onsdag 16 maj 2012

Books I've read lately

"Books I've read recently" is a recurring topic and here is the previous blog post (same topic, different books). I read books in "batches" of 4-5 books, preferably pertaining to the same or similar topics. For different reasons, I have this grab bag of books lying around that I read during the last quarter of last year but that I hadn't come around to writing about yet. After this, I'm more or less in phase and will write about books that I have indeed read "lately" (this year) instead of "some time ago" (last year).  

I've already mentioned Allen Guttman's book "From ritual to record: The nature of modern sports" (1978) before, in relation to my interest in competitive computer programming. The book is a little strange, sort of divided into two quite separate parts. The first part is the one that is of interest to me, discussing what sports are (in relationship to play, games and contest) and presenting a model with seven characteristics of the process of "sportification", i.e. of the process when an activity have gone from being a (pre-modern, pre-industrial) pastime to becoming a modern sport (with national and international organizations, stop-watches, records and so on). The second part consist of an in-depth analysis of two (very) American sports that that I hardly know anything about and that interest me even less - baseball and american football. Although I found many intriguing ideas in the book, I still don't know enough about the area to know how to treat it - assume a critical stance towards it and look for flaws to criticize, or to treat it as holy writ.

Jane McGonigal's have chosen a provocative title for her book - "Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world" (2011). The content is provocative too because her basic premise is that reality sucks and games are better:

"The real world just doesn't offer up as easily the carefully designed pleasures, the thrilling challenges, and the powerful social bonding afforded by virtual environments. Reality doesn't motivate us as effetively. Reality isn't engineered to maximize our potential. Reality wasn't designed from the bottom up to make us happy. And so, there is a growing perception in the gaming community: Reality, compared to games, is broken."

She starts out not by defending games, but rather by attacking the pointlessness, hopelessness, disconnectedness and futility of reality. Games are better at focusing our energies and helping us attain our (game-related, but not seldom "epic") goals. Game designers and the people who make the games come alive are "happiness engineers" and the best hope for a better future on this planet. We should cherish what they have learned while designing games during the last couple of decades. But then she softens up and spells out what we can learn from games in order to "reform" reality and make it more meaningful, fun, social etc. What raises her book above a rant is that she has worked practically for the better part of a decade with creating games that are to be played by people together, not seldom in public, and that "makes a difference". She has many experiences to draw from and gives many practical examples of games that actually make a difference on a personal, social and even societal level. The book is good, choke-full of interesting and provocative ideas, but I'm still slightly ambivalent about the message. I would like to have an in-depth discussion with someone else who has read the book.

The third and last book is Mikolaj Dymek's massive (450 pages long) Ph.D. thesis "Industrial Phantasmagoria: Subcultural interactive cinema meets mass-cultural media of simulation" (2010) - pdf available online. This is yet another "schizophrenic" book consisting of two quite different parts (like Guttman's book above). It might not be obvious from the title, but the thesis is about (the future of) computer games and the computer gaming industry. The first part of the thesis is what I expected Mikolaj to write about, based on his earlier interests (I know him from a Ph.D. course that I taught five years ago). So he writes about the the gaming industry; about value chains and business models, about game developers, publishers and distribution chains. The only thing I find a little strange is that his empirical material was collected quite some time ago, 2002-2006. It feels like there is gap, like he's put the thesis on hold for some years...? The second and major/dominant part of the thesis is quite different, much more theoretical, and concerns the emerging field of computer game studies; the different perspectives of so-called "ludologists" and "narratologists" and in-depth treaties about interactivity and about the nature and possibilities of computer games now and in the future. I've tried to stay away from such overly theoretical discussions before, and thus found the more concrete, empirically first part of the thesis more interesting.

To every second batch of books that I read, I add a Ph.D. thesis (i.e. around 1/10 books I read is a thesis) and to every other batch I instead add an "old" book that has sat unread in my bookshelf for a long time (usually 5 or 10 years!). The previous Ph.D. thesis I read was Maria Bäcke's "Power games" (which I wrote about on the blog in February). A typical "oldie" is Albert Hirschman's "Exit, voice, and loyalty" which I wrote about back in September last year.

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