I’m a big fan of narrative-style history books, and it’s always fun to see a heavily researched piece of history that floats along like a novel. The problem with Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City is that it fails, at times, to feel like a strong account of historical events. The book follows two and a half storylines that intertwine, if only geographically, but never intersect. The backdrop is the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893, a now forgotten event that transfixed the world at the time. Daniel Burnham is the renowned architect of the Fair, beset by meddlers and bureaucrats; H. H. Holmes, whose torturous schemes are at times hard to fathom in their cruelty, is a serial killer who haunts Chicago during the Fair; and Patrick Prendergast, to whom the book only gives over two dozen or so pages, is an increasingly delusional man whose obsession with Chicago’s showy political scene leads to tragedy. The plotlines in the book are fascinating, both because Larson lends them a cinematic flair and because there is a continual sense of wonder that history has managed to forget such vibrant characters. Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read, especially on my daily rides on Chicago’s elevated trains which still snake through the city as they did when the World’s Fair was held here in 1893.
Problems are matters of faith. They need to be believed in before they can be solved and their solutions are always shaped by the ways the problems are defined. In this way, Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World founders as soon as it begins. McGonigal is a researcher at the Institute for the Future and one of the most accomplished alternate reality game designers in the world. Her book offers a solution to a problem that she doesn’t really define and probably doesn’t exist.
McGonigal’s book is an evangelical pamphlet. It doesn’t discover a new problem so much as it insists that optimism is our destiny and amusement will accelerate it if through the power of interactive systems. “Today’s best games help us realistically believe in our chances for success,” McGonigal declares, and so by using their essential structure for more socially beneficial purposes than killing orcs and grenade bombing aliens we might one day “change the world.”
McGonigal enumerates reality’s broken parts in a laundry list of suffering: obesity, global warming, starvation, poverty, the loneliness of the elderly, attention deficit disorder, and the modern rise of clinical depression. In short, games will fix everything.
It’s often argued that video games are a new medium with exciting possibilities, an inheritor of the advancements of the written word and moving image that preceded them. Arguing that video games themselves constitute a medium is easy but it’s an inaccurate belief, one that warps many of McGonigal’s arguments.
To McGonigal, games offer us “intense, optimistic engagement with the world around us.” They are defined by four essential traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation. These are a decent reduction of the new medium, but they better describe interactive systems than they do video games.
There is indeed a new medium afoot, but it’s one that includes Google, World of Warcraft, Mario, and Microsoft Office. The medium is interactive system design, and video games are the non-productive, emotional face. In the way that movies occupy the same medium as training videos while serving a dramatically different purpose, video games are formed with the same essential elements as Excel. They both have a goal, respond to user input, have limits on recognizable input, and both can be taken or left.
This might seem like a small distinction but it’s an essential one that confounds almost every argument in McGonigal’s book. “Games aren’t leading to the downfall of human civilization,” McGonigal writes. “They’re leading us to its reinvention.” Replacing “games” with “interactive systems” makes this claim more tenable, allowing the possibility to include Wikipedia, Groupon, Facebook, LexusNexus, Google’s cloud of services, and the emotional vivacity of Tetris, Ico, and Wii Sports.
“Games don’t distract us from our real lives,” McGonigal claims. “They fill our real lives: with positive emotions, positive activity, positive experiences, and positive strengths.” This might also be true if we accept games as the artistic subset of interactive systems, but it should then be expanded beyond the scope of the “positive.” All art and emotional expression is catastrophically hamstrung when limited only to the positive and optimistic.
To McGonigal’s credit, Reality is Broken is filled with specific examples of games modeled around the desire to change the world for the better. She describes SuperBetter, an alternate reality game she invented after suffering a concussion in 2009. McGonigal’s recovery period was long and drawn out, lasting several months during which she was instructed to avoid exertion, refrain from work, and spend as much time as possible resting.
