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Video Games: A Popular Culture Phenomenon

Author: Arthur Asa Berger
Publisher: New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2002
Review Published: April 2003

 REVIEW 1: W. Bradford Mello

Video Games: A Popular Culture Phenomenon by Arthur Asa Berger is a slim volume that purports to be a cultural critique of the video game culture from a multi-disciplinary perspective. What it turns out to be is a cursory, shallow treatment of a significant topic of study. He fills pages with lists of games, models for analysis and tables of game manufacturers' output, all of which have little relevance to his argument. In fact, it seems his title alone is his argument and on that point he is correct. Video games are a pop culture phenomenon, but this work does little to enlighten the reader on the phenomenon.

The book is arranged into two sections with four chapters each. The first section is labeled "Theoretical Concerns" and the second is labeled "Analyzing Representative Video Games." The theoretical chapters present a simple model for understanding video games patterned after the Shannon and Weaver, sender-message, receiver, channel (SMRC) model of communication. The model that he offers, in figure form, indicates the interaction between the medium (at the center of the model) and the art work, the artist, the audience, and American society. Arrows between each concept indicate the interaction. The model is simplistic and does not provide any insight that one who is familiar with the SMRC model of communication might deduce on his/her own. In the opening chapter he glosses over play theory and provides some insight into the definition of games in general and the history of the development of computer games. We learn briefly of the art of the development of computer games and about the on-going battle between the video game console makers. The size of the industry in terms of sales and household penetration is listed. All of this information certainly could be useful in the process of critiquing the popular cultural phenomenon of video games but Berger does not make the connection. He simply provides a laundry list of information about video games that is available to anyone via the Internet.

Next, Berger turns to narrative theory claiming that it will help the reader understand the cultural significance of video games. What he offers in the chapter on narrative is simply a rehash of information presented elsewhere in his other works albeit applied with video games in mind. He lists the following four objectives for the chapter: to highlight where children's narratives were found in pre-electronic games; the differences between print and interactive narratives; a uses and gratification's approach to print and video games; and "the future of print narratives in a digital age." The discussion of narrative theory in relation to video games is superficial and most anyone with a moderate level of media exposure (in other words, individuals who played Pacman, watched some television, and read a few newspapers) would be able to make the same observations that he does. His lists of differences between print and electronic narratives are interesting, but again he does not offer much insight into why these differences might be significant. He argues, using McLuhan's idea that "the medium is the massage" that, "McLuhan's ideas also imply, I would suggest, a sexual masturbatory element to game playing with its joysticks or other kinds of extensions of ourselves" (39). While this might hold some credence, he does not offer any support; he simply makes the claim and then moves on to the next topic. If people are getting their jollies while playing games, it deserves more exploration than three sentences.

A highlight to the book does occur in the second chapter with his questions to think about regarding children and video games. He suggests that we ponder the following four questions: are video games more theatrical than dramatic, providing flash appeal without a good story?; do video games provide "an illusory sense of empowerment, a version of 'infantile omnipotence,' which will be harmful when they get older?"; what is the role of addiction in playing games?; and finally, do these games expose children to adult oriented material earlier than the are capable of handling it? These are all valid research questions that should be pursued. Unfortunately, he only offers them as questions with limited or no answers. The theory does not inform the criticism well. The criticism amounts to knee jerk speculations regarding what the video games might be doing to those that play them, especially those that play them often. He speculates that violent and sexualized video games may have a profound effect on youth, yet he does not develop or support the argument. He repeatedly references the breasts of the heroine of "Tomb Raider" and argues that it cannot be good for men to see such things because as St. Augustine wrote, such images "disturb the whole man" and men cannot control their passions. The "logical" extension of such an argument is that men are incapable of self-control and cannot be blamed for their actions if they are heavy gamers. It is an extension that this reviewer is unwilling to accept.

