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[...] it is not only the world’s fastest growing medium, but also the fastest growing area of global expertise in how to entertain, retain and connect twenty-first-century consumers. If the future is looking more and more like a game, it’s partly because the science of satisfaction has never before been so precise, so powerful, or so profitable. Where play goes, the world will follow.

As you perhaps may have gathered, I spent most of my childhood reading books. This was not due to choice on my part. I have never owned a gaming console. In fact I did not even really start to experiment with computer games until Massively Multiplayer Online titles really began to take off.

Of course I quickly learned what other MMO players know quite well – you go online to fight goblins and monsters you can kiss your social life goodbye. What is interesting is to observe just how mainstream this behaviour actually is. As today’s author Tom Chatfield points out in Fun Inc. there is not a world of difference between online gaming and social network sites such as Facebook. In fact, users of Mark Zuckerberg’s private nation spend an awful lot of time – notably during work hours – playing game applications on the site. Yet these people are not regarded with the same measure of contempt as the proverbial gamer ‘man-child‘ is.

Chatfield’s account gives a history of computer gaming, from its early development in 1962 as an experimental programming model in M.I.T. through to the evolution of the text-based games that led to genre defining titles such as Ultima and then onward through the console wars between Nintendo and Sega, which made clear just how much money could be earned from this evolving entertainment medium. Which was advanced to even more dizzying heights by the entry of Sony Entertainment, with their own console the PlayStation. Gaming is now a billion dollar industry, even threatening the box office clout of big budget Hollywood movies, with the console now poised to become the central entertainment hub of the family home.

Three heavily critical quotes of three very different mediums are presented to the reader at the beginning of Fun Inc.’s fifth chapter. The first is taken from Plato’s Phaedrus and describes Socrates’ disapproval of the written word. The second is taken from Georges Duhamel‘s book Scenes from the Life of the Future, insisting on the corruptive influence of film. Finally we come to a lambasting of gaming as an activity in itself, with London’s Mayor Boris Johnson stepping up to the plate, denouncing gamers as follows:

They become like blinking lizards, motionless, absorbed, only the twitching of their hands showing they are still conscious. [It] teaches them nothing. It stimulates no ratiocination, discovery or feat of memory.

Of course the fear of the new is nothing, um, new. What Chatfield is describing here is a fatal inability to recognize the pervasiveness of gaming. The teenage boy is the typical symbolic game player and yet many professionals, male and female, indulge in virtual worlds after work. One fascinating anecdote has a corporate position interviewee be scolded by a executive for not mentioning on his C.V. that he ran a guild in World of Warcraft. It showed team-building skills and managerial potential. However, there remain scare stories of gaming inspiring acts of real world violence. Chatfield treats of the media furore, as well as the many psychological studies of the effect of games.

There is even an unfortunate quote from Roger Scruton, taken from a 2008 article for The Times “Can Virtual Life Take Over From Real Life?“, where he rails against the ephemeral nature of virtual relationships, be they online communication or in-game narratives. I wonder has he since played Dragon Age?

In the second half of this book, Chatfield’s analysis really takes off. There are some very revealing discussions of online gaming profits, gold farming, Europe’s Pirate Party, as well as spotlighting the work of literate game writers/creators such as Rhianna Pratchett and Jason Rohrer – his game Passage sounds like a genuinely affecting, as well as intentionally morbid, game.

Unfortunately having read Greg Lastowka’s Virtual Justice recently, much of the material here was already familiar to me. In fact the early chapters resembled a superficial a potted history of the game industry. Once again there is discussion of Qui Chengwei, as well as the World of Warcraftblood plague‘.

Then again I read PC PowerPlay a very stimulating games magazine. So hit and miss fare overall.

In fact, there are many uses of the innumberable opportunities a modern life supplies for regarding – at a distance, through the medium of photography – other people’s pain. Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A call for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.

Folks I am beat. Today has been a long day. I volunteer with an organisation based in Sydney known as the Centre for Volunteering. Today the third annual New South Wales Volunteer of the Year Award was held at Parliament House, to celebrate and acknowledge the good works of people within the state who give of their time to help others, often with little recognition.

It was a wonderful morning. Standing in a packed out theatre of volunteers, all of whom evidencing incredible reserves of goodwill and determination, I really felt as if I was fortunate to have played some small part in helping the event go off without a hitch.

So I am quite tired at the moment and am about to prepare dinner for my lovely wife, so this is going to be a short and sweet review. Nevertheless, I mention the above for a reason, which is that oftentimes watching the news, reading the papers (or browsing my personal source of Orwellian ‘Two Minute Hate’, http://www.bocktherobber.com), I can’t help but feel we have become sunk in a mire of corruption, misery, greed and, quite frankly, evil. Is this the result of civilization, a growing sense of impotence at the suffering of others in the world? Or worse again, a voyeuristic impulse to observe and not interfere with the tragic events unfolding on our television screens?

In this discursive examination of the role played by photography in our awareness of atrocities both home and abroad, relating to war and/or violence, Susan Sontag questions to what degree our appreciation of these images is founded on an abiding voyeurism. At one point she quotes from Plato’s Republic, where Leontius, son of Aglaion, is reported to have approached the bodies of just executed criminals, despite his strong feelings of disgust. He runs up to the corpses and cries “There you are, curse you, feast yourselves on that lovely sight“.