For a woman with a proactive disposition, this state of living quickly became torturous. Rather than wallow in self-pity, McGonigal decided to make a game of her recovery. She constructed a secret identity, and then identified friends, family members, and people in her neighborhood who could play a role in her recovery.
She listed all of the negative behaviors that would slow her recover (e.g. caffeine, vigorous exercise, email, work anxiety). Then she defined specific actions that could contribute to her recovery, which she then assigned points to so that she could feel like she was making quantifiable progress (cuddling with her dog, listening to podcasts, excursion to the department store to smell different perfumes). Without this game-like structure, McGonigal’s recovery was slow and painful, but within the motivational bounds of points, objectives, and identifiable “enemies” she was able to accelerate her recovery dramatically.
There are many similar examples. McGonigal describes a game that encourages social exchange between older people in retirement homes and younger people, one that assigns and tracks points for completing household chores, and one that encourages players to conduct there lives as if there was an oil shortage.
Examples like these–small in scale and benefiting from a sense of goodwill among their participants–do indeed seem to have a positive impact on their subjects. But if a game is built to solve a real world problem, is it still really a game? McGonigal’s work is that it creates a framework for simplifying human experience into quantifiable objectives and positive rewards that make sense in a system but less so in “reality.”
This is not a new criticism, Jaron Lanier, the author and one-time Web 2.0 developer, has long warned against designing systems that exploit human richness for simplified systemic objectives. Lanier describes a process of “lock-in,” where an idea must be taken as a fact or hard rule when placed in a software system.
“Lock-in removes the ideas that do not fit into the winning digital representation scheme, but it also reduces or narrows the ideas it immortalizes, by cutting away the unfathomable penumbra of meaning that distinguishes a word in a natural language from a command in a computer program,” Lanier wrote in You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto.
McGonigal veers into this territory when she talks about using games to make people happier by giving them discrete game-like objectives in their daily lives. This can create the impression of positive behavior in the short-term, but it also leads to long-term indifference and a diminution of the innumerable elements that naturally motivate us.
In Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, Barbabara Ehrenrich argues this kind of positive thinking “requires deliberate self-deception, including a constant effort to repress or block out unpleasant possibility and ‘negative’ thoughts.” Reading McGonigal’s description of how the most successful games define their fail-states with gratuitous exaggeration to protect players from the idea of failure (e.g. there’s still a humorous payoff when you lose) and it’s hard to not see her optimism in these terms: a willful construct to force out naturally occurring forces to the contrary. This is less a reconciliation with reality and more a filtering of it into one that’s easiest for humans to process. How this makes us “better” is unclear.
McGonigal presses further in the closing third of her book with an argument that games can change the developing world for the better. Her most recent game is EVOKE, another alternate reality game commissioned by the World Bank as a way of positively affecting development in Africa and “other parts of the world.”
The game is a loose network for brainstorming with a game-like allocation of points for contribution and a fictional story to add urgency. EVOKE has led to some interesting work, including a pilot program for sustainable farming in a South African community, a project to convert glass boats into solar powered boats in Jordan, and a communal library that requires users to contribute a piece of information for every book they check out.
While these ideas all sound promising, the history of international development is littered with optimistic ideas that all sound fine in abstract. In practice, however, it’s entirely unclear why EVOKE is a game and not just a philanthropic network for people with Global Giving projects.
I lived in Madagascar for two years working as a Health Educator with the Peace Corps from 2003 to 2005. The United Nations Development Project had a program to build wells in the most remote villages in the arid southern part of the country where I lived. The project was simple, had an easily identifiable goal, and was well-funded by a willing community of international donors. The wells were installed and the locals enjoyed clean and easy access to drinking water for several years. Then the pumps began to break. The UNDP had no local presence, the closest office was 1,000 miles to the north. The locals lacked the parts to fix the pumps on their own because the pumps had been manufactured in Europe. And so they went back to their old way of life, fetching water from shallow rivers and the pools of rainwater that collected after the rainy season.