Berger provides a five-page chapter on cognitive dissonance in relation to video games. The concept itself would take more pages to adequately explain the literature. He explains the concept in three paragraphs without citing any of the research on cognitive dissonance. The chapter provides two lists: one is a list of the top 40 games from gamecenter.com and another one is from PC Gamer that offers the 50 best games ever. What he suggests is that we should look to these games and the values they perpetuate and try to determine if such values might create cognitive dissonance among gamers. It is a good suggestion but he does not follow through. What he does offer at the close of the brief chapter is a model of the various scholarly traditions or disciplines that should investigate video games. Surrounding the phrase video games are: semiotics, ethical, psychoanalytic, aesthetics, political, economic, sociological, and feminist. Again, this is a valid suggestion but it would be helpful to the reader if he cited work in each of the areas. Feminists have had something to say about the portrayal of women in video games (he later cites one such article) and the potential for psychological and sociological analysis, I'm certain, has not been missed by scholars from those disciplines, but the reader is left unaware of what those traditions might have to say about video games. However, the call for an interdisciplinary look at video games is an important one. It is unlikely that one disciplinary tradition will be able to understand the influence of video games.

His final theoretical chapter offers a bio-psycho-social perspective on video games and is just as cursory as the previous theoretical chapters. The biological perspective section ponders the physical problems such as repetitive stress syndrome that might plague gamers. Berger also speculates that gaming may contribute to hyperactivity. He claims, "my notion that these games might also lead to hyperactive behavior are hypothetical and tentative, not based on research that I know about" (57). An intriguing claim that deserves at least some consultation of literature on hyperactivity. He mentions that the flashing lights of video games may be a contributing factor with some neurological problems in Japan and suggests that video game playing, like watching too much TV, increases obesity.

He often alludes to various scholars but does not bother to cite them. For example, regarding the psychological factors involved with gaming, he claims, "Some scholars argue that violence in films, television shows, and video games leads to a catharsis, a cleansing and purging of emotions so that exposure to violence according to this argument, ironically, leads to less violence. This view is countered by scholars who argue that people especially children tend to imitate others" (62). Citing the research by author and with significant detail would be more helpful to the reader. His speculations on the sociological aspects offer a concise review of findings by Provenzo (1991) that 98% of games had no female roles in them with most of the remaining roles relegated to damsels in distress and a quote from Cassell and Jenkins work, "Chess for Girls? Feminism and Computer Games" (no date of publication is given and the work does not appear in the bibliography), that makes the observation, "In the East, it's all giggling schoolgirls and sailor uniforms, but in the West the recipe appears to be bee-sting lips, a micro thin waist, and voluminous, pneumatic breasts" (67) 1. Referencing two studies hardly seems to do the sociological/feminist perspective justice.

Unfortunately, the text is poorly written and researched. The worst example of this is when he refers to a popular work borrowing the title "Bowling Alone" as a sub-heading without citing the author. Berger often uses the phrase "something like" as a way to make a guess about some things, such as the number of a game sold. There are typos and other similar errors through the book which support that notion that this is a sloppy piece of work. His critical analysis reads as a speculative list that these computer games are dangerous fodder that will lead to obesity, various physical ailments, unrealistic expectations of female body types, hyperactive, and hypersexually-stimulated gamers. His perusal of various games that have attracted his attention enough to play them seems haphazard at best. There are at least "50 best games ever" available, so why did he chose to play and critique Myst/Riven, Tomb Raider, and Half-Life? He offers no serious justification for his game selections other than that they are popular. His limited observations about the games could be easily made by anyone who played the game a few times. My suggestion is to skim the rather brief bibliography (29 sources) and select something off that list (for example, Herz's "Joy Stick Nation"). Your time would be better spent.

1. The Provenzo article is discussed as a citation in another book, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games (MIT Press, 1998), edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins. The book is not listed in the bibliography.

W. Bradford Mello:
W. Bradford Mello is an associate professor of Communication at Trinity College in Washington, DC. His research and teaching areas involve the study of political communication and mass communication, with a special interest in the visual.  <mellob@trinitydc.edu>

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