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Handbook of Computer Game Studies

Joost Raessens and Jeffrey Goldstein, Eds.
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005
496 pp., illus. 58 b/w. Trade, 32.95
ISBN: 0-262-18240-8.

Reviewed by John Knight
User-Lab
Birmingham Institute of Art and Design

John.knight@uce.ac.uk

The book has six parts that deal with history, design, reception, audience, aesthetics, and the social and cultural aspects of gaming. It brings together 14 contributors who tackle these issues from a practitioner and research perspective. Authors include some well-known researchers such as Sherry Turkle and many of the authors are involved in New Media Studies (p. 424). The book is particularly welcome given the dearth of scholarly books on the subject. The length and large format reinforces the handbook's reference credentials.

The book has some difficult problems to tackle. Research findings on such important issues as violence are often contradictory. In addition, potentially useful contributions from other disciplines (e.g. cinema) are hampered by the unique character of games. This leads to disputes including whether games are narrative or non-narrative (p 219). Britta Neitzel notes "[r]esearch work on computer games cannot avail itself of a long tradition——popular games are just thirty-five years old" (p. 227).

Difficulties are further exacerbated by the skewed demographics of the gaming world. Sandra L. Calvert notes that "boys are . . . typically spending twice as much time gaming as girls" (p. 125). The influence of this audience naturally affects which games are produced and what research is conducted. In some ways, the book is about broadening the audience for games.

The best chapters draw on relationships with the gaming audience through design and participation. Unfortunately, these links remain outside of much of the gaming industry and non-gaming community. Exceptions include Anne-Marie Schleiner's look at the "Gamer Culture" and end user modifications and Douglas Rushkoff's "Renaissance Now! The Gamers Perspective".

The book starts at the prehistory of gaming. Erkki Hutamo goes back to before the industrial revolution "as manifestation of the human-machine relationship" (p. 004). Steven Mailiet and Gust de Meyer bring things up to date. The authors note that "it is remarkable that almost all genres known today already existed in a prototypical form in the early 1980s" (p. 031). The history ends with a chapter on mobile gaming.

A more sociological history would have been useful here, particularly an analysis of the impact of industry on content and consumption. This is partly redressed by chapters (e.g. Isabelle Raynauld) linking the gaming world to cinema. Henry Jenkins' great chapter is based on Gilbert Seldes and offers a cinematic approach to criticism. Corollaries of cinema include genre, narrative and interactivity. And, these three issues underpin much of the analysis including chapters by Juul, Wolf, Salen, and Zimmerman.

The importance of play is evident in many chapters. This is often referenced with Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga. Thus, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman propose that "the goal of successful design is the creation of meaningful play" (p. 060). Meaningful play consists of "the way game actions result in game outcomes to create meaning . . .and] occurs when the relationships between actions and outcomes in a game are both discernable and integrated in the larger context of the game" (pp. 060-061).

The centrality of play lends games to more utilitarian ends. The most obvious of these ends are educational although Jos de Mul offers a compelling investigation (drawing on the work of Paul Ricoeur) of "the way computer games construct our identity . . . ." (p. 251). Mark Griffiths' chapter breaks the stereotype of games as 'shoot em ups'. His chapter ("The Therapeutic Value of Video Games") includes examples of gaming in pain relief, rehabilitation, development of social and communication skills, tacking attention deficit syndrome and care for the elderly.

Play can also be harmful, and much of the research is based on empirical studies of audience reception. Given the demographics, this focuses on developmental issues, such as the effect of violent games. The concluding chapters introduce a sociological dimension to the analysis. These see games in terms of gender (e.g. Birgit Richard and Jutta Zaremba) and political intervention (e.g. The 'Ethnic Cleansing' Game, p. 319), including race (e.g. Anna Everett).

Authors tackle these issues with authority and balance. Jo Bryce and Jason Rutter conclude that "it is important to see . . . beyond the game text, and that an overly deterministic approach to the construction and influence of gender is restrictive." (p. 307). "Games as Social Phenomenon" ends this solid work. Like other sections, it offers a prescient and multidisciplinary perspective on computer games. Well-written and authoritative it is one to recommend for your library.

 

 




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