It’s easy to imagine how projects like this might be accelerated by game-like structure, but it’s hard to imagine the feeling of purposeful happiness making it any longer lasting. After my two years in Madagascar, I found that the things I wanted to work on in my community—HIV education, birth control access, convincing my neighbors to start farming tomatoes instead of only cassava—were greeted with disinterest.
I struggled to explain these issues in dire terms. But how do you convince someone to care about HIV when their language doesn’t have a word for blood cell? How do you convince someone to grow tomatoes when it would cost them four months income to build a wooden fence big enough to keep the pigs, goats, and chickens out of their garden?
It’s true we have an imperfect experience of the world we live in. We struggle and fail. We tend towards dissolution over a lifetime—to understand less at the end than at the beginning. In this way, Reality is Broken is a product of the lingering adolescence of video games, a forceful assertion of general good will and ambition that will never seem more possible than in the salad years, when the medium is still unburdened by the scar tissue of failure.
Reality is Broken came from a short rant McGonigal was asked to deliver during the 2008 Game Developers Convention. The rant was inspired by a piece of graffiti McGonigal had seen in Berkeley, a sad phrase scrawled onto a sticker plastered on a wall. “I’m not good at life.” This is the emotional core of every point argued in McGonigal’s book. It’s a work of solidarity and overwhelming empathy with everyone struggling in the world and yet no one person in particular.
One of the rants that followed McGonigal’s in 2008 was by Jon Mak, a Canadian game designer and musician. Mak chose not to talk at all. Instead he started playing ambient dance music over a boombox and hopped off the dais. He ran around the conference room throwing balloons into the audience. Each balloon had an irrational message written on it, a non-sequitur snippet that teased the human tendency to search for meaning even when there is none. Without instruction the audience began hitting the balloons into the air, passing them back and forth like beach balls.
I suppose it’s possible, in the collected time and energy spent passing those meaningless balloons back and forth we might instead have pooled our energies to build something, maybe creating a system to feed the homeless people wandering around the sidewalks below us. But we wouldn’t have been playing at that point, and I suspect most of the people in the room would have lost interest. Which is a good reminder that there remains a vague but real difference between play and work. I finished McGonigal’s book convinced it’s a distinction worth keeping.
(Image: -342 : guinea pig pwn from o_hai’s photostream)
Google Joshua Cohen and you’re immediately faced with a question: which Joshua Cohen do you want? Is it a) The political philosopher? b) The guy who started the website tubefilter, “Online video’s daily must-read”? Or c) the American novelist and writer of stories? In my case, the answer was c), but the process of choosing a person from multiple options, of pulling an identity from ten trillion lines of code, is at the core of Four New Messages. In Joshua Cohen’s new collection of long stories, the characters struggle to reconcile their physical existences with their online selves — struggle to cope with the effect the Internet has on their experience of the world.
The first story, “Emission,” which appeared in a recent issue of The Paris Review, is the best of the collection. (At a recent reading in San Francisco, Cohen himself suggested that “Emission” is in fact the worst story in the book because it is the safest, and that readers might want to skip it altogether. I respectfully disagree.) The plot follows a young drug dealer, Mono, who, one night, after delivering cocaine to some Princeton students, decides to snort a few rails himself. While under the influence, he makes the mistake of relating a very shameful sex story involving him and a girl he once found sleeping at a party. Later Mono learns he has been rejected for a job because of his reputation, and when he asks what’s wrong with his reputation, the employer tells him, “The internet…are you aware of the internet?” Mono Googles himself — a practice he generally avoids since he deems it “too depressing a venture” — and finds his sex story, with his full name attached to it, posted on the blog of one of the girls from the party. The post quickly goes viral and Mono’s name because synonymous with masturbating on a sleeping stranger. He spends the rest of “Emission” trying to get the story removed, which he tragically learns is a futile endeavor. As one character puts it, “the web’s like sweaty footwear — stuff lives in there forever.”
