- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
A timely and informed assessment of the rapidly growing gaming industry that is altering the world around us.
Despite the recession, video games continue to break records—and command unprecedented amounts of media coverage. The U.S. is the world’s biggest video games market and manufacturer, with a market now worth over $20 billion annually in software and hardware sales—more than quadruple its size in the mid 1990s. World of Warcraft now boasts over 11 million players ...
A timely and informed assessment of the rapidly growing gaming industry that is altering the world around us.
Despite the recession, video games continue to break records—and command unprecedented amounts of media coverage. The U.S. is the world’s biggest video games market and manufacturer, with a market now worth over $20 billion annually in software and hardware sales—more than quadruple its size in the mid 1990s. World of Warcraft now boasts over 11 million players worldwide, and over $1 billion per year in revenues. Gaming is flourishing as a career and a creative industry as well. 254 U.S. colleges and universities in 37 states now offer courses and degrees in computer and video game design, programming and art. Video games are increasingly for everyone: 68% of American households now play computer or video games, while the average game player is 35 years old and has been playing games for twelve years.
Against the popular image, too, 43% of online U.S. game players are female. The U.S. military alone now spends around $6 billion a year on virtual and simulated training programs, based around video games and virtual worlds. The budgets for developing the biggest games can now top the $100 million mark and are snapping up some of the biggest names in film—from Stephen Spielberg to Peter Jackson.
A treatise on the current and future state of video games.
In his debut, Prospect magazine arts and books editor Chatfield explores topics ranging from the culturally pervasive influence of video games throughout the world to the ways in which games offer unprecedented opportunities for modeling social and economic behavior. That video games have become big business—surpassing even movies in terms of total revenue—is no surprise. What is surprising is the level of depth and complexity offered by games like the massively popular World of Warcraft, in which its more than 12 million subscribers create "avatars" of themselves and explore a medieval fantasy world in a quest to improve their characters' abilities while simultaneously building real-life social networks (and facilitating many of the aforementioned behavioral studies). Chatfield spends considerable time effectively debunking commonly held conceptions that violent video games beget violence and that immersive games create addiction problems, but he introduces new issues to consider, including the complicated question of legal ownership in a virtual environment and the growing trend of buying and selling virtual goods—an industry estimated to be worth billions of dollars annually and currently unregulated (and untaxed) by any governing body. The author, an unapologetic gaming advocate, strives to inject the narrative with nuance, but it's clear that his eye is on the medium's future potential and gaming's inevitable continued growth. His insights and conclusions are sensible, though the book succeeds far better when Chatfield chronicles the effectiveness of games as educational tools or the myriad technological breakthroughs spurred by the gaming industry than when he veers off on philosophical tangents about the importance of gaming to society.
Less fun than mashing buttons, but a worthy opening salvo in what is likely to be a burgeoning field of academia.
The fun instinct
Video games are both a medium and an industry; an emerging and increasingly powerful form of entertainment, expression and communication. Yet they are also just one subset of the grand category of games: structured activities carried out for pleasure, according to certain written or unwritten rules. Games are as old as civilisation itself and are found in all cultures. Evidence survives of competitive game-playing from as early as 2600 BC, while archaeologists have found game 'boards' that were apparently scratched onto the backs of statues by bored Assyrian guards in the eighth century BC. Humans have been playing games for at least as long as we have been reading, writing and perhaps even speaking – and this latest great resurgence of game-playing at the heart of modern culture has deep roots in both our cultural and our biological history.
The urge to play is universal, not just in human cultures but among higher animals. From ants to birds to monkeys, playful rituals such as mock-fighting allow animals to test, improve and even (something that may sound rather fanciful in the case of ants) celebrate their being in the world. It is only humans, however, that play games in the strict sense. A play-fight between primates may obey the most elaborate kind of unwritten rules, but only humans are able to codify their games independently of themselves. We are rule-making (and rule-seeking) creatures, and our love of order extends to play.
The modern world's attitude towards games is itself an odd mixture of the dismissive and the deeply committed. In the case of sports, at no point in history has any activity commanded as much attention as sporting endeavour. The 2006 football World Cup was, thanks to the reach of modern media, watched at some point by over three billion people. At the time of writing, this was the single greatest collective experience in human history, although the 2010 World Cup will surely overtake it. Nothing, including religion, is so thoroughly international, or so blind to the divisions of race, nationality or creed. For all its compromises, the modern Olympics is rightly celebrated as the greatest human festival of internationalism in history.
And yet games are rigidly separated in the minds of most people from the serious business of work and living. The entire industry of contemporary leisure thrives, in fact, on this separation between work and play. You work, and you spend a significant proportion of your income on leisure, but the two are mutually exclusive; each invokes its own rigid, and seemingly incompatible, set of conventions. Work is about putting your nose to the grindstone: for most people it will entail a degree of self-sacrifice, dedication, effort and, hopefully, the satisfaction that comes from earning your keep. Games, meanwhile, are about escaping from all of this into a mindset where pleasure and entertainment rule, and the whole point is that there is nothing resting on the outcome of the game beyond the value you personally choose to attach to it. This may be extremely high – but it remains governed by personal choice and the principle of pleasure, rather than economic necessity.
