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This book had some interesting analysis of games, particularly vintage video games & new social games like CityVille. But overall it was a bit disappointing to me. It wasn't what I thought it was about, it wasn't what it *said* it was about, and the thesis was thin and uneven.
This book is part of a series (by MIT) on playful themes. The author's thesis is that games are a fictive & nonthreatening way to "play" with uncertainty, and vicariously experience some control over uncertainty even though uncertainty is generally terrifying to most of us (in life).
I find this thesis absolutely fascinating. We discover in Chpt 3 that the thesis was extracted from quotes by sociologist Roger Caillois. But the thesis is proposed, then dropped. The book does not argue for the thesis at all. It is merely an idea thrown out there, a belief really, with nearly zero discussion to follow.
As we read on, we discover the entire book is like that. It's more a collection of musings than anything else. The author definitely poses interesting questions, but these questions are definitely better answered by somebody else (a psychologist or philosophers perhaps?). It also raises the question, how did this book sneak past the editorial board at MIT?
In chapters 2-3, the author argues that we have innate impulses to play. I agree, but again, I would have liked to see an argument or some research here. Instead, it just feels like a complete shift in thesis. Remember the initial thesis - that game-play is a psychological tool to cope with the terror of uncertainty. Now the author is comparing us to animals, stating that playfulness and fun are apparently innate to mammals.
Here (chpts 2-3), the author goes out on a limb, on topics completely outside his purview. These chapters probably should have been dropped completely, as they are irrelevant both to the thesis and to the gaming discussion that follows.
In making a cultural/sociological argument for games as a subset of play, he asserts that culture is what differentiates humans from other animals. For example, humans have eating rituals and animals do not. This is just plain bologna, and you wonder why the author (whose background is in computer programming) would bother sticking his neck out like this.
There are literally thousands of books (both popular and academic) about mammals, and their emotions and cultures. The author could have just picked one at random and written a more informed chapter. But the author only needs to turn on the Discovery Channel or National Geographic to know animals do indeed have their own rituals. In the end, the argument has nothing to do with his thesis or gaming analysis, so it seems equally as pointless to try to critique his ill-informed statements here.
Chapters 4 and 5 are the heart of the book. If you are looking for gaming analysis, I might even suggest going straight to these chapters, and skipping the rest.
But even so, the book continues to be very uneven. It appears the author is simply choosing his favorite games to critique and analyze - we are given no criteria whatsoever as to why he jumps from Mario Brothers to Chess to CityVille to Magic the Gathering (trading card game from the early 90's). The discussion is not organized by game type, by era, etc.
Additionally, the thesis here seems forced and contrived, which makes it read like an undergraduate reading assignment. In his discussion of Mario Brothers, for example, he goes on & on about how uncertainty is central to the game: "You have to jump at the right moment...that's uncertain...you have to jump over the bad guys...that's uncertain...you have to face the Boss...that's uncertain..." etc etc.
You could have made the same argument that oxygen is central to the game-play (i.e., You move right, take a breath, jump over the bad guy, take a breath, etc etc). Don't get me wrong. Once you cut through the contrivances, his analysis was actually interesting. But this is the "meat" of the book, and there just wasn't enough there. His analysis of chess, for example, was barely 2 pages.
It does seem obvious the authors favorite games are vintage video games, and current social media games. I didn't know much about either of these, so I found these sections interesting. Chpts 4-5 are by far the longest chapters in the book, by the way. But the book should have been organized much differently. For example, it could simply be a collection of essays on his thoughts about games. Or, one chapter on board games, one chapter on role playing games, one chapter on social games, one chapter on physical games, one chapter on card games, several chapters on video games (organized by decade), etc etc.
Chapter 5 fizzles out as the author discusses sources of uncertainty in games, such as your skill level, the skill level of other players (or computer), twists & turns in games, and the complexity in the game (such as chess). This chapter mostly summarized themes already discussed in the previous chapters.
In Chapter 6, the author introduces a brand new thesis. In discussing ideas for game development, he argues that being more intentional about placement of uncertainty would make for beter games. Once again, this book would have been much more successful as a series of essays by the author. At this point in the book, the author has switched gears so many times I'm not really sure what I'm reading (or why).
Chapter 7 contains a 1 page conclusion, demonstrating once again that the author does not know how to argue or summarize a thesis. This book definitely had some interesting ideas, but they were all undeveloped.
My initial interest in this book was to see if the concept of uncertainty in play had any educational applications for children. I abandoned all hope of gleaning any useful insights after the first page, but continued reading because of the promise of a discussion on uncertainty and randomness. The book never quite got there, either.
I put most of the blame for this book's shortcomings on the MIT editors. The author obviously had some interesting ideas, and with limited writing & academic background he really needed help organizing them.
If you like gaming history analysis, I recommend reading Chpts 4-5. If you're looking for philosophical, sociological, psychological, or educational insights, this is not the book for you.