Thursday, September 30, 2010

Thoughts on Formulaic Non-Fiction Books

Extra Lives: Why Video Games MatterExtra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell

My soon to be five year old son wants a Star Wars light saber something or other video game for Christmas this year. The first problem with that is that this game is for the Wii game system and I only have a PlayStation 2. The second problem is that I have not yet been sold on this notion that video games aren’t just a waste of time and they aren't turning the youth of America into dumb, fat and happy drains on the purse strings of their hard working parents. Just like most every other parent today, I too once played video games—as a 12, 13 year old in the 1980s it was Atari home systems and darkly lit, sticky-carpeted arcades—but I can’t honestly think of a single thing from the time spent in front of a video game monitor that has contributed much to my adult life. Tom Bissell’s book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter however promised to straighten me out on that, and if I were worth my weight in Arcade tokens then I would make that the point of this blog.  Instead I'd like to write about Bissell's writing style.

About 5 years or so ago I stopped reading fiction and switched pretty much exclusively to non-fiction. More recently, one specific genre of non-fiction (a genre I call Pop-centric non-fiction) has taken my fancy.  These are books that deal with a subject matter that involves some aspect of pop culture.  They are often written with the author injecting him or herself into the narrative.  And a large number of them follow a basic formula. The formula goes like this: First of all you start off with a well-written (perhaps inspired even) first chapter that reveals the subject matter in an incredibly interesting light.  In Brad Millano’s Vinyl Junkies for example, we start off with Milano at a record listening party of sorts. While in Big Hair and Plastic Grass, the reader is drenched in a hipster-worded general overview plus teases of events and highlights that made the decade of the 70s so unique and interesting. This well-done first chapter, along with an eye-catching front cover and some gushing praise from other authors on the back cover, seems to be enough for publishers to believe that as a reader you have gotten your money’s worth.  The problem however is that, more times than not, the remaining chapters of these Pop-centric non-fiction books are paint-by-number assimilations of historical accounts of the subject matter and/or journalistic episodes and interviews that may marginally shed some light on the subject matter, but in general seem random or without direction.  Usually, somewhere halfway through these books, it becomes obvious that it is best just to start skimming or even just jump the to end and see if the last chapter has anything worth smelling.

As I sat down to read Bissell’s Extra Lives I wasn’t expecting anything more than another installment in this long line of formulaic Pop-centric non-fiction works. I did notice right off the bat however that Bissell writes in a style that is very enjoyable to read.  He writes from personal experience that reveals his inner thoughts and is likable and funny. For instance:

Was I apologizing to some imaginary cultural arbiter for finding value in a form of creative expression [video games] whose considerable deficits I recognize but which I nevertheless believe is important? Or is this evidence of authentic scruple? On one hand, I love Bioshock [a videogame] which is frequently saluted as one of the first games to tackle what might be considered intellectual subject matter—namely a gameworld exploration of the social consequences inherent within Ayn Rand’s Objectivism (long story)…If I really wanted to explore the implications and consequences of Objectivism, there were better, more sophisticated places to look, even if few of them would be as much fun (although getting shot in the knee would be more fun than rereading Atlas Shrugged). When I think about games, here is where I bottom out. Is it okay that they are mostly fun? Am I a philistine or simply a coward [to admit that a video game can be a work of art]? Are games the problem or am I?”

The first 25 pages or so was fun reading and it was obvious that Bissell had succeeded with the first part of the formula (the well-written first chapter that places the subject matter in an incredibly interesting light).  Author Keith Gesson, on the back cover of Extra Lives, accurately describes Bissell’s description of killing zombies in the first iteration of Resident Evil as “simply a tour de force.”

After this successful—yet formulaic—start though, Bissell moves us into chapter three (titled the Unbearable Lightness of Games). At this point he is moving away from framing the central issue of the book (that which is conjured up in the subtitle of the book “Why video games matter”) from a "personal" context to a "video game industry" context. This is where the book starts to get sluggish and I started getting the urge to start skimming.  The next two chapters basically feed into my worse fears. In these chapters Bissell interviews some video game gurus and he visits some video game convention, and the result is that as a reader I glean some vague understanding of the issues facing modern game designers, but nothing of much interest really.  In fact the only interesting thing to come from these chapters was that they caused me to continually think: “Jesus Christ, our society has way too much leisure time on our hands.”  Personally I have gotten off on video games before, but as I get older there is some pressing, ticking clock in the back of my head that starts to go off whenever I feel like I’m wasting time—which is really my biggest complaint against video games.  Logically, we only get so much time on this earth, 80 years maybe, so of course wasting that time scares me.  And I’ve played enough video games in my life to realize that they can be a huge waste of time.  But on the other hand, if your time is spent on an enjoyable activity, then who among us is to say that it is not time well spent?  In fact, if you think about it, what more could the average person hope to accomplish than finding an enjoyable way to spend their time?

