Reviews

Play Reality: How Videogames Are Changing Everything – Book Review

Release Date: Out Now!
Authors: Jayne Gackenbach, PD.D, Teace Snyder, FTW!
Pages: 100

As the newest media on the scene, videogames are almost continuously under scrutiny from both the media and from the general public. They’re often blamed for random acts of violence around the world, accused of making kids into lazy slobs and turning grown adults into brain-dead zombies incapable of feeding themselves or even completing a coherent sentence without dribbling on the carpet. On the other side of the fence you’ve got hardcore gamers who refuse to hear anything bad about their favored hobby, arguing that it’s all just bullshit. Of course, many of the “facts” that both sides throw around are often completely false or simply misconceived. That’s where this book comes in, written by a mother and son team it aims to present the facts about how gaming is changing the world. Maybe not for worse or for better, but changing it nonetheless.

Leading the mother and son team is Jayne Gackenbach, a PH.D holder who began her career researching dreams before expanding to videogames. She currently teaches at the Grant MacEwan University, where she has been for 21 years. Her decision to begin researching videogames is largely because of the second member of the team, her son Teace Sydner, a lifelong writer and self-proclaimed “hardcore” gamer. As Teace grew up and began increasingly involved with games, she went through the usual parental routine of worrying about how they were affecting her son. The result, she decided to research games and the effects they having on people as well as the world in general. Don’t worry, though, she didn’t even once experiment on Teace. Honest. Skip forward a while and Jayne decided that she wanted to write a book on the subject of games, but she only knew how to present case studies and write reports, and so she brought her son in to essentially translate everything into gamer talk. In short, Teace dumbed it down for all of us. I feel like I should be insulted or something, but frankly Teace is a funny guy, so it’s all good.

The book aims to dispel many of the most popular misconceptions and myths that the average non-gamer, and even some gamers themselves, often attribute to videogames. Misconceptions that are often perpetuated by the mass media and by journalists whose mandate is to help inform the general public of the facts, but choose not too because the facts contradict what they said earlier, simply go against their own agenda or get in the way of a good, shocking story. In short, shock headlines about games attract attention, so who cares if the facts are accurate? It’s sad to see that the media is so willing to use videogames in such a manner, and worse to see that they’re making a mockery of what their job should entail: speaking the truth and speaking the facts. And so the result is, of course, that many people are simply uninformed about the effects video games  have on the world and the people who play them, which is baffling given that such a vast majority of people now play games of one type or another.

 Play Reality  manages to do something few others can: present an unbiased and fair assessment of videogames and their impact on the world, cutting thorough the garbage in the process. For example, the book presents research suggesting that gamers often have increased reflexes and tend to notice more details, but then also points out that games do seem to increase aggression, before then explaining that aggression and violence are two very different things, something which many people seem to confuse. By providing this fair look at the evidence, it’s interesting to see that gaming comes out in a very positive light, while the arguments against them are almost entirely destroyed ir disproved. Of course, that’s not to say that games are entirely good, but that’s because, like almost anything in this world, they’re not truly good nor bad. Like alcohol, drugs, TV and many other things, games are good in moderation, and it’s up to the individual to do the moderating.

Over the course of the book, Teace and his mother manage to cover an admirable amount of subjects, especially given that the book only contains just over 70-pages of actual reading material. The be more precise,  the book comes in at exactly 100-pages, but nine of those are devoted to a short history of games, while things like introductions, index etc. take up more pages, leaving just 76-pages of the actual subject matter. The book talks about the future of videogames, how they affect our dreams and our psychology, research on the health of gamers, the benefits of playing games, how concepts applied to games could also be applied to our lives in the future using a process called gamification, the concept of serious games and how they can be used to help people and so much more. Given the shortness of the book it natural that it doesn’t always devote as much time to a subject as I might have liked, but overall the length of the book and the amount of time spent on each topic makes  for a book that’s easy to pick up and read. The chapters are short, so you can simply grab the book during whatever spare time you get and jump straight into it. And all of the these subjects are ably discussed by Teace who has a relaxed, informal and often funny writing style that should go down well with almost any gamer. Jayne might provide the facts, but ultimately it’s Teace that provides the voice of the book and what it’s trying to convey. Jayne knows her subject, has done great research in both the past and present, and has chosen the material to present well, giving the book strong foundations. And Teace, well, he knows his games and he knows how to translate all that research and cold, hard, facts into something easy for everyone to read. It feels right to have someone like Teace, someone who understand our world, our community, our language, if you will, balancing everything out. In other words, the combination of mother and son makes for compelling reading, and as someone who reads waaaaay too many books, what more could I ask for than compelling reading?

Teace and Jayne

But let’s stop and delve a little deeper into a few of the subjects covered in the book, because I really just can’t resist. And what better way to start than with what is arguably the most hotly debated topic between gamers and the media: violence. The chapter opens up with a prime example of how the media like to forget certain facts: Seung-Hui Cho. On April 16th, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho, a senior English major at Virginia Tech, shot dead 32 people. It was a horrific scene, and according to much of the media that had arrived on-scene to report, the cause was our violent culture, a culture saturated in violence, be it from films, books games. While this is an understandable opinion, many of the media went so far as to put the blame on videogames, claiming that playing violent games had driven Seung-Hui Cho to commit the act of murder on such a scale. In particular, the infamous Jack Thompson cited games as the cause, specifically naming Counter Strike as being used by Cho as training for the attack. And, since people trust the media, a lot of people accepted and believed that Cho had indeed been some sort of gaming addict, brought to violence by the very games he played. And yet, these members of the media had made the accusation with zero evidence. As the months rolled on and the investigation continued, it emerged that Cho had indeed played games, but only when he was younger, and the most violent game he had played was Sonic the Hedgehog, which we all know is about as violent as your average kids cartoon. Despite this, the damage was done.

