Missions for Thoughtful Gamers
by Andrew Cutting
ETC Press, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, 2011
204 pp. Trade, $13.95 (or free download)
Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver
Digital video games are frequently decried as sources of psychotic behavior or commercial entertainment. Rarely are they championed as perhaps the only solution to the world's most intractable problems. Following the latter view, we note that videogames are remarkably diverse, genuinely creative, increasingly realistic, and frequently subversive, all allowing us to experiment imaginatively with how, and with what results, a gaming attitude might be carried into aspects of daily life.
A gaming attitude represents, fundamentally, the desire for enjoyment and playfulness in an alternative world whose rules are less complicated than real life. Rarely is such an attitude considered as the underlying basis for play in all aspects of human life. Andrew Cutting believes we can, and sets out to demonstrate how in his book, Missions for Thoughtful Gamers, a no nonsense sequence of 40 challenges ("missions"), thought experiments, and creative exercises, each designed to involve game players and other interested readers in becoming more creatively curious and self-aware.
As Cutting notes, "the overarching mission of this book is to bridge the apparent gulf between everyday enjoyment of gaming, so often explained away under the catch-all label of 'fun,' and big philosophical questions such as Who am I? What is it like to be me in this world? What is real? What is true? What makes life good?" (8).
Accordingly, the missions presented by Cutting explore how videogames may be utilized to address broader questions of general human concern. It is a challenge, says Cutting, "for gamers to better understand themselves as part of the historical mainstream of human experience and to find how to express this understanding using, so far as possible, non-specialist language that's comprehensible to gamers and non-gamers alike" (17).
Sharpening his point, Cutting says, "It's not this underlying basis for play, but the particular forms taken by videogames as we hitherto know them that limit how gamers might currently imagine life as playable" (7). The forms Cutting proposes are many, varied, and thought provoking, beginning with a tutorial devoted to demonstrating the three basic concepts of game design: rules, systems, and computations. Readers, gamers, "play thinkers" (17) learn to make some rules, think systematically, and perform as a human tic-tac-toe machine.
Cutting builds on this tutorial by providing missions through which one can consider videogames as enquiry, as tools for exploring the glamorization of mythologies associated with objects within videogames (weapons, for example), as opportunities for scholarly gaming, and as a new form of literacy. Copious notes for further reading resources are provided, as well.
At the heart of these missions is Cutting’s contention that videogames, by simulating diverse environments with increasing realism, enable players to experiment imaginatively, safely, and hypothetically with life-risking scenarios, to experiment with the potential results of carrying a gaming attitude into every aspect of our lives (5). Individual results may vary, but the journey will be intellectual, spiritual, and moral, especially if, given the acceptance of a gaming attitude, life players make no promises, vows, ceremonies, conferences, and rituals. Such things, says Cutting, help make us more human. Without them, we miss ways to become and understand who we are (8). Cutting concludes that gaming can make learning fun and more successful, in a number of different forms, from a simple quiz to a learning quest structured as a series of missions central to specific training and educational strategies.
Missions for Thoughtful Gamers provides (pardon the pun) a game book for those embarked on a quest for understanding and meaning. This book is both inspiration for a new generation of game designers, critics, and educators, and a humane introduction for play thinkers as to why videogames matter today and into the future.