However, other than the realization of this nugget of wisdom, reading chapters 4 and 5 in Extra Lives was starting to feel like a waste of time. And when chapter 6 started off with another encounter with a video game industry personality, my fingers starting twitching at the edge of the pages, preparing for “skim” mode. Fortunately though chapter 6 introduces Jonathon Blow, the designer of a game called Braid, which leads the text to some fascinating ideas that are outside the video game industry mainstream. Just in the nick of time, this short interesting chapter momentarily rescues the book from Mediocre-ville. The most interesting idea here is the idea that a video game can actually be art. Jonathon Blow criticizes video games for not touching people emotionally—like other forms of mass media can do; films, poetry, art, music, etc—and Bissell goes into detail how Blow’s game Braid not only attempts to touch people emotionally but also aspires to be thought of in the realm of art.

Neil Young Nation: A Quest, an Obsession (and a True Story)The final three chapters of Extra Lives are above mediocre as Bissell takes the narrative back toward a more personal context. But by the end of the book I was left pondering where does Extra Lives rate in terms of the pop-centric non–fiction genre that it belongs to?  Having become my genre of choice over the last year or so, I've come to recogniza at least two classics of the Pop-centric non-fiction genre: Kevin Chong’s Neil Young Nation and Josh Wilkers Cardboard Gods. Both of these works are obviously labors of love and thoughtfully written, but perhaps more importantly each one is written with a three dimensional narrative. By this I simply mean that there are at least 3 threads being wove throughout the narrative from start to finish. The first dimension in both Neil Young Nation and Cardboard Gods is the basic subject matter that each book is dealing with: Neil Young in Neil Young Nation and baseball cards in Cardboard Gods. The second dimension then is each author’s unique personal story and relationship to the subject matter. I've read a good number of pop-centric non-fictions that have these two dimensions, and Extra Lives is no exception.  But what allows Neil Young Nation and Cardboard Gods to really explode as both entertaining and interesting works of writing is that each of these works go beyond the two formulaic dimensions by introducing a “device of continuity” that not only helps keep the narrative grounded but also helps move the narrative along and build it into something greater than the sum of its parts.  In Neil Young Nation the devise of continuity is a road trip Kevin Chong takes in which “…I decided to follow the same route Young took from Winnipeg to Fort William (now Thunder Bay), and then from Toronto to Los Angeles…I visited the places that were important to Neil and a few people associated (albeit tangentially) with Neil, and stopped in Auburn, Washington, to see Young play at Farm Aid 2004.” And in Cardboard Gods the devise of continuity is reproductions of actually baseball cards that Wilkers coveted as a youth.

In Extra Lives Bissell has only two dimensions, the first being video games and the second being his personal relationship with video games and art, etc. But Bissell never fully commits to a 3rd dimension. Perhaps he just didn’t think of a device of continuity (or some other hook) to give the narrative more depth. And in the end, this is what prevents this book from being truly a great book. A hook of some sort could have possibly rescued the two boring chapters involving the ins and outs of the video game industry. One possibility of a third dimension could have involved Bissell’s cocaine use while playing video games. But Bissell doesn’t introduce this aspect until the very end of the book.

In the end, Extra Lives was better than most pop-centric non-fiction attempts, but not quite great. It had two boring chapters in the middle that almost sank it. Therefore it receives 3 out of 5 Wagemann Heads.


Pop Quiz

True or False:
Parents who played video games in their youth insouciantly dismiss the notion that video games lower our moral standards and promote violence.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Bury My Heart

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American WestBury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown

This is a book that should be required reading for high school students. I was a sophomore in high school when I read it and it had an immense impact on my outlook on life. In fact, after reading it I decided that I wanted to live my life like the Indians lived theirs. The Indians didn’t punch a timeclock, they didn’t wear neckties, they didn’t have tv commercials and they didn’t pollute the environment, in fact they didn’t produce waste. When they killed a buffalo they used every single part of that buffalo, for eating, for clothes, for making teepees, for tools, jewelry, etc. The Indians had it right. That was the right way to live. They worshipped the Earth, the moon, the sun, the sky, the universe. They didn’t have child-molesters in robes telling them how to live their lifes. They didn’t have corporate-sponsored politicians making the laws to which they had to live by. So I became convinced that I should live my life like the Indians…or at least as true to the Indian way of life as is possible in the modern world (this was 1984ish).

