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The Pleasures of Computer Gaming: Essays on Cultural History, Theory and Aesthetics

Editor: Melanie Swalwell, Jason Wilson
Publisher: Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008
Review Published: August 2009

 REVIEW 1: Dave Jones
 REVIEW 2: Alex Meredith
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Melanie Swalwell

The Pleasures of Computer Gaming is an interesting book, both challenging and yet readable, which presents a series of essays on a range of topics. There is good breadth across the book and topics include the role of cheating within multiplayer environments, game play aesthetics, and gaming addiction, to name a few.

In Chapter One, Seth Giddings and Helen Kennedy provide an entertaining and informative account of their initiation into the world of console gaming, through the game Lego Star Wars. They point out that whilst mastering a game can be a means of enjoying it, it is not the only pleasure to be achieved when gaming. They put forward the concept of an interaction between the game and players, in a cycle of activity and passivity. This formulation of gameplay is seen as lying between the concept of cybernetic feedback loops and the modern concept of "the aesthetic," and one that will require a new language to fully understand -- one that includes terminology for being acted upon by the technology as much as acting upon it. Finally, they consider the concept of Aisthesis, of a sensory experience that is both cognitive and evaluative, but also bodily in which games can create the potential for amplified affect and effect at the same time.

Chapter Two, by Joyce Goggin, addresses the contentious topic of gaming and gambling addiction. Her primary point is that addiction can profitably be placed in a meta-physical context, and that to posit it purely within a biochemical or behavioural model might be missing the larger picture. She argues that through the increased intensification of online experience and as our subjective concepts of self merge with the experience of inhabiting virtual worlds, addictive gaming can be a means of filling a "God" shaped hole. From this perspective, gaming is a reasoned response to an increasingly non-spiritual world and an attempt to regain some concept of the meta-physical within our lives. As such, addiction is an attempt at re-alignment and coming from a "healthy place," albeit one that has gone astray, rather than a subconscious act of self-destruction as might be interpreted by other commentators.

Julian Kücklich writes on cheating, a topic that is rarely addressed in cyberpsychology books but which, as many gamers will know, can be both game-breaking and a severe annoyance. He points out that in the real world, activities that "prompt questioning" can be seen as constructive or labelled as art, but in game worlds such activities are likely to be seen as disruptive. As he notes, aesthetically there might be very little difference but there is substantially higher potential damage in virtual environments. He argues that the real danger here is not the temporary and relatively transient interruption of the game world, but the gradual disillusionment of players as the barriers between real and virtual worlds break down. Cheating is an indication that there are links between the two and there is as much power to be had in the virtual world as in the real world counterpart.

In Chapter Four, co-editor Melanie Swalwell comments upon movement and "kinaesthetic responsiveness." Positioning gaming as an exploratory space between the player and their avatar, she argues that the gaming environment facilitates mimetic improvisation by the simple fact that games allow us to move in previously impossible ways. Whilst these movements may be recognised as actions that we might do in real life, the kinaesthetic responsiveness of avatars also allows for unique movement -- particularly in games which completely abandon the laws of physics (i.e. Second Life), those which stretch them (most MMOs such as Warhammer or World of Warcraft), or those in a stellar environment (Eve Online for example). She argues that this freedom allows players to experiment with new and unfamiliar movements, leading to the testing of multi-dimensional boundaries and their relations.

Breaking from the examination of game space itself, co-editor Jason Wilson looks at the historical and cultural background of computer games through archaeological analysis. Technology is seen as both an artefact of culture but also a propelling force, in which the introduction of a new technology can have a significant impact on the existing structures. He argues that society is broadly conservative and works to maintain the status quo, and if the new technology is too disturbing then it will be rejected. With the introduction of such gaming technologies, predominantly in the 1970s, some variations were successful whilst others fell away but all were advancing a new understanding of the relationship between the "machine" and its audience.

In Chapter Six, Bernadette Flynn returns to the topic of game space in an assessment of their dynamic aspects as integral to gameplay. These aspects are seen as representations of space in which experience of space itself makes possible the emergence of creative agency. In this respect, she reasons that gameplay is more than just playing at a game, but a spatial activity where the space itself is a metaphoric language in dialogue with the player.

Patrick Grogan contends that games are a reflection of the "cultural-technical milieu" that currently dominates our society, with the emphasis on simulation that games specialise in as being a prime factor. From this perspective, computer games can contribute to our understanding of developments in human -- technology evolution, a progression which is neither driven purely by biological or technological factors. Instead, the promise of unique personal adaptation is a product of the players' interaction with the technology and with that of other players.

Finally, Chapter Eight by Brett Nicholls and Simon Ryan return to the topic of game space and argues that computer games inhabit a Thirdspace between traditional concepts of games and that of mass entertainment, with accompanying relations to real world economics. In this space, game narrative is a function of linked items of information which guide the player through this area, but not one that is necessarily a product of rules and established pathways.

Overall, The Pleasures of Computer Gaming is an excellent book which tackles some very interesting subjects with much skill and perception, but is sadly not without its faults. It could be argued that it is somewhat misleadingly titled since some of the chapters have an at best tenuous link to gaming, and instead focus on more meta-physical issues that could be attributed to any virtual environment. The chapters themselves are well written, though some authors do seem to revel more in their own wordsmithing skills, rather than the transmission of their ideas. As such, this book is not for lay readers and most degree level students would be turned off by the terminologies employed. There is also some degree of repetition and the topic of game space occurs more than might be desired for a book which, ironically, hardly covers the pleasures of computer gaming at all. With these criticisms in mind however, it is an intelligent collection of essays which provide stimulating reading.

Alex Meredith:
Alex Meredith lectures at Nottingham Trent University (UK) in cyberpsychology, with particular emphasis on online gaming environments. His latest research examines identity in MMOs, but other general topics have included online deception, serious games, and online therapy.  <alexander.meredith2@ntu.ac.uk>

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