Hands off those joysticks

Computer Games

January 12, 2007

Computer games are addictive and great fun. A lot of people of all ages spend a lot of time playing them. Vast amounts of money are made by the games industry: there are millions of game consoles, and many games make money directly for their owners - by sales, subscription and, increasingly, gambling. It is not obvious what a computer game is, though.

Should we include a simulation of a casino, for example, as a computer game?

Once we pin down what computer games are, it is interesting to know how they differ from and develop other sorts of experiences, such as watching films, reading books or playing other games, whether war games, football or interactive theatre. We might want to make better games or criticise existing ones. Clearly, violence in computer games is an issue of social concern. But is it a significant issue? What can we do about it if it is? Can games be justified because children get useful experience using modern technology?

There are many profound and interesting questions in this field. It is a shame that this book does not provide any answers. It claims to be an introduction to applying literary, media and film theory to computer games, but it makes no concessions to the new researcher entering the field. It claims to provide a variety of tools for games research, but it never explains any of them. There is no reflection on the field of game studies as such; there is nothing to help or motivate a student to engage with the subject. Topics such as Freud's ideas are broached, then dismissed as irrelevant. A book is hard to read when it repeatedly cites publications without explaining what they say or why they say it. This book has been written in the voice of a research report, not for a wider readership.

Nevertheless, Computer Games certainly shows that there are many ways of talking about, if not rigorously analysing, games and games culture. It may well be a useful resource for people wanting to enter the field of games studies, though mainly because it raises issues that it then fails to address.

For example, the book claims that its primary aim is to provide concepts that can be used in empirical analysis. One chapter explores a few comments from a 17-year-old girl. This is empirical data in a limited sense only; we are not told whether this girl is typical or representative of any population.

A later chapter tells us that women are alienated, disenfranchised and that game culture is sexist. It seems that women are generally less forthcoming when interviewed about games than men. We are told that in the UK, .2 per cent of gamers are women aged 30-35, but in Korea it is an "astounding" 65.9 per cent. But we are not told the age profile of the Korean women (maybe more than two thirds of UK women of the same age play?), and we are not told how the rate compares with the rates for men of any age group in any country. We are not even told whether the figures are for, say, gambling in Korea but role-playing in the UK. What definitions of games were used? Thus the figures, at least as presented, do not in themselves support any claim that one or another gender is alienated - whether or not it is in fact true.

There are millions of game players and thousands of games. Why not do a rigorous survey and get data more reliable than can be had from one or two users' and designers' opinions of one or two games? Or why not at least argue more carefully from what is known?

In short, if you thought computer games were addictive, this book is the antidote.

Harold Thimbleby is director of the Future Interaction Technology Lab, Swansea University. He programmed his first games in the 1960s.

Computer Games: Text, Narrative and Play

Author - Diane Carr, David Buckingham, Andrew Burn and Gareth Schott
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 210
Price - £50.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 7456 3400 1 and 3401 X

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