“Emission” not only features an exciting and somewhat sickening plot, but it is also a very heavily (and effectively) framed story. Mono is not the narrator — instead we get the viewpoint of a young businessman recounting the time he met Mono at a biergarten in Berlin. At one point we see the narrator relating how Mono told him about the time Mono read a blog post in which the blogger recounts the story of when she went to a party and heard her drug dealer tell a story about the time he masturbated on a sleeping girl. (You may have to draw a diagram to calculate the number of devices separating the reader from the action.) The frame here is used to create ambiguity: Was Mono’s name really ruined by a blogger? Or did he himself haplessly post the story on the Internet — he does seem like that kind of guy — and later reconstruct his life’s narrative to give it a villain? Because of the distance between the protagonist and the telling of the story, we’re left with doubt, a condition that ravages characters throughout the collection.
Cohen is an incredibly intelligent and prolific author (at the age of thirty-one, Four New Messages is his seventh book) who is frequently compared to David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon. As part of the last generation to grow up before the popularization of the Internet, but to go to college post-.com, he seems well equipped to write about the anxieties of net-surfing information junkies. Throughout the book, his characters make assertions that feel nauseatingly familiar. One woman experiences “nervousness at traveling to an unknown, possibly even an undatabased restaurant.” It’s as if after spending so much time online, these people are afraid of uncharted human experience. As one character says, “That’s the problem with the screen…You’re always one step, but the crucial step, removed.” It’s also the advantage: you’re never too close to danger.
But despite Cohen’s wonderful ability to articulate the anxieties of the internet age, sometimes he gets so deep into syntactic and structural experiments that he forgets about the physical world altogether. Given the preoccupations of his characters, this is almost certainly an intentional choice, but it’s still, at times, a frustrating one. “McDonald’s” follows an indecisive writer as he agonizes over whether or not to include the word “McDonald’s” in a story he’s writing. The piece has half-page long sentences that feature very little but obsessive chronicling of Internet searches like “What’s wrong with my story?” and while this discursive portrayal of writerly interiority is incredibly realistic, it also makes for tedious reading.
The last and longest story of the collection, “Sent,” is a perplexing part-folktale, part-fictional reportage about a young man who goes to eastern Europe to write about girls from small villages who are being used in American pornography. The narrator reflects, “We all grew up with this crap, we didn’t know anything else — like Dad did, who masturbated to paper, to brownpaperwrapped magazines.” For the narrator’s generation, “We can just press a button and, naked lady…Point, click, penetration, it penetrates, it rewires your brain.” While the story is filled with Cohen’s trademark awareness of the effects of the Internet on our consciousness, the plot is obscured by constant point of view shifts: “I am a woodsman. A forester. No. You are a woodsman. You are a forester. No. Shake the tree. Uproot the roots. He, yes, he is a woodsman.” The confusion of reading “Sent” probably mirrors the confusion of the young narrator as he travels through real villages and interviews real people he’s seen having sex through the protective lens of the Internet. But it’s still a trying, and in the end, not very satisfying read.
Charles Baxter once wrote in an afterword to a collection of flash fiction, “These are tunes for the end of time, for those in an information age who are sick of data.” This was in 1986. I wonder what he would have to say about the characters in Four New Messages.