Two things probablly kept me from being locked away in a looney bin after that. The first was that I was only 16 years old and 16 year olds of course are able to act obnoxious, socially awkward or whatever, without getting thrown in a looney bin. The second thing was that I had an accomplice, a peace-loving hippy chick that thought in abstractions and spoke in poems. Together we began our quest to live the Indian Way...

Although I last heard from her around the time of the fist Gulf war, together we made a vow to remain true to the Native American spirit. For years I kept a copy of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee beside my bed, until it was stolan sometime in the late 1990s. But it was only a material pocession anyway.
Five out of five Wagemann heads.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

What Is The Internet Doing To Our Brains?

Somewhere around my 3rd year of college I began to realize that there is this sizabe contingency of academics who spend their entire lives with their head swimming in the clouds of the world of intelligencia.  These people can’t change a tire on their own car or sew a patch on their torn blue jeans yet they are always creating social manifestos instructing everyone else how they should live their lives.  Of course no one ever really took these eggheads seriously except for other academics.  But over time, with the tide of technological evolution, this academic circle jerk has actually merged with pop culture.  The result is that we now have books like the two I review here:   

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our BrainsThe Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas G. Carr

One of the assertions that Nicholas Carr makes in The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains is that too much internet use is causing people to lose their ability to read books. Carr explains that this has happened to him and a number of his friends. They lose interest in what they are reading after a page or two and start skimming—which is kind of ironic because that is exactly what I found myself doing as I was reading Carr's book, especially during chapter two where he beats a dead horse while making the point that the human brain has plasticity. The brain has plasticity. It’s not a revolutionary notion. We get it, let’s move on already. His obsession with this notion reminded me of when my 4 year old daughter learns a new word and has to repeat in ever other sentense she uses. But beyond that, how ironic is it that Carr seems to think that his target audience—presumably people who are addicted to the internet as much as he is and who have lost the ability to read books—would or even could read his book! I mean if he really thinks that books are obsolete and that the people he is writing for can’t even read one, then really what is his mojo for writing this book?

Whatever Carr’s motivation, I agree with his general idea that the internet changes the way people’s brains work. Right now the internet is still fairly new and exciting and most Americans have access to it and use in on a regular basis.  But not everyone in the world however, is a mediaphile egghead who spends every waking hour on the internet frantically obsessing to find every bit of trivia and diversion that is offered by every link that pops in front of their face (like Carr and the handful of friends whom he talked with in coming to his conclusion do). Some people are actually rational enough to get on the internet, use it for what they need, then go about living a regular life—that may or may not include reading a book as a relaxing, leisurely past time. But Carr argues that the internet’s allure is so overwhelming that in the future everyone will be like him and his ilk--eggheads spending every waking moment on the internet--like an all-consuming daily religion.

At one point Carr goes as far as to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan claiming that the purpose of humanity “is to produce ever more sophisticated tools—to ‘fecundate’ machines as bees fecundate plants—until technology has developed the capacity to reproduce itself on its own. At that point, we become dispensable.”

What a cheerful thought. This guy Carr, must be a laugh a minute at a cocktail party.

But...what if Carr is right? Afterall, what IS the purpose of technology? And what is the nature of consciousness for that matter. Not just human consciousness, but what mystics would call the cosmic consciousness. I mean, this notion that God is some all knowing, all seeing old man with a beard and a robe who lives in the clouds is not my cup of tea, but for the millions of Earthlings who go for that kind of thing, then what does this notion—that we are nothing but vessels for the cosmic consciousness and that we are on a path of being replaced by our own technological inventions—say to them? As a collective consciousness has humanity realized that we are not long for this planet? We have polluted our planet's oceans, raped its lands of it resources, poked holes in its ozone and continue to do so at an alarmingly increasingly rate. We once looked to the heavens, traveled to the moon, in search of a new home, but now maybe our home—the future home of consciousness—can still exist on this polluted planet. Only now, this consciousness will not be housed in our air-breathing, disease-plagued vessels of human flesh and bone, but...wait for the technology we’ve created.

