Games + Ha Ha
by Weston Cutter
I feel like this book’s as hyped a book as I’ve seen in awhile, and for good reason: McGonigal’s been a TED conference speaker, and she’s got some of the most interesting ideas about video gaming that I’ve heard, ever. Rest assured: if you’re a video game lover, you’ll enjoy this book, but, awesomely, if you believe video games are a total waste of time, you’ll enjoy this book as well. In fact, I’d argue the book might be best for folks who pooh pooh video games as gigantic time sucks.
Because why? Because McGonigal’s got strange historical facts to present, the easiest one to PR-ify and pass around being the one about a King Atys in Asia Minor, 3,000 year before Herodotus, and how there was a famine for eighteen years, and the solve for the food lack was for everyone in the culture to play games one day and eat the next—the idea being that games would keep minds off food for 24 hours, and then, the next day, vice versa. It worked, by the way: that system and plan worked.
Actually, it’s unfair to talk about the historical aspects McGonical presents as being most critical: the staggering statistics of contemporary gaming are just mind-melting—for instance, that all the gaming hours added up among the millions of players around the world tip the scales at way more than several billion hours. Wrap (or try to, anyway) your head around that.
Here’s what McGonigal’s setting out to prove and establish: that the seduction of games (of which I’d imagine every single person reading this has been touched by, from a multi-hour jag of World of Warcraft to simpler, diversionary 10-minute breaks to Minesweeper or Tetris or Scrabble or whatever) can be harnessed to better use than simply offering the player quick solipsistic synaptic snaps of joy—her example being SETI@home, the computer program which allows interested users the donate computer processing power to the organization which searches for extra terrestrial life. Thing of Tom Sawyer tricking friends into painting the fence: McGonigal’s got similar ideas for games, and the descriptions of the games she’s designed to offer people direct access to things/events which quantifiably make life better—dancing, talking to older people—are riveting. Who’d think a game set in a cemetary’d be great? Anyone?
McGonical, of course. I’m not joking: Reality is Broken seems poised to be as critical a book of cultural study and awareness as Brooks’s Bobos or Putnam’s Bowling Alone. Miss the boat at your own discretion on this one.
No: I’m not a rabid Patton Oswalt fan. I like him a lot, sure, but I’m not so massive a fan I’m upended by my affection and therefore unable to be objective about him. He’s a funny guy. He makes me laugh sometimes. He seems to have interesting friends.
Far more critically: holy shit is this guy a good writer. Patton Oswalt is such a good writer, in fact, that you’re forgiven, upon reading this book, for thinking that he should put his energy toward books intead of acting—not because he’s bad at the latter, but because he’s overwhelmingly good at the former. There’s hilarious memoir-ish essays of teenagerhood and awkwardness (the hypnotically great “Ticket Booth,”), there’s uncomfortably funny/sad (or sad/funny) pieces (“A History of America from 1988 to 1996,” in which Oswalt, simply by [probably not 100% accurately] quoting the comedians for whom he opened in the time period mentioned hilariously offers a glimpse at what was happening in the US and the world at that moment), there are pictures (there’s a comic). There’s the hilarious world/personality-parsing of the collection’s title piece.
Throughout everything, Oswalt dazzles with accessible, hell-yes sentences, and with mentions of exactly the bands and books and movies I, at least, like seeing mention of—R.E.M’s in here, ditto Cormac McCarthy, Sarah Vowell, Star Wars, etc. It’s a fantastic, hugely compelling read: this book is one of the most satisfying and surprising reads I can imagine.