Uncertainty in Games (Anglais) Relié – 9 avril 2013
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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.
This book doesn't seem to do any of those things, and I can't honestly say I learned anything at all from reading it -- I am left feeling mildly irritated at the writing style and without anything to show for it. After reading a section, I am hard pressed to describe _anything_ that was actually said. The book rambles on without saying anything, page after page. I can't see any kind of thesis or theme, nor is there concrete advice or abstract observations. There is just a string of trite comments about classic games, mostly the author describing himself playing the game -- but not with any depth, insight, or detail. I gained no new insight on either the games I knew well nor on the games I had not heard of. It spends a little bit of time giving a (poor) summary of Caillois's classic book, but even there the author seems to have failed to grasp even the most basic points of substance of what Caillois was saying.
On the rare occasion the book starts to actually starts to make any kind of claim or observation, it is oversimplified to the point of being clearly false. E.g. It beings one chapter saying "culture is what differentiates humans from other animals". No. Culture is _one_ of the properties that distinguishes humans, although even that property is not clear cut -- many other animals exhibit crude forms of culture, although rich extensive culture is distinctively human. But there are other properties that also distinguish humans. The author reduces a complex topic to a trite statement that is just wrong. Worse, I have no idea why the author even wants to make a point about culture, since the rest of the chapter then rambles on about other topics, failing to ever connect culture back to the topic of the book -- uncertainty in games. The claims about culture are tiny part of the book, but they exhibit the author's overall failure to use words precisely, his failure to have a focused point to an essay, and his apparent lack of knowledge of the subjects discussed.
There are too many good, great, and even mediocre books about games to waste time reading bad ones. I advise passing on this one.
This book's strength is in it's wide breadth of examples it pulls from to describe different types of uncertainty. In fact the largest chapters, which compose most of the book, cover examples of games and the types of uncertainty they employ.
The book doesn't go too far away from those two things, providing existing examples and categorizing uncertainty types , so if you are looking for in depth use of each type of uncertainty you may be left somewhat wanting.
Still a great series and I am excited to see more added to it.
My only complaint is that I wish the chapter concluding the whole book included a paragraph or two recapping all the various types of uncertainty discussed in the previous chapters. I didn't take notes, wish I had, and encourage the reader to do so.
Worth a read if you're looking for some ideas on your next journey to the game design world.