At the center of Martin Clark’s comic legal thriller Plain Heathen Mischief is Joel King, a fallen preacher from Roanoke, Virginia, who got in a little too deep with a young female parishioner. After a stint in jail, and facing a broken marriage and a life gone to shambles, Joel is taken under the wing of Edmund Brooks, one of Joel’s former flock, a mysterious man whose dealings we quickly learn are rarely on the level. “I work the sag,” Edmund explains, “Sag’s the sneaky tax and the holdback and the cushion and the reserve and the contingency and the ‘ol thumb on the scale.” It’s a whole lot of other things, too, but we soon discover that for Edmund, “working the sag” is mostly insurance fraud. Joel relocates to his sister’s in Missoula, Montana, but by then, vulnerable and destitute, he has already been roped into Edmund’s schemes. Edmund’s co-conspirator is a Las Vegas lawyer of the slickest sort, Sa’ad X. Sa’ad, a smooth-talking con-man. Mischief would have been mundane as a straight thriller, but there’s a comic aspect to the book that keeps it entertaining. The three co-conspirators play tough, each in his own way, but to certain degree they’re each doing little more than playing the part of gangster, and part of the fun of reading this book is seeing through their big talk. Eventually the schemes and scams pile on top of one another and things spiral out of control, and while he has written Joel as an, at times, infuriatingly delusional character, Clark does a great job of untangling the Mischief in the end.
What to say about Harry Potter that hasn’t been said? One approach, I suppose, taking a page from the New York Times, would be to cover the coverage. I, for example, was delighted by the Times’ hypocrisy in covering as news the New York Post’s and New York Daily News’ early publication of movie reviews of Harry Potter 5 (these tabloids sent their reviewers to the Japanese premier, which took place before the American and European premiers), and then publishing their own early review of an illicitly purchased copy of The Deathly Hallows. It was not a “spoiler” – no major plot details given away – but there was, in the very fact of a review published on July 19th, inevitably and implicitly, a nanny-nanny-boo-boo quality to the piece.I have been rather under-whelmed by the reviews of the book (my own efforts included). One particularly aggravating feature is the gushing – and totally unexplained – lists of high literature to which Rowling alludes. I have seen Kafka and Milton on these lists. I would be beyond delighted to know where Rowling alludes to Kafka or Milton. Please post a comment if you know. The larger problem here is that the business (nay, the responsibility?) of a critic is to show and not tell – or, at the very least, to do both. That’s the business of good writing in general. (Even an editorial has a responsibility to tether the opinions it offers to substantial, justifying fact or theory of some kind.) I have been frustrated at the love-fest quality of Potter reviews generally: substantial observation falls aside for adulatory effusion.The following are a few (I hope) more substantial critical sallies at The Deathly Hallows and the series in general. I also forewarn those who have not finished the book that they read on at their own peril. Substantial details of the final book are discussed.Rowling’s gift as author is her masterful skill as an architect of plot. As she has said, she imagined Harry’s story as a seven-book series from the beginning and each book has been carefully seeded with clues and pre-history that become newly significant in subsequent installments. The Deathly Hallows, more than any of the other books (because it has all of the other books to draw on) achieves a higher degree of plot complexity. It is in this (alone), I would say, that she resembles Dickens: the complex interweaving of individual personal stories into a larger, coherent plot. Though I think that in basic concept, the Penseive (the ability to experience other people’s memories as an unseen observer), consciously or no on Rowling’s part, owes something to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, wherein Ebeneizer Scrooge’s moral and spiritual re-awakening is facilitated by ghosts who squire him, also unseen, through his own past and future and other people’s presents.The Penseive is also Dumbledore’s means, particularly in The Half-Blood Prince, of teaching Harry to read meaning and significance in personal history, a task Harry must undertake alone in the seventh book, with Dumbledore gone. And Harry’s task in the seventh does not just involve “reading” Voldemort to figure out where the Horcruxes are, but making sense of Dumbledore’s own past, and his character and trustworthiness, in light of it. The question of whose version – whose reading – of events you take, and