This notion would surely pull the carpet out from under the God-fearing folks of this planet—or perhaps they would adapt to it, with time, just as they’ve adapted to Darwin’s findings. Either way, if we eventually accept this idea that our technological creations will someday take the place of our human bodies—that somehow we can transfer our souls from our human vessels to those vessels of our technological creations—the question then becomes, “What aspects of humanity do we want to pass on?” And who will be the gate keepers that decide? What if evil heartless, dickless turds like Dick Cheney are in charge of determining what aspects of the soul will be replicated (programmed) into the future-consciousness? Or what if we are in the midst of this battle today? What if every time you click on a porno link or a link to a tabloid piece or nazi skinhead site you are actually taking part in creating a database for the future soul to draw from?

In the end, there is no doubt that we have entered the Information Age, and no doubt that the easy access to information that we enjoy is having an effect on our culture, society and individual brains. Carr’s argument that the human brain (mankind in general) is in the process of going from preferring real world experiences interacting with humans (in the flesh) to preferring to live in the virtual world of hyperlinks, videostreaming, text messaging, etc seems a bit on the alarmist/extremist side to me though. After all, there is a very rich and beautiful human existence beyond that of the internet and I think Mr. Carr just might need to widen his perspective and reconnect with some of this humanity.

Overall, I found the subject matter of The Shallows to be very fascinating, thought provoking in fact. But Carr’s tendency for overkill and his paint-by-numbers approach to writing made it drag and it became boring pretty quickly. For this and other reasons I give The Shallows 2.5 Wagemann Heads


Everything Bad is Good for YouEverything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson

If everything bad is actually good for you, like the title of Steve Johnson’s study of pop culture suggests, then his book must be the best thing since penicillin. In attempting to make the argument that pop culture is actually making mankind smarter, Johnson is guilty of huge lapses in logic which stems from a very limited view of reality that pretty much totally misses the point on almost every level. Even the one tool of pop culture that actually is improving mankind, that being the internet (since the internet has obviously evolved into one of the most important sources of information and communication in modernized civilization), Johnson’s off-base argument is that the internet’s value comes from its ability to allow fans of pop TV shows to gossip about the fictional characters and plots in their favorite TV shows. What he doesn’t explain—probably since it isn’t true—is how gossiping on a Desperate Housewives website is better for you than actually talking to a live person about real things happening in your real life.

Throughout his book Johnson continues to grasp for straws as he reaches one bizarre, unscientific conclusion after another in his attempts to legitimize all the time he has wasted in his life watching sitcom/melodrama TV and playing fantasy games on the computer. One such bizarre conclusion Johnson reaches is that “most” video games do to the “reward” circuitry of the brain what the game Tetris does to one’s visual circuitry. Never mind that he can’t cite any scientific proof for this, most likely since this claim is in fact a totally unfounded conclusion. Johnson rationalizes that the time, energy and money he has wasted during his life on playing video games is making him more evolved by arguing that millions of other people have wasted just as much of their time on these same video games. So it must be good for you right? That’s the kind of pedestrian logic that Johnson’s book is littered with. This is bad stuff, but Johnson compounds his illogical conclusions with a bad habit of making annoyingly off-base generalizations. He says things like people don’t “explore” movies or music in anything but the most figurative way. That’s obviously false. Even the village idiot knows that movies and music have many layers (in which the more you learn about, the better you can experience them in various ways).
Read Johnson's book or read this chart?  Hmm...

So less than 60 pages into his book it became obvious that Johnson is an ignamaroon. His main problem is that his view of the world is limited strictly to the world of pop culture. He seems to think the entire world watches as much TV as he does, plays as many video games as he does, and spends all the rest of their time sitting in front of a computer screen gossiping with others about the latest Survivor episode. And although there are certainly millions of Americans that do spend hours in their parents basement hypnotized by the intricacies of fantasy video game worlds, and millions who have closer relationships to fictional TV characters than they do with real humans, Johnson offers no statistics as to how many or to what extent, and he certainly doesn’t explain how all of this is bettering mankind. He just assumes that everybody is like him, totally ignoring (or perhaps he doesn’t realize the fact) that many people simply use video games, TV and movies as diversions from their daily lives for a few hours of entertainment here and there, not as the sole tool for giving their life a purpose.

