The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us – And How They Don’t, by Nick Yee

Steve Redhead finds a lack of sophistication in this analysis of the online gaming community

April 24, 2014

Virtual worlds are central to modern life in the 21st century. Just think of the effects of the ongoing global financial crisis, the controversial virtual currency bitcoin and the virtual bank robberies that can be as serious as those in the “real” world, or the National Security Agency data-collecting revealed by Edward Snowden via WikiLeaks. Yet how much do we really know about these virtual worlds and the “reality” of virtual reality?

Game researcher Nick Yee draws on his own long-term surveys of some 55,000 game players to paint a readable picture of the online gaming community. He begins with a good introduction to online games, drawing on his own data to question longstanding myths about who actually plays these games. The Proteus of the book’s title, the sea-god who could change appearance, evokes the postmodern obsession with reinvention and identity formation, and there is a great deal here about what we would call the “postmodern subject” and how the mass media and assorted creative industries address the consumer as a conscious being looking for love, escapism and freedom, especially as an online game player. In the book’s second and third sections, Yee focuses on these questions of identity, and these parts are, in my view, much weaker than the first section, in part because of their “theoretical” pseudo-psychologistic claims.

The gaming industry will benefit from Yee’s data on virtual reality and digital avatars, but what will academics get out of it? More specifically, what will social theorists get out of this book, if anything? For example, let’s take criminologists and sociologists. Yee invokes the so-called moral panics surrounding the emergence of comic books and rock’n’roll, and their links to the rise of the figure of the “teenager”, in explaining the three decades of panic about video games from the moment arcade games appeared in bars and nightclubs in the 1970s. He tells us a story of a world where “gaming was deviant behaviour”. The problem is that high-level critical criminological work on deviance is now unparalleled in its global sophistication and the simplicity of Yee’s game-industry-derived perspective just won’t do. The concept of moral panic, as he deploys it, is highly suspect as an explanatory tool, and part of an older, dated criminology that is being rapidly surpassed in myriad new directions of the subject area. Scholarship on these sorts of topics is of a different order to what Yee is offering, and his use of an outdated concept speaks volumes.

Yee certainly offers some interesting data on how gaming has become integral to modern life. He is right to state that “video gamers no longer form a fringe subculture” and we learn a lot in The Proteus Paradox about how “game thinking” and game mechanisms have embedded themselves in corporate culture. However, on the larger, crucial philosophical questions of the subtitle – how online games and virtual worlds change us – there is little for social theorists to learn here.

The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us – And How They Don’t

By Nick Yee
Yale University Press, 256pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780300190991
Published February 2014

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