the troubling multiplicity of accounts about a single event, has been dramatized throughout the series by The Daily Prophet and particularly by the antics of the muck-raking Rita Skeeter (who pens a tell-all biography of Dumbledore in the Hallows). Rowling also dramatizes the difficulty and the importance of reading, and reading well, in Dumbledore’s mysterious bequest to Hermione of a copy of the wizarding fairy-tales of Beedle the Bard. When Harry is (rather fantastically) reunited with Dumbledore, Dumbledore again emphasizes the importance of what and how you read: “And his knowledge remains woefully incomplete, Harry! That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing.”While Harry and Dumbledore have taken the time to read Voldemort’s past – to “know thy enemy,” He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has failed to do his homework, which would have involved, very cleverly on Rowling’s part, the reading and comprehension of not only Beedle’s tale, but, in essence, Harry Potter – not the books themselves, perhaps, but some version of Harry’s life history. And one last observation on the limbo scene between Harry and Dumbledore: It reminded me of the final scene in Vanilla Sky, where a similar choice is made in a similarly surreal/psychic landscape. I also felt that the model for Harry’s particular strain of self-sacrifice resembles, in certain structural aspects, the story of Abraham and Isaac, wherein the absolute willingness to make a sacrifice of life, is the thing that frees you from actually having to make it.I applaud Rowling’s clever double-ending. That you think it’s over – are really and truly convinced that it’s over – and then have an even greater joy in finding that it’s not. But I also take issue with those who use the term “adult” too freely in their descriptions of The Deathly Hallows. In the best sense of the word, Harry Potter finishes as it began: as children’s literature. Consider, for example, the dead. Rowling does not kill off a single central character (Harry, Ron, Hermione); nor any from the slightly lower tier including Hagrid, Neville, Ginny, and Luna. The only Weasley she kills off is the one with a identical twin – and we get Percy back, so in total the Weasley numbers remain constant. The deaths of Tonks and Lupin (who appear very infrequently in this volume – so there’s less to miss) allow for the somewhat satisfying emergence of a Harry- and Neville-esque war orphan (their son, Teddy) for the next generation. And it also seems fitting that Lupin – and even Wormtail – join Sirius and James in the Great Beyond. Colin Creevy and Dobby – also possibly Hedwig – are innocents but they were never crucial players so far as character went (and, truth be told, Colin Creevy and Dobby had an irritating spaniel-esque quality that is often the mark of a dispensable minor character). My favorite Death Eater death was that of Bellatrix Lestrange: uber-anti-mother destroyed by ur-mother Molly Weasley. Snape dies, of course, but it’s a kindness given the tragically loveless life he leaves behind. And Dumbledore, who actually is dead, is functionally revived in this final volume by the limbo scene, Snape’s memories in the pensive, the crucial role of his pre-history, and the appearance of his doppelganger-ish brother. You lose no one you can’t live without, is what I mean, and even get a few back through redemption and other means.This is pure children’s lit – though Rowling’s Aeschylus epigraph may have led you to expect otherwise. Good triumphs over evil (if that’s not the crux of a child’s plot, what is?) and this triumph justifies and then eclipses the losses that made it possible. The world is made right and the survivors are not psychically broken by their efforts – they enjoy life again, they thrive. Especially for grown readers, one of the chief pleasures offered by Harry Potter and books like it, is their allowing us to experience – to believe in, however fleetingly or wistfully – the kind of idealism and heroism that most of us lose faith in, willingly or no, in adulthood.My parting thought concerns what I consider one of the most fascinating aspects of the children’s fantasy genre as Rowling practices it: Its striking correspondence to the ancient epic tradition, in all of its un-ironic hero- and nation-making high seriousness. I find it particularly suggestive that epic, a genre that emerged and defined early human civilization, is now relegated to literature for humans in the early stages of life (from infancy to infancy, one might say), though I have no substantial thoughts on what it means about us as a culture. Harry Potter borrows much from the ancient literary traditions of Homer and Virgil – visits to and from the dead, prophecies, fantastic beasts to be slain, enchantresses to be escaped, magical objects, tragic flaws, heroic friends