Skip to main content

Powering Up – Rebecca Mileham ****

This is one of a small series of books linked to the Dana Centre at the Science Museum in London. I’m a great fan of the Dana Centre – it’s a stylish cafe bar, where most evenings there is an informal and interactive session on once science topic or another. Like the Café Scientifique movement, it’s a great way of getting the science message across in a non-threatening way.
The point of the Dana Centre is to explore science and society and to get across aspects of science through the sort of thing that grabs people’s attention – and like it or not, computer games provide an excellent platform for such an analysis. Unlike the companion volume Being Virtual, which has very little science in its exploration of the online world, Rebecca Mileham’s book makes a point of going into the science behind different aspects of our relationship with computer games, from whether they effect your health and mood to their potential for helping us learn, and for changing our views on the world. (It was interesting that the latter part didn’t mention games with a religious message.)
These books are strong on design – I loved the cover (taken from the advertising material of a manufacturer), but the only trouble is the medium can sometimes conspire to obscure the message. I hated the big, multicoloured pull quotes, which just made the book harder to read, and some of the photographs seemed to be in there on a ‘we’ve got full colour on every page, we’d better get an image in’ basis. It’s also very difficult to write a book like this in a neutral way, and it’s very obvious that Mileham believes that computer games are wonderful, and whenever she receives negative evidence, it tends to be presented in a ‘yes, but…’ way that plays down its importance.
In the end, there’s a slight similarity between the desperate attempts to show how valuable computer games are to us with those who try to justify manned space missions by all the spin-off benefits. We’ve got teflon, guys, and er… er… pens that write upside down. I don’t say this as an anti-gamer. A good number of years ago I made my living from playing computer games – not (before my children collapse in an amused heap) as a prizewinning competitor but as a reviewer. But there is a dangerous road in attempting to imbue what is often just a bit of fun with high moral and functional aims.
A few small moans. It would have been nice to have had a bit more history to put this into context. And occasionally the ‘science’ lacks analysis. There’s wide-eyed description of a couple of devices for mental control of games that suggest that they work as effectively as traditional controllers, where in fact they’ve a long way to go yet. I’m also a bit doubtful about the final chapter where Mileham asks what the barriers are that ‘keep games from reaching into lives otherwise saturated with media.’ There’s an assumption that those people would benefit from having this happen, an assumption that isn’t really proved by the rest of the book. Arguably they would benefit a lot more from experiencing less media and more real life. Although briefly touched on, not enough is made in this chapter of the reason many one-time adult gamers like me don’t play any more. Family life doesn’t just take up gaming time – it’s more important.
That said, this a good and thoughtful book with some revealing exploration of the science behind our interaction with games that can shake the stereotypes of how games influence and entertain us. Play on.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

The Laser Inventor - Theodore Maiman ****

While the memoirs of many scientists are probably best kept for family consumption, there are some breakthroughs where the story is sufficiently engaging that it can be fascinating to get an inside view on what really happened. Although Theodore Maiman's autobiographical book is not a slick, journalist-polished account, it is very effective at highlighting two significant narratives - how Maiman was able to construct the first ever laser, despite having far fewer resources than many of his competitors, and how 'establishment' academic physicists, particularly in the US, tried to minimise his achievement.

On the straight autobiographical side, we get some early background and discover how Maiman combined degrees in electrical engineering and physics to have an unusually strong mix of the practical and the theoretical. Rather than go into academia after his doctorate, he went into industry - which seems to have been responsible for the backlash against his invention, which we…