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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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