Understanding Video Games text-book
Review of Arthur Asa Berger’s Video Games: A popular culture phenomenon

Date posted: May 11, 2006
Updated: Oct 24, 2006

Reviewed by Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen

Author Arthur Asa Berger
Title: Video Games: A populare culture phenomenon
London: Transaction Publishers, 2002
ISBN: 0-7658-0913-3
Price: $19.95
Pages: 119

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Some might say I warned you. It’s funny - sometimes the worse the review the more curious you get. You can’t believe someone would go through the trouble writing a book about a subject he knows so little about, and waste everybody’s time. Still, apparently it happens. In this case, the author doesn’t really try to cover up for his lack of knowledge but sees video games as a new emerging area with limited research. The author’s lack of knowledge and feel for what is relevant is perhaps best captured in the last chapter, where he interviews a writer with a game magazine. According to her, the future of gaming does not lie in better sound and graphics but rather in new forms of gameplay. Arthur Asa Berger finds this very revolutionary, and almost ends the book with that statement.

I will give a short summary of the book, which is quite unevenly written with eight chapters of varying size. In the first chapter, some basic gaming facts are covered, and the author tries to reach a definition of video games by drawing on Brian Sutton-Smith, Chris Crawford, Janet Murray, and Espen Aarseth. He then covers the business side of the game industry in a couple of pages, and covers the history of games in one page. The next chapter is an attempt to draw on existing literature theory to establish a frame to analyse computer games from a narrative perspective. Then he tries to look at the cultural indicators in video games by analysing the top video game titles from a commercial and a critical perspective. The next chapter is about the bio-psycho-social perspective, which covers the areas often discussed in public media like video game content, health hazards, and violence in games. Before coming to the conclusion three representative games are analysed: Myst/Riven, Half-life, and Tomb Raider. The conclusion is primarily a discussion of “Bowling alone” a metaphor that points to video games as a solitairy activity, and the dangers of video games for our society.

I had real trouble keeping the summary neutral because on the face of it, it seems like a nice structure. We start with the broad paintbrush defining games, set an analytic frame, and move on to analyse some important games. Last we conclude on the implications of video games on our culture. The only problem is that most of the chapters are superficial, and do not address the most important issues. For example, the chapter about the bio-psycho-social perspective is unsubstantiated with few references but ironically enough this chapter’s content is highlighted in the book’s conclusion. Neil Postman and Eugene Provenzo would be proud.

The most basic problem is a lack of knowledge about significant parts of game research like ludology, effect research, content analysis of games, play theory, game culture, game industry, and a superficial knowledge of the theories used. This could to some degree be excused if the book focused on a specific topic, where an existing theory could be applied, and contribute to the development of our understanding of video games. However, this is not the case, and the book is further scarred by a basic lack of knowledge about video games.

The author clearly focuses on games from a narrative perspective as an entire chapter is devoted to narratives in video games in the first half of the book, and the second half of the book is an analysis of the narratives in classic games like Half-life, Myst, and Tomb Raider. The Tomb Raider analysis is almost a joke. It gets surrealistic when the authors analyses Tomb Raider from a Scopophilia perspective. As the author explains there are two kinds of Scopophilia, where video games stimulate active Scopophilia, which “involves gaining pleasure by looking at others - in particular their sexual organs…. We don’t see Lara Croft’s sexual organs but we do see oversize breast and her body, as we move her around and that is where the Scopophilia comes in…. Lara can be thought of as a disguised and animated Barbie Doll that males can play with and lust after.” (Berger, 2002:87). Well, he goes on with this analysis for a couple of pages making this the most important element in Tomb Raider. He also finds it extremely interesting to list the thirteen actions Lara Croft is capable of performing in Tomb Raider without going more into what is intriguing with these different actions. Except that these are the options the player has to manipulate the “sexpot”, Lara Croft. Arthur Asa Berger’s own contributions to the analysis are few, and quite strange like the example above. Primarily, the analyses are carried by game magazine reviews of the games, and then piecing them together with other theories mostly with a narrative perspective. However, the book doesn’t really add anything new, Murray, Aarseth, and Laurel are all quite interesting but I suggest reading them instead.

The book falls short on answering the questions it poses in the beginning of the book and in the title. The book does not describe video games as a popular culture phenomenon. First of all, the focus is on a relatively narrow amount of computer games, namely games within the adventure genre, which is a minor genre. Secondly, it fails to describe the full experience, dynamics, and impact when playing computer games. Third, all of the topics in the book are too superficially covered, and a patchwork of different theories, where the reader has to guess how the theories are interrelated. Fourth, the author is not capable of distinguishing between different sources like newspapers, research papers, and anecdotes. The book in my opinion has very little to offer - it almost seems like a parody of a mad narrativist in game research.

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