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 Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…