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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
How to Do Things with Videogames - Ian Bogost Ian Bogost comes across as an interesting guy: judging from this book, he seems to divide his time between reading media theory, history and philosophy on the one hand, and designing videogames on the other. Starting from a Marshall McLuhan-style analysis, his goal here is to demonstrate that videogames are already becoming just another type of media, like print or film. As with more traditional media, they can basically be used to do anything. The main reason that most people aren't already aware of this is that videogames are still fairly new, and gamers tend to be a closed community. People outside that community (I am one) are unaware of how rich videogame culture has already become. We only see the biggest commercial games; imagine what your view of literature would be if you thought it consisted exclusively of Dan Brown, James Patterson, J.K. Rowling and E.L. James.

Bogost aims to correct that, and in about 20 short chapters shows you many less obvious directions in which videogames can be developed. You have conceptual art games, like a reworked Super Mario where you can't do anything, and Mario inevitably dies each time; or, more subtly, another hacked version where all the standard conventions of the game have been subverted so that you need to do the opposite of what you normally would. He has political statement games designed to awaken empathy, like one where a girl in Darfur has to find water while hiding from Janjaweed patrols. There are electioneering games - the most common theme seems to be parodies of Space Invaders - and some extremely tasteless and disturbing erotic games. There's a terrifying dueling game called PainStation where players can inflict real injuries on each other.

Throughout, there are many interesting discussions of videogame ethics. Bogost, who like most literary theorists enjoys paradoxes, argues quite plausibly that the NRA's hyperrealistic gun game is a good thing, since it shows people what guns are really like (you spend most of your time reloading). Similarly, his main criticism of a notorious Wii-based simulated torture game is not that it's too realistic, but rather that it's not realistic enough. The dangerous thing, he argues, is to present torture as a pleasantly sanitized activity; if you could live through an accurately simulated experience of waterboarding someone or sawing through their leg, you probably wouldn't want to do it and you would oppose torture more strongly. I'm not sure I agree, but he has clearly thought a lot about these issues.

The book is literate and well-written. Even people who don't play videogames at all may well like it; if you're a gamer yourself, and don't already know about him, you should really consider checking him out.