I have a recurring dream that goes like this: I am running somewhere — anywhere — and I never run out of breath or get tired. It feels wonderful. Because of it, I am unsurprised to read in Prospect editor Tom Chatfield's Fun, Inc: Why Games are the 21st Century's Most Serious Business that the ability to jump somewhat longer than normal is a near-universal in games. Yes, that's how I'd like my fantasy worlds to be: just the right amount better than reality.
Chatfield's book arrives at a moment when there's beginning to be a push, even at the Parliamentary level (where it's spearheaded by Labour MP Tom Watson), to take games more seriously. After