My New Yorker is David Remnick’s New Yorker. The magazine was around my house off and on when I was young. My sister and I, ignoring the witty captions, used to use the magazine’s iconic cartoons as a sort of coloring book, spicing up a droll bedroom scene with our 24-color set of magic markers. As a high schooler with half-formed thoughts of a literary life, I began delving into the fiction each week, but it was only a matter of time before the rest of the magazine’s contents began to tempt me, though I remained utterly unaware that I was discovering the magazine at its point of greatest turmoil, the Tina Brown years. By the time I went to college, I was an avid consumer of the magazine, though without the time to give it my full attention. Once I graduated, however, with only the responsibilities of undemanding jobs, I was able to give in and have read the magazine, more or less in its entirety ever since.The Tina Brown era ended and David Remnick took the magazine’s helm around the time I became a New Yorker regular, and he, to a certain extent, epitomizes my New Yorker. Beyond Remnick’s editorial influence, any contemporary reader of the magazine has become familiar with his thorough profiles which tend to alight on a few different topics that he has covered closely over the years. Many of these are collected in his recent volume Reporting, which came out last year and is now available in paperback.The book divides the articles, which are all taken from his years at the New Yorker, into five sections covering, roughly: politics/news, literary figures, Russia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and boxing. Nearly all of the articles in the collection are the long, in depth profiles that New Yorker readers will be familiar with. In Reporting, Remnick’s subjects include Al Gore, Philip Roth, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (twice), Vladimir Putin, Benjamin Netanyaho, and Mike Tyson.These profiles are impressive in the access they offer – we have dinner with Al and Tipper, visit Roth’s writing retreat, and play chess with Lennox Lewis. Taken together, one also notes that these profiles most prominent quality is their workmanlike thoroughness. Remnick takes us into his subjects’ homes but he also grabs quotes from dozens of peripheral characters in his quest to offer as well-rounded a picture as possible. There’s nothing flashy about Remnick’s writing – he won’t wow you – but then again his writing carries none of the annoying tics that mars some of his colleagues’ work. Here I’m thinking of Adam Gopnick’s tendency to view everything through the eyes of a parent or Anthony Lane’s dandyish fussiness. For anyone who aspires to practice long-form magazine journalism, you could do a lot worse than starting with Remnick as a model.My favorite part of the book was the last section on boxing. Here Remnick was able to drop some of the necessary serious that his other subjects demand and substitute it with some color. Setting the scene for the 2002 Tyson-Lewis fight in Memphis, Remnick writes:On the night of the fight, the skies of above the Pyramid were choked with helicopters. It took a long time to get through the metal detectors and professional friskers, though it seemed that the women of uncertain profession, along with their raffish masculine handlers, were accorded more courtesy than the rest of us. There were certifiable celebrity types all around, mainly film stars like Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Samuel L. Jackson, and a flotilla of NBA players. There was much relief in finding out that one hadn’t been given a seat behind Dikembe Mutombo or Magic Johnson.In fact, Remnick’s boxing pieces would have made for a nice, slim volume on their own. But Remnick doesn’t seem like the type of reporter who, as he ages, will pursue writing only about his particular interests at the expense of taking on a broader array of topics. In its variety of subjects, Reporting is an ideal slice of Remnick’s work.
Whether or not you like Haruki Murakami’s newest novel, After Dark, will probably depend on how many of his previous books you have read. If you’ve read two or less, you may enjoy it. If you’ve read three or four, you will almost certainly find it tedious. If you’ve read five or more you’re incorrigible and nothing I say here will deter you.For my part, I’ve read so much Murakami, it has ceased to be fun. I’ve read all of his books in translation, less Kafka on the Shore and South of the Border, West of the Sun, and several of his yet to be translated books in the original Japanese. My first journey into the curious land of his prose was Norwegian Wood, and liking it, I found myself drawn to his other novels, the best of which, Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, The Windup Bird Chronicle, and Dance Dance Dance, more than made up for the tepid performances of books like Sputnik Sweetheart.As in all Murakami novels, After Dark’s plot is irrelevant. Nothing happens for a long time, then something creepy and inexplicable happens, then the book ends for no apparent reason, leaving any semblance of story unresolved. In the past, the pleasure in the majority of these books (with the notable exception of Dance Dance Dance, which