lost in combat, battles, and choices of world-determining import. The difference is that heroism and glory in war are not ends in and of themselves in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, as they are in the Illiad, Odyssey, and Aeneid. All of the sublime feats of daring and self-sacrifice that this last volume offers are done to keep the mundane yet magical manifestations of human love going: friendship, family, marriage, children, education. As the epilogue, with its glimpse of a new generation of Hogwarts students, parents, and teachers, demonstrates unquestionably, the purpose of heroism is not becoming a hero, but preserving the people, places, traditions, and values that gave you the strength to confront death and pain in the first place.As to the lasting power of this literary phenomenon – whether it is one for the ages – I think that cultural studies, at the very least, will see to it that future generations look back at Harry Potter. How and why did it (somewhat like, though far-surpassing, best-sellers of yore Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Sherlock Holmes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin) become such a prodigy? As to literary merit, I think, as I said earlier, that Rowling’s skill as a plotter is tremendous: She has a gift for pacing and suspense, for the deft orchestration of clues and of characters’ plot-functions. She is not a stylist – the best that can be said about her literary style is that is transparent and unobtrusive. Of characterization, I would say that Rowling’s characters have an archetypal appeal (the arch, wise, and serene mentor; the affable and fiercely loyal but intellectually diminished sidekick/best friend; the brainy, bossy, dorky-yet-attractive-in-her-braininess female), but that character development is a bit thin – nowhere near so well done as the plotting.Ultimately, though, I think this will be enough to secure Rowling and Harry literary immortality. We shall see.
It isn’t easy being the son of a famous man of letters. One has to be on guard from adolescence. When Matthew Spender was in boarding school, he let slip in a conversation with a friend that he didn’t know where Bloomsbury was. Shortly thereafter, a snarky bulletin appeared in the school’s literary magazine: “Spender, son of Stephen, asks, ‘where is Bloomsbury?’” Little wonder that Matthew would turn to the visual arts, writing to Spender père, eminent poet, that he is “[t]rying to unlearn the habit of thinking in words.” Take that, Dad.
In Joseph Brodsky’s tribute to Spender, “In Memory of Stephen Spender,” we see an adult Matthew mourning at his father’s funeral: “Matthew screws the bolts into the coffin lid. He fights tears, but they are winning. One can’t help him; nor do I think one should. This is a son’s job.” A House in St. John’s Wood: In Search of My Parents, Matthew’s perceptive, absorbing account of growing up in a family at the center of “literary London,” commences with Matthew presiding over the deceased body of his other parent, the pianist Natasha Spender (née Litvin.) As he waits for the undertaker to arrive, Matthew sketches her. Something strange happens: “The drawings came out angrier and angrier. Was this my feeling, or hers?”
Given that Natasha had drawn up papers excluding Matthew from the Spender literary estate — fearing that her son would lay bare family secrets — the feeling was at least partly hers. (The papers, unsigned, are tossed.) And Matthew soon gives her a reason to be even angrier. Disregarding her mother’s request that her papers be destroyed unopened immediately upon her death, Matthew discovers a cache of “passionate” letters between her and Raymond Chandler. In possession of new material, Matthew summons both his parents back to life in his memoir, partly to get the last word in: “This book started as an imaginary conversation with the ghosts of two parents whom I never challenged while they were still alive.”
Matthew had a touch of the biographer about him from childhood, adopting a neutral stance towards his parents’ fraught relationship early on: “I have no say in this matter. I must keep out of it. After all, for better or worse, the family works. Odd decision for someone so young but I never went back on it.” Stay out of it he did, but that’s not to say he wasn’t intensely observing them. “My children are going to curse me with their total recall,” his father had joked, and that total recall proves useful in attempting to answer the several knotty questions at the heart of the book: How did his mother cope with her husband’s homosexual affairs? What went on between her and an infatuated Raymond Chandler? And what did Stephen know about the CIA’s involvement in funding, through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the magazine Encounter, which he helped edit from 1953 until 1966?