But back to the topic at hand. The book continues by talking about the infamous No Russian level from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, pointing out that the millions of people who played it haven’t turned into mindless killers who want to massacre an airport full of people. Play Reality then brings up the research that shows that games increase the level of aggression in the player for a short amount of time. Whether we gamers like this or not, the vast majority of research shows this. However, humans are naturally aggressive animals, so it’s hardly surprising that violence in any form has this effect. It’s unlikely that you’ll go through the day without having at least one feeling of aggression, conscious or not. And likewise, films can have the same effect. As Play Reality goes on to say, it’s the difference between aggression and violence that’s important. Aggression does not equal violence. In short, playing games can and probably does make you more aggressive, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to become a violent lunatic. No, the book says, the problem stems from when you combine increased aggression with people who are already naturally violent. And in that case, games act as a trigger, not a cause, for thier violence. Put let me put it into Teace’s words by qouting this fantastic piece from the book:

” Violent videogames + violent douchebags = high probability of increased violence

Violent videogames + kittens, sugar, spice and everything thing nice =  low probability of increased violence

Violent videogames + average individuil = occasional temporary increased aggression (not necessarily violence)

Violent videogames + mainstream media’s depiction thereof – Presumptuous erroneous shit storm”

In a lovely twist of iron, the book also presents further research that suggests game relieve stress, something to which I’ll happily testify, and can actually be good for a childs developement, providing, once again, they’re moderated.

Other intriguing subjects that the book covers is  how games can be used as a force for good, such as Nanoswarm, a game which is prescribed to kids with diabetes to teach them about their illness, healthy diets and the benefits of  staying fit. Oh, and by the way, the majority of kids who played Nanoswarm increased their fruit intake by one a day and reported a higher level of physical activity. It’s great to see that there are ways in which our hobby can be used to help people, something which is in some ways reflected in a portion of the book which is dedicated to the concept of “gamification”,  something which I mentioned earlier, in which
certain concepts used in games could be applied to everyday life. One example is how games have mastered the art of rewarding players, tapping into a simple part of human psychology, something which could be applied to everyday life with virtual XP and bars showing us how well we’re doing and rewarding us with tokens to buy things. Of course, corporations would quickly tap into this idea as well, rewarding people for doing things like trying all seven of their fizzy-drink range in a week with a token to get some free. Other parts of the book delve into how games and dreams are linked, as well as how games and our perceptions of reality are linked, talking about how immersion in a game world works. It’s all fascinating to read.

And, of course, it also tackles the false illusion that there are no girl gamers, that gamers are spotty teenagers and gaming is still a niche hobby.

And don’t go thinking that the book is entirely pro-gaming or something. As mentioned earlier, Jayne has been very fair in her research, assessments and conclusions, something which is well demonstrated when the book tackles the very real issue of game addiction. Now, there are doubtless countless gamers reading this hoping that Jayne and Teace utterly destroy the concept of gaming addiction, because it is, after all, one of the strongest arguments used by the media against games. The simple truth, though, is that while the media do often blow it a bit out of proportion, videogame addition is very real, something which Jayne and Teace tackle well. Instead of trying to create a pointless and invalid argument against it, they simply aim to clear up some of the misconceptions surrounding it as the term “addiction” gets thrown around too loosely these days by people who don’t actually know what it means. So, what Play Reality does is instead delve deeper into the topic, explaining what videogame addiction is, how it works, how it affects people and how most gamers don’t even realise it’s happening until too late. As someone who gets sent games to play, and as such spends a lot of time gaming, it’s a topic that I can appreciate, and I don’t mind admitting that I’ve probably come close to stepping over the line between hardcore gaming and addiction too many times. It’s something that I’ve had to become consciously aware of, balancing out my gaming time with other hobbies and even, on occasion, telling publishers that they’ll have to wait for a review a little longer because II want to get out of the house and do things. Again, like the rest of the book, the topic is well handled, well written and hugely fascinating.

The only real flaw in the book, if you can actually call it a flaw, is in the subject matter and conclusions contained within the pages. The chances are that if you’ve ever had even a passing interest in the topics presented in the book, such as how games affect dreams, the future of games or how they effect our mental well-being, then you’ll have already come across much of the research and will have likely already come to the same conclusions that the book presents  by way of simple common sense and a little thought.  But hee, it’s always nice to have your own conclusions backed up with compelling arguments and solid evidence, especially if it’s presented so well! But then, the primary audience for this book should be those that haven’t put much thought into the subjects and want to learn more, in which case this book hits the mark in pretty much every sense.

Reviewing a book like this is near impossible, There’s just nothing on the market to really provide a fair comparison to, and really, despite being an avid reader of, well, everything, I can’t tell you what makes a book great. Instead, let me say this: it’s a damn good read that anybody with an interest in videogames should read. It provides fair, honest and accurate assessments of various topics regarding games. And if you don’t have any interest in videogames then you should still read it anyway, because you might just learn something: videogames are changing everything.

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