Work, then, seems to be about rules, restrictions and necessities, whereas a game is about pleasure, freedom and escape from urgent need. Nevertheless, all games can also be thought of as little more than an exceptionally rigid set of rules and ideas that have been given a concrete form. Consider the popular board game, Pictionary, in which players compete to draw recognisable versions of as many objects as they can for other people to guess. Within the box of a Pictionary set you'll find a board, playing pieces, a die, a timer, some paper, some cards with lists of items on, and some pencils. Apart from the board and the cards – which are just a way of measuring progress and providing a list of things to draw – these are everyday items. By packing them up in a box with a set of instructions, however, they are transformed into nothing less than a formal declaration of the desire to play. The purchase of these objects is a kind of licence, buying a space and a time outside the ordinary run of things within which the avowed intent is pleasure.
During a game of Pictionary, the players' main activity is drawing on scraps of paper. It's something they could have done pretty much any time, had they had the inclination. What is it, then, that makes the game? In one sense, the game is born of a consensus: the learning and obeying of a simple set of rules. This consensus allows both competition and collaboration; it allows the measurement of better and worse performances, of more and less achievement. It allows players the satisfaction of showing off their skills, and of achieving something measurable. Since 2001 there has even been such a thing as the World Championship of Pictionary: create a challenge, and there will always be people whose greatest pleasure is demonstrably being the best (and create a game at which there is little or no skill, or opportunity for distinction, and the result will soon be boredom).
Yet part of the charm of a game like Pictionary is that it is about more than simply crushing your opponents. The drawing component of the game is at least as much about self-expression and incidental delight as it is about competing – an excuse for a controlled few moments of disinhibition. To play it is as much to be creative and sociable as it is to compare skills and achievements. For it is also a team game, whose greatest satisfaction involves successful communication, something that, in most cases, includes shared delight in the awfulness of certain drawing efforts, and the provocation of interactions above and beyond the raw mechanics of the game itself.
What we have in summary is a complex and powerful set of human motivators: achievement, competition, collaboration, learning and improvement, communication and self-expression. And what makes them a 'game', as opposed to something more serious, is the avowedly non-functional context they are framed in – the box, the label, the time set aside for pleasure rather than labour.
This book is all about a particular kind of game – the most complex and powerful class of games people have ever created – but it's also about the ways in which these games challenge this dichotomy of work and leisure on a fundamental level. Video games are, uniquely, a medium both for mass audiences and for mass participation: a live event that hundreds of millions of people can not only watch, but take part in. And they also constitute a medium where this participation increasingly overlaps with the ways in which people work, communicate and even define themselves as actors on a digital stage where there is little that cannot be shared, manipulated, re-imagined and made subject to the forces of pleasure and imagination.
We live in a world where, for both better and worse, the very same digital media serve our social, working and recreational selves; and the arena of digital play is proving to be one that demands many qualities not traditionally associated with leisure: education, management and planning skills, profound effort, even self-sacrifice. From economics to personal relationships to experimental research, old boundaries are being crossed almost every year – and one thing at least is looking increasingly certain. In its way, the question of exactly why we play video games quite so much – and are certain to do so even more in the future – points toward a twenty-first-century cultural shift as profound as the explosion of mass media over the last century.
The first point to make is that a video game doesn't require consensus or rule-learning in the way that something like football, chess or Pictionary does. You're not strolling on to a patch of grass holding a ball or unpacking a box full of pencils and paper. In a video game you are, rather, being presented with a miniature but complete world whose rules are an integral part of its structure – something that has been elaborately crafted down to its tiniest detail. If it's well designed, you can no more disobey those rules than you can cheat at football by floating across the pitch in defiance of gravity.
This has a number of important consequences. With a football or a pack of cards, there are hundreds of games you can theoretically play. In a video game, you can only do what the game allows you to. Or, to put it another way, the world of the game itself embodies its rules, and your job is to puzzle them out. Like the real world, video games are arenas into which you're dropped and left to deduce a method of success for yourself. You can progress only by gaining experience; and the skills that this experience taps into are some of the most fundamental human motivators there are.
The crucial point here is that, while games are miniature worlds, the 'reality' they reflect is not the physical world we inhabit, but the very particular ways in which this universe is manifested within the human mind. They are symbolic or relational realities: places whose primary obligation is not so much to ape the arbitrariness of life as to reproduce the patterns and configurations that humans are most disposed to seek. All of which leads to what is the most important and universal impulse behind the playing of video games: the fact that they are engines of the most sophisticated kind of human learning.
Within the increasingly distinguished field of video games studies, perhaps the most influential person to have discussed games as learning engines is the designer and author Raph Koster. Koster has, among other things, worked as lead designer on Ultima Online (1997), the world's first commercially successful massively multiplayer online game (MMO), and as creative director on another MMO milestone, Star Wars Galaxies (2003), based on the Star Wars universe. He's also the author of an influential book, A Theory of Fun for Game Design (2004), that was one of the first to set out in precise terms what it means to say that games are tools for learning:
Games are something special and unique. They are concentrated chunks ready for our brains to chew on. Since they are abstracted and iconic, they are readily absorbed. Since they are formal systems, they exclude distracting external details. Usually, our brains have to do hard work to turn messy reality into something as clear as a game is.