This latter is the key question haunting Matthew because it touches on his father’s artistic integrity:
…Encounter, for me, stands for the parts of my father’s life that are the real enemies of literary promise: the contamination of art by power, the ambiguous role of the intellectual in society and the political relationship of England with the United States. Encounter in my mind stands for Temptation.
The American Melvin Lasky, another one of Encounter’s editors, knew full well that the Congress for Cultural Freedom was funded by the CIA as part of a program to promote anti-Communist ideas. But Spender, whom Cyril Connolly described as “an inspired simpleton, a great big silly goose, a holy Russian idiot, large, generous, gullible,” claimed ignorance about the money’s origin. After reviewing the evidence, Matthew finds this entirely plausible, save for one indication of subconscious complicity in a comment his father made 20 years after the scandal erupted: “I knew, somehow I knew.”
On the question of his father’s love life, Matthew accepts the notion that Stephen’s affairs with men were a matter of freedom — personal, political and artistic. When a young Stephen overheard his fellow partygoers in Hamburg refer to him as Unschuldig, or without guilt, he “latched on to this word as a talisman that would guide him through all his future explorations of love. Whatever he did with his body, it would be ‘without guilt.’” These guilt-free explorations, Stephen felt, were vital to his creative powers, and thus while Matthew fully acknowledges the unfairness to his mother, he understands his father’s commitment to infidelity, as it were. As a poet, Stephen wanted both stimulation and stability, or as Matthew puts it, “the impossible: amour fou in a family niche.”
How to rebel against an Unschuldig father? Through faithfulness of course. At the age of 16 Matthew enters into a lifelong relationship with Maro Gorky, the daughter of the Armenian abstract painter Arshile Gorky. Vivacious and cultured, Maro whirls into the narrative telling stories about everything from meeting Alberto Giacometti and Jean-Paul Sartre to her aversion to orgasms: “Centuries of rape by Kurds and Turks means we [Armenians] have to stay numb, in order to pull ourselves together next morning and tidy up.” No one, not even she, is sure what will come out of her mouth next: “How can I tell what I think until I’ve said it?” the worldly ingénue asks. The Spenders don’t initially warm to the match, but Matthew detects a subtler reproof behind his father’s practical objections:
If I’d starred in a porno movie shot in a cellar in Soho, he would have been secretly amused, because it would have reminded him of his experiences around the docks of Hamburg when he was young. But happy straight coupledom? No, not that!
Later Stephen asks Matthew if he can dedicate a poem, “The Generous Days,” to him. The poem includes these lines: “After, of course, will come a time not this/ When he’ll be taken, stripped, strapped to a wheel.” Matthew rightly sees this as a passive-aggressive message about his relationship and refuses the poetic gesture: “I had no desire to be strapped to a wheel of daily life by my father, not even in metaphor.”
If Stephen reacted against Matthew’s “happy straight coupledom,” Matthew could be withering about his father’s acquaintances. After meeting a young American novelist David Plante, who had taken up with one of Stephen’s lovers, the Greek poet Nikos Stangos, Matthew tells his father: “I think he must be one of those creeping plants.” The usually even-keeled Spender explodes in anger, less for the actual dig than for what it implies: “My casual remark was a form of rejection, not so much of David Plante himself as of this whole arcane world that my father valued, which I felt I couldn’t enter.” As one of Matthew’s friends points out to him, the son must have felt jealous seeing his father, in whom he occasionally detected “a detachment indistinguishable from boredom,” exuberantly devoting himself to these young men.
While we’re playing amateur psychoanalyst, I might as well mention Matthew’s decision to give up rowing, which he discusses almost exclusively in terms of its post-workout showers and “all that yucky business of comparing cocks among the steam.” He found the grueling workouts less bothersome than “facing the true hideousness of the male sex.” He goes on:
So many organs, some of unusual colour, some evidently damaged, almost skinned. Though you’d been told that pricks were as noses, no amount of comparison could reconcile you to the fact that whereas a nose was familiar and visible, a prick was always a surprise and ugly.
Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion about the membrum virile, but Matthew’s revulsion, expressed as it is in a book exploring his father’s homosexuality, strikes me as a tad excessive. Then again, sometimes a locker room scene is just a locker room scene.
But let’s exit the showers and towel off. The book has an interesting rhythm, jumping between standard biographical passages (dates, places) to charged familial scenes to amusing sketches of nonchalantly outrageous behavior to idiosyncratic reminiscences, including a bizarre anecdote about Matthew’s attempt to breastfeed a stray cat. Here he provides the definitive answer to Robert De Niro’s question in Meet The Parents:
So I lay there patiently every morning as this wild thing kneaded my breast with adamantine claws and chewed my nipple with needle-sharp teeth. After a week, I began to lactate.
Complications ensue, and he has to have a mastectomy.
One of the pleasures of memoirs like these are the cameos from figures in the family’s orbit. W.H. Auden appears at regular intervals throughout, meeting Stephen Spender at Oxford in the 1920s, where the two famous poets began their lifelong friendship. Auden would take Spender’s virginity, blithely reassuring his sexually inexperienced charge: “Now, dear, don’t make a fuss.” Years later, after Stephen had married Natasha, Auden, playing the role of “kind but didactic wizard,” would teach their young son Matthew about adjectives or compose “Tolkienish poems” with him, each contributing alternating lines in the quatrains:
God knows what kings and lords,
Had their realms on these downs of chalk,
And now guard their bountiful hoards,
One night you may see them walk.
(Quick, which are the bard’s and which are the child’s?) In another anecdote, Natasha phones Auden, who is staying at the house, to ask him to put a chicken in the oven for dinner. This he promptly does. Natasha comes home to find the uncooked chicken in the oven, which was never turned on. Poets can be so damned literal.
An alcoholic Raymond Chandler, somewhat uncharitably described as looking like a “decaying tortoise,” is another key figure in the memoir. In 1955 Chandler, a widower recovering from a botched suicide attempt, meets and falls in love with Natasha. Stephen is not particularly worried about Chandler, whom he sees as another of his wife’s “cases” — she was “always a saver of desperate people.” Stephen even sends them off on an Italian vacation together so that he can have the house to himself for a bit. Chandler pays for the trip, buys her extravagant gifts and eventually leaves her everything in his will. He even writes her a check to open her own bank account. Despite being chronically worried about her finances, Natasha carries it around uncashed in her pocketbook. Chandler loves this, and Matthew, in a concise observation that demonstrates his psychological acuity, explains why: “There was something erotic about this: his check, her purse.” Chandler nursed the fantasy of Natasha leaving Stephen, but for her Chandler was less a “viable alternative” than “a fantasy, a counterweight to the my father’s yearning for a public display between two men.”
Virginia Woolf, whom Stephen showed a draft of his homosexual coming-of-age novel, The Temple (unpublished until 1988), makes an appearance as well. Responding bluntly to Stephen’s question about the importance of sex in a relationship, she tells him: “It depends how highly you value cocks and cunts.” Next question? Matthew recounts a dinner hosted by the literary critic William Empson: “If what Bill was arguing became too arcane, he spoke to the ceiling and the rest of the table went on rowdily saying whatever came into their heads.” And on a boat in the Mediterranean, Matthew puts a patronizing Cyril Connolly, who edited the influential magazine Horizon alongside Stephen, in his place: “He didn’t frighten me. I could see in his small eyes surrounded by fat a nervous child peeking out, hoping not to be rejected.” Matthew was 10 years old at the time.
Speaking for the parents of memoir writers everywhere, Matthew’s mother at one point tells him: “You were a much loved child, and if you choose to remember differently, it’s no bloody business of anyone but you.” Had she read A House in St. John’s Wood before she passed, her death mask might have looked angrier still. Matthew does admit to being hard on her at times, but given the witty inquisitiveness of the book, I think a wry, proud smile might have come through as well. Then again, it’s entirely possible she never would have read it. Raymond Chandler found it delicious that six years after her husband’s now-classic autobiography World Within World appeared, she still hadn’t taken a look.
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)