How does that anecdote, apart from its classical origins, distinguish itself from a contemporary teenager browsing ‘SomethingAwfulDotCom’ (I’m not going to link to that site here)?

Sontag’s breadth of reference in this book is incredible. She concentrates for the most part on war photography and its origins, covering the period from the Crimean War up to Franco’s atrocities in the Spanish Civil War; from Vietnam to the Serb-Croat war in Bosnia.

She investigates the history of staged war photographs, such as the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. Contrasting with such images of soldiers in war, meant to inspire hope for success in the conflict, or an image snatched from a moment of pure horror that is seared on to the mind of anyone who has seen it – Huynh Cong Ut’s photograph of Vietnamese children running from an American napalm attack, with their skin on fire – we have a delightful description of a photograph taken in London during the Blitz of three men inspecting a wall of books that has survived the bombing. I was inspired to track this image down, as for me it carries great metaphorical weight relating to the value of literature and present it to you below.

 

Sontag questions the argument that war photography has innured in us a sense of banality in response to images of death, by revealing that as far back as 1800 (!) similar concerns were being raised about news reporting. This was before photographs came on to the scene. It is as if exposure to the awareness of the evil that men do is thought of as being threatening to the moral character of the viewer. Hence the level of censorship in current war reporting and the phenomenon of ‘embedded journalists’.

There may be a visceral response on the part of the viewer to an image that would be considered horrific, but in no way does that justify the blanket censorship of such imagery. It is only through confronting these images that we can defeat that much maligned apathy towards the suffering of others.

Incisive, wide-ranging and brilliant in its argumentation. Fantastic book.

For many years now the more refined literary fictions have relied on the techniques of omission. The authors tastefully leave out of their narratives all the emotion and most of the drama. In the manner of Samuel Beckett or Ann Beattie, they supply 10, 000 lines of oblique irony with which the reader is expected to construct his or her own story on a blank page.

After the damp squib of DeLillo, I decided I needed some satire and bite. Which is why I turned to Lewis Lapham. 30 Satires is a collection of essays published between 1986 and 2002. Like all good satirists while some of the material is dated (the Reagan presidency, Steven Seagal comes in for a bit of a drubbing) the incisive wit is still fresh and vibrant. True satire does not fade away. Read H. L. Mencken’s coverage of the Scopes Monkey trial for example. The anger and passion on display is still very much alive.

Lapham’s collection features essays on American politics and culture for the most part. He adopts either the discursive style, or in the form of a letter that represents an imaginary dialogue with a personage representing the target of choice. Jefferson on Toast has Lapham posing as a screen writer brainstorming ideas for a right-wing Hollywood producer on a historical film that rehabilitates the rule of Britain over the colonies. After all, their values were indistinguishable from the values of the Republican right who support Big Business. Then there’s the chilling missive from a talent agent to a mother looking to launch her six-year old daughter into an acting career. Natural Selection has Lapham suggest to the mother that she have her child take lessons in live fire-arms, in the event of her school being besieged Columbine-style. She can take out the violent teens and then give tearful witness to Barbara Walters, capturing the news cycle. Fame must come at all cost.

There are also attacks on the media for their coverage of the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Junior. The very same media outlets that bought paparazzo photos of a hounded Princess of Wales, were all of a sudden calling for the blood of the same photographers they employed. Barbara Walters appears again whispering to her co-hosts during coverage of the media frenzy ‘They take money’. John F. Kennedy Junior’s heritage as a member of American ‘royalty’, seemingly was not made of equally sturdy stuff. Lapham reports that days after the initial wave of condolences, the coverage focusing on intimate encounters with the dead son of a dead President, a backlash suddenly flourished. The reason being a form of inverted ‘tall poppy syndrome’. The Kennedys as a political clan were seen to be less deserving of the character of royals, than the millionaire bankers and corporate leaders who rule America in all but name. The public’s capacity for belief in fairy tales could only stretch so far.

Philosopher Kings has Lapham addressing the frustrating search for ‘public intellectuals’. Look to the celebrities, he suggests. They command the attention of the people. Plato’s ideal is long out of fashion. If you want to find today’s thinkers, do not search the study halls of Harvard, or Yale (I am reminded of the Wachowski Brothers casting Cornel West in their Matrix sequels), send Madonna’s manager an email, asking who she thinks should run the country. Sky Writing is a similarly disillusioning take on the publishing industry, were a writer’s media profile far outstrips their literary talent in terms of importance. The goal for writers is to be successful, not to be writers and so they should really investigate more productive means of becoming famous. Committing a crime for example.

Lapham’s political essays address the rise of Pat Buchanan, the 1999 primaries featuring George W. Bush’s folksy stump speeches and the ill-fated campaign of Elizabeth Dole, but he reserves especial ire for President Bill Clinton. A liar and a hypocrite, Lapham expresses open disgust with Clinton for not stepping down, but also aims at the Starr investigation for its self-serving publicity. Mayor Giuliani’s campaign against the Saatchi exhibition also features, with broadsides launched against both sides of the dispute.

Satirists and cynics are often dismissed for cutting off their nose to spite their face, but in truth they often serve a moral agenda that holds society accountable to a higher standard. Lapham is undoubtedly a moralist, though one with a grim sense of humour. Recommended reading.

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