gamer community - an elitist disgust from "hardcore" gamers at the rise of this cheap'n'cheerful sector. It seems as much a response to the maturing of existing gamers (as one interviewee says, "I'm a dad now, I've no time to disappear into the loft for days with a virtual platoon"), the raw economics of the bigger games (now costing scores of millions to develop), and the desire to broaden gender appeal, as a retreat from the kind of sublimity that Chatfield promotes.
The wildly successful Wii Golf or Tennis, or music games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, are often about adding a virtual element to the existing physicality of a familiar play-form. Yet one should always be alert towards the return of the ancient in the world of play. At the end of Fun Inc., Chatfield invokes the Dutch play-theorist par excellence, Johan Huizinga.
He makes a comparison between Huizinga's idealisation of chivalric and carnivalesque play in the medieval era and the patriarchal guilds, wilfully embraced hierarchies and mass triviality of digital play today. Is our current ethos of play to be defined as "happy inspiration" in a world of neo-feudal and neo-militarist values and structures? This play-theorist would robustly beg to differ. But at the very least, these books make a strong case that we're all ludologists now. As the Tense Tens approach, we might as well get good at it.