Learning, Koster explains, is something humans find extraordinarily satisfying because the ability to learn certain kinds of lessons is perhaps our most vital trait in evolutionary terms. Uniquely, we have become able to learn as both individuals and as a species, and to construct the symbolic means of perpetuating our learning from generation to generation. In the thousands upon thousands of years during which modern man has evolved, the desire and ability to learn – and the aptitude for solving all manner of spatial, hierarchical, conceptual and relational problems – has ensured both our survival and, over time, our dominance of the earth. It should come as little surprise, then, that the mastery of certain kinds of learning challenge thrills us like little else.
Seen in these terms, video games emerge as an extraordinary kind of reverse-engineering. Our brains were moulded over hundreds of thousands of years by the necessity of surviving in the world. And yet, today, the brains that we developed as a result of this are now busily creating other unreal worlds designed expressly to satisfy them. We are building new worlds for fun. And the sense of fun that these creations satisfy – a sense with millennia of evolutionary history behind it – represents one of the most sophisticated and demanding human needs it is possible to satisfy.
The word 'fun', here, can itself be misleading. Why use a word with such a ring of simplicity, even of childishness, in such a complex context? 'It's the word we are stuck with,' Raph Koster responded when I put this question to him, pointing out that the impulses it describes are at once too profound and too diffuse to isolate in a single term. 'There isn't even consensus across the European languages as to what exactly to call this vague, general feeling that in English is called fun. As a concept, it varies radically from language to language.' And yet – like humour, another vital area of human sentiment whose very nature defies analysis – we are all able to recognise fun when we experience it; and not only to recognise it, but to sense in ourselves the almost endless degrees and variations it contains as a concept. It is a slippery, vital notion that speaks of something more than a sense of the mysterious in all of us: the desire to draw not only physical and immediate gratifications from the world, but to make a game of our being. When we speak of ourselves as having fun, we mean that we are taking delight in our exploration and experience of the world, and in the constant small surprises of how one very particular part of its works.
But what of video games in particular? 'First,' Koster notes, 'you have to look at games in general, and how they differ from other media. What games do that no other medium does is provide experiential learning, which is fundamentally an iterative experience; you do it again and again, learning a bit more each time. What video games do very differently from, say, board games is that they provide a model with a very rapid simulation.' And that means what, exactly? 'When you poke and prod at them, you can get feedback extremely quickly, and often at a fundamental visceral level. Or, their model can be slow to respond but be extremely complex – far more complex than what you could manage with counters on a board.'
Of course, 'visceral' thrills are often thought of as the most fundamental components of our pleasure-seeking: such things as speed, jaw-dropping sounds and images, thudding violence, adrenaline-pumping action, sexual attractiveness. Modern video games are certainly able to offer these in abundance. They grab our attention, they make headlines, they offer short-term gratification. And yet, to perhaps a greater extent than in any other medium, the true fun of video gaming lies elsewhere. The visceral is ultimately beside the point; and it's one of the great benefits of the very notion of 'fun' that it lies far closer to the essential appeal of gaming than any amount of speed, noise, violence, sex or action. This is because, even in the most stunning-looking, ultra-violent video game imaginable, there will rapidly come a point at which players realise that what makes the experience of playing meaningful is something more symbolic than literal. Even the most intense initial excitement will soon give way to boredom unless there is something else there, some purpose that is, in Koster's term, sufficiently 'chewy'.
Koster gives an example of this 'something else' that lifts the playing of a video game beyond mere novelty into the realm of serious fun: 'I always cite a game called M.U.L.E. by Dani Bunten Berry as my favourite game of all time. It is a classic multiplayer video game of planetary colonization and economics, played on eight-bit computers in the early 1980s. I love it so much I have it running on my phone.' M.U.L.E. is also a game that lacks anything even remotely resembling a visceral thrill. Originally written for the Atari 400 home computer in 1983, it's a turn-based strategy game for up to four players in which each side must manage a space colony, balancing the harvesting of energy, food, metal ore and valuable minerals with the buying and selling of these resources to each other or to a central 'store'. Visually, it's considerably less sophisticated than the display on a modern mobile phone. The game's title refers to the machines that players must build and use in their harvesting activities, Multiple Use Labor Elements (that is, M.U.L.E.s). And that, apart from periodic random indignities such as assault by space pirates, is that. Except, as Koster notes, beneath the simple rules lies something marvellously, entrancingly complex. 'The thing that makes this game so fascinating to play to this day is the amazingly simple way in which it creates so many emergent behaviours. It is a game where competition and cooperation exist on a razor's edge. You want to be the most successful colonist, but if you are too cut-throat then the colony as a whole will fail. You have to specialize to get ahead, but that makes you dependent on the other players for survival.'
Excerpted from Fun Inc. by Tom Chatfield. Copyright © 2011 Tom Chatfield. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted November 9, 2011
Posted December 23, 2012
Posted November 18, 2012
Posted May 12, 2013
No text was provided for this review.