I guess what I found most assbackward's about Johnson’s book was his attempt to promote being obsessed with pop culture as being for the betterment of mankind. To me there is no benefit to society in having a worldview that is limited in scope to nothing but corporate-sponsored pop culture. In fact it makes me wonder how those who are seeing the world from such a limited view are interacting with the real world and affecting it at all. From reading Johnson’s book it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Johnson (and those others with the limited perspective of a pop culture junky) would rather have someone who was a champion player at Sims 2000 become mayor of his city over someone with real world city council experience who has dealt with the complexities of community politics. It also wouldn’t surprise me if they would rather have a champion Nintendo player managing their favorite baseball team over someone who was an actual former big leaguer. And who, I wonder would they want as the top policy makers of America’s Department of Defense, a hotshot whiz at Dungeon and Dragons and Command and Conquer or someone who had military experience in real world conflicts? The point I’m trying to make here is that while the couch potatoes that make up the population in Johnson’s world are doing amazing things on a video game or coming up with incredible insights to reality TV show strategies, it is the people who are actually living in the real world who are putting their stamp on reality. Obviously video games cause you to make decisions while playing, but so does taking a walk, so does hiking or biking or rock climbing or going to a library or music store or a job interview. The difference of course is that in real life your decisions have real life consequences, consequences that actually matter. In video games they don’t. In video games you can start over, you can use ‘cheats’, you can be killed and come back to life.

Johnson doesn’t seem to get this. In fact he compares playing video games to studying Algebra. And although mastering algebra may not give the average person skills that they use every single day in real life, Johnson doesn’t site even one skill that is learned from playing a video game that is going to help the average person in real life. Johnson’s main argument is that video games cause the player to ‘probe’ and ‘telescope’ yet he doesn’t explain how these two skills have any relation to real life. Without any scientific research on the subject, it seems pretty obvious that skills you learn playing a video game are not likely going to be skills that will help you in real life, and one reason for that is that in video games the possibilities of what you can do are all limited to the confines of the game. In real life hobbies like biking or taking roadtrips, even collecting baseball cards, you can make up any rules and values you want. You determine the goals instead of having some fabricated limitations assigned to your ‘character’.

I do however concede that the Internet is a good tool for mankind, although Johnson’s case for it is way off base. I also see how video games can be of some minimal benefit, beyond just entertainment. But by far the weakest of Johnson’s many weak arguments is that pop culture is making mankind smarter because TV show narratives have become more complex and that their characters have become more complex. That’s probably true if you are comparing them to TV characters of 30 years ago, then yes, perhaps they are more complex. But compared to real people, or even compared to literary characters, or film characters then no, they are not more complex. In fact most of what I’ve seen on TV is rehashed and repackaged bits, plots and characters from older foreign films, off-Broadway theatre and radio programs of yesteryear. Again Johnson doesn’t seem to get this. In fact at one point in his book Johnson goes on and on for several pages, making a total fool of himself by blubbering on about what a cutting edge and original technique is employed in Sienfeld by something that is nothing more than a simple running gag. In this case the running gag is that the character George Costanza uses a false name (Art Van Delay) to try to impress people. Even though similar running gags go back to the beginnings of performance, Johnson treats it as if it’s the most original and creative thing since sliced bread. Yet he offers no explanation at how this running gag is any more creative than Jack Benny’s ‘tightwad’ jokes or Mr. Ropers ‘turn to the camera and grin’ bit that was worked into several Three’s Company episodes.

Still, this doesn’t prevent Johnson from concluding that these more complex TV characters and narratives are turning all of mankind into this super insightful observer that can read emotions, intentions and motives better than someone who doesn’t watch TV shows. And the ridiculous thing about Johnson’s limited thinking is that if people really are learning their life lessons from so-called “complex” TV characters and content, and if they are really operating under the false notion that being an expert on what strategies Reality show characters should use, or what plot twist the Sopranos is going to take, makes them an expert on real life issues, then they are going to make some terrible decisions in real life. I’m talking “voting for George W. Bush” caliber terrible decisions.

Overall, due to the carelessness of thought and the over rationalization and leaps in logic Johnson makes in nearly every one of his arguments, it’s becomes way too easy to dismiss his entire book as nonsense. I recommend you ignore this book completely.

For more writing by Ed Wagemann click: ED WAGEMANN