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Book Review: Fun Inc.: Why Gaming Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century by Tom Chatfield

Non-Fiction Reviews

Book Review: Fun Inc.: Why Gaming Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century by Tom Chatfield

Fun Inc. by Tom Chatfield
Fun Inc.: Why Gaming Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century
by Tom Chatfield
Pegasus, 272 pp.
CLR [rating:4]

Is the Video Game King?

In the first few pages of Fun Inc., Tom Chatfield, the Arts and Books editor of the British magazine Prospect, admits that his is “a shamelessly partisan book about video games” because they’ve been an important element throughout his life, and also because “they’re an increasingly central part of both American culture and of an emerging global culture. . . that . . has the power to re-mould the 21st century at least as radically as cinema and television did the 20th.” In a similar effort at honesty and full disclosure, this reviewer is the author of the first memoir on video game addiction, Unplugged: My Journey Into the Dark World of Video Game Addiction, as well as a frequent speaker on gaming culture, social networking, cyberbullying, and video games at medical conferences, schools, and businesses. These facts are especially relevant because the majority of video game aficionados and supporters I encounter tend to be overly vocal, shortsighted, and ineffective in their defenses of their beloved pastime. Chatfield, by contrast, has a clean, compelling writing style, and he is quite reasonable throughout his analysis of both this rapidly growing industry and its profound effects on society. While he can get a bit defensive of some justified criticism over video games, that’s fairly easily forgiven since the majority of this book is open-minded, interesting, and insightful.

Early in the book, Chatfield covers such fundamental ideas as the four basic playing motivations (killer, adventurer, explorer, and socializer), and the idea that within the “strange mix of freedom and constraint” that games offer, players’ personalities are magnified. He also spends time explaining the fluid sense of identity that games offer, and the potential benefits which emerge as a result, pointing out that:

Perhaps most significantly of all, a virtual world is also a tremendous leveller in terms of wealth, age, appearance, and race. It’s a place where ‘you’ are entirely composed of your words and actions, and for anyone who isn’t in the optimum social category of, say, being attractive and aged between twenty and thirty-five, the benefits of being able simply to circumvent any kind of prejudice are potentially huge.

One element of the gaming industry that will surprise some readers is the billions of dollars made by “gold farmers,” people who play online games such as World of Warcraft, and then sell the loot acquired in the game for real-world dollars to other gamers. China alone is estimated to have over a million of these gold farmer players working right now. The going rate for 100 Warcraft gold coins is about $3, Chatfield explains, and those 100 gold coins are then resold by international brokers for as much as $20. To many, the idea of spending real money on pretend money or loot seems absurd, but the demand for what gold farmers provide is there, even if it goes against the EULA (End Used License Agreement) that all games have. New York journalist Julian Dibbell even spent a year documenting how he made a living simply by playing games and selling off his virtual rewards.

An aspect of video games and gaming culture where Chatfield comes up short is to address the idea of video game addiction, which is impossible to ignore when China and South Korea call it their most pressing health crisis, and the American Medical Association’s 2007 study found that as many as five million Americans (age 8-18) might be addicted. At one point, though, Chatfield does admit that games are designed to plug into our deep human desire to learn, so the games can indeed provide neurological “highs” similar to consuming alcohol or sugar. This is only the tip of the increasingly disturbing iceberg of video game abuse and addiction, however.

In Chapter 10 “Beyond Fun,” Chatfield introduces Suzanne Seggerman, the New York-based founder of Games for Change, which is a company that “promotes the use of video games as tools for raising political and social awareness.” One of the points made here is that the idea of “fun” doesn’t accurately describe what is happening in these games. Ideas such as “engaging,” “challenge and reward,” and “balance” are perhaps more apt. With games like Darfur Is Dying, “fun” seems anything but appropriate, no matter the educational takeaway.

Seggerman also seems to dispute the idea of video games having the power to overtake or problematize people’s lives, saying: “I don’t look on games as competing with the real world and human interactions. I see them as a medium and as a path towards actions in the real world.” Unfortunately, tens of millions of people are choosing the real world path of more gaming for exactly the reason she doesn’t endorse–to replace real world and human interactions. Chatfield misses a real opportunity here, instead moving deftly on to how the military annually spends over $6 billion on video games and simulations for training purposes.

The fundamental argument of Fun Inc.–which can be a little obscured by so many examples, anecdotes, and analyses that many readers will appreciate–is simply that games are here to stay, and they’re having a profound effect on gamers and non-gamers alike. This isn’t a tough sell to fans of virtual worlds, and even for those who are skeptical and resistant, this is a useful introduction. In Chatfield’s own words, video games are a critique of our lives, and ultimately they might prove to be “a channel through which those lives might be changed.”

Whether the video game is king or not, this is a book worth getting. Chatfield’s clearly done his homework, and his writing style makes this a true reading and intellectual pleasure.

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Ryan G. Van Cleave was the 2007-2008 Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington at George Washington University. He has taught creative writing and literature at Clemson University, Eckerd College, Florida State University, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as at prisons, community centers, and urban at-risk youth facilities. He lives in Sarasota, FL where he works as a freelance writer, editor, consultant, ghostwriter, and script doctor. He serves as Director of CandR Press, a non-profit literary organization based in Chattanooga, TN.

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