Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Book Review: Fun Inc. by Tom Chatfield

Article first published as  "Book Review: Fun Inc.: Why Gaming Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century by Tom Chatfield" on Blogcritics.

Fun Inc.: Why Gaming Will Dominate the Twenty-First CenturySomething about video games seems to drive writers to hyperbole.

Maybe writing seriously about a medium that most people associate with children’s toys pushes writers into overheated statements about the reach and importance of games in society. There’s a little bit of self-justification in there as well, I suspect.

In the case of Tom Chatfield’s Fun Inc., it’s right there in the subtitle: Why Gaming Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century.

I braced myself for an overly optimistic assessment of how much people will be willing to do whatever you want them to do in the future as long as you present it in the form of a game and throw them some achievements.

But I was pleasantly surprised. Instead, Fun Inc. offers a survey of issues affecting and affected by video games. The book does not provide a detailed study of any particular topic, but it works well as an overview.

Chatfield provides a 30,000-foot view of some weighty topics. He covers the history of video games very briefly before launching into weightier topics such as the financial future of the industry (hint: more Angry Birds, less Grand Theft Auto IV), why games appeal to us, game violence, self-organizing communities in online games, and tapping game principles to drive social change.

Thug life
He approaches each of these issues as an enthusiastic gamer (he compares Eve Online to  “performance art” and James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, offering a clue as to where his interests lie). For example, he cuts through the sensationalism that surrounds violent games. He unpacks both side of the issue, concluding that games are still perceived as children’s toys and violence seems especially egregious in that context. In fact, most real-world cases in which violence is inspired by a game involve mentally unstable people. And crime rates have fallen as violence in games has become more graphic. Not that the two are related, but it does contradict the standard media narrative.

Online games in particular offer an interesting chance to study how communities self-organize. Chatfield walks the reader through an example in Star Wars Galaxies, in which new, unplanned economies arose with clear divisions of labor (mining raw materials, manufacturing, marketing, sales).

Personally, I find it difficult to see why someone would play a Star Wars game and end up working in a virtual factory instead of being a head-lopping Jedi Knight. But it happened, and it implies a great deal about the potential for using games outside of gaming.

Surprisingly not fun
The book takes a slight turn into unwarranted optimism in the final few chapters, which describe the application of game principles to education and real-world social problems. Chatfield tempers his enthusiasm about the potential for games to change the world with pronouncements about how gaming is ultimately about “fun” and not teaching or preaching. He even goes so far as to point out that a bleak game intended to teach people about the horrors of the genocide in Darfur ultimately fails because it achieves its goal too well. It’s a bummer.

A few other select examples of where the author’s enthusiasm gets the best of him:

  • He claims that video games raise issues that our society and laws are not equipped to deal with. As an example, he cites  a Chinese case in which a man killed another man who borrowed a magical sword and then sold it. Actually, we have laws against murder already.
  • He compares the criticisms raised against games today are the same raised against film, radio, and even writing in ancient Greece. Well, that’s greatness by association, but it doesn’t mean anything. They probably raised similar criticisms against crystal meth.

Fun Inc. wobbles a little in places, but never goes off the rails. In the end, Chatfield concludes that games have changed a great deal and are more popular and important than ever. We have the choice to let our creations make the world better or seduce us away from what’s important.

Fair enough.

If you’re looking for insight into why games keep us playing, check out Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives. If you’re looking for unabashed, misguided faith in games to make the world a better place, check out Jane McGonical’s Reality Is Broken.

But if you want a decent survey of games, the culture that surrounds them, and the issues they raise, Fun Inc. will meet your needs.

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Check out more Shame Pile reviews, if you're so inclined.

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