adopted the form of a supernatural thriller) came from Murakami’s almost uncanny ability to create atmosphere and capture physical longing – whether for a piece of cucumber wrapped in seaweed or for a lover’s touch – with palpable virtuosity.The problem confronting Murakami’s readers has always been that, despite his otherworldly talents, he has nothing to say. Nothing of any real interest or significance, at least. Although his stories often hint at a metaphysics of unreality, the books are mostly surface and, unlike one of his professed influences, Raymond Carver, seem to lack any insight into the human condition (or any other condition, really). Instead, they content themselves with cataloging the discontents of the modern age, particularly the alarmingly numerous forms of ennui, all of which, after three or four volumes, begin to bear a striking resemblance to one another.While this was all well and good when Murakami started his career, with After Dark it seems he has become so enamored of his own abilities that he has ceased to care whether what he has chosen to show us actually matters. Or is even interesting. The more I read Murakami, the less his work resembles genius, and the more it comes to resemble a symptom of autism or obsessive compulsion. As Murakami translator Jay Rubin notes in his biography Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, around the time Murakami finished A Wild Sheep Chase, he began to obsess over his writing, fearing that he might die before finishing the book, a thought he apparently found untenable. His anxiety led to a major overhaul of his life. He quit smoking, began to exercise regularly, changed his diet. Over time, his books have come to reflect this obsession with writing and not necessarily in a positive way. As Rubin explains it, Murakami works not because he has an idea for a book, but because he feels compelled to write. It’s suggested that he often sits at his desk, writing whatever comes to mind, until the glimmerings of a story appear. Those who are familiar with Murakami’s novels can see this process at work. Often, the first fifty to one hundred pages of his books feature characters loafing around, looking for something to do, a reflection, perhaps, of Murakami’s own mental state. The result is a presumably faithful depiction of his inner life with an ironic lack of self-awareness.After Dark is no exception: characters loaf, they engage in small talk, and something weird happens on TV (but not nearly as weird as “Flavor of Love.”) The one major departure from previous novels is the style, which is somewhat reminiscent of a screenplay. The story is told in first person plural, complete with metafictional references to points of view and what seem to be camera directions. The end result could be pitched as Eraserhead (IMDb) meets Before Sunrise (IMDb), minus the good parts. If it weren’t for Murakami’s oath to never allow his works to be filmed (which I see has been broken, with the release of Tony Takatani (IMDb)), I would wonder if the book wasn’t an attempt to salvage a failed screenplay.Until recently, a few short stories and Kafka on the Shore represented the totality of Murakami’s efforts to separate himself from the first person novel, the protagonists of which were all thinly veiled versions of Murakami himself, a cosmopolitan pasta aficionado with a love of jazz, Stendhal, and Dostoyevsky, and a cool, rootless detachment from all things Japanese. While Murakami should be applauded for his attempts to expand his range, they have, so far, only brought attention to the areas in which his work is most deficient: dialogue and his brittle attempts at symbolism, a personal mythology consisting of, among other things, cats and mirrors that does not fare well when set loose from the idiosyncratic workings of his first person narrators’ minds. The dialogue in After Dark is particularly bad, with one character addressing a girl with the line “What’s a girl like you doing hanging out all night in a place like this?” (The line is delivered in a bar and with a complete lack of irony.) Granted, the translation might be at fault, but Jay Rubin has done an admirable job with Murakami in the past, leaving us to assume the source material didn’t leave much to work with. The story’s alternations between the dully inscrutable and the ploddingly mundane seem to confirm this.All of which begs the question, where does Murakami go from here? With the combination of his enormous popularity in Japan and critical acclaim in the United States and abroad, he could never write another word and still be guaranteed a roof over his head and a place in the literary pantheon of the 20th-ish century (at least for the foreseeable future). And writing one, or even a handful, of good books puts a novelist under no obligation to produce another. Yet, if the Murakami Rubin has shown us is the real one, we can expect he will continue to release novels until the day he dies (and if one takes into account his considerable back catalog of yet to be translated works, much longer). Will he insist on sticking with what he knows or will he find some way to transfer his preoccupations and considerable skills into a broader fictional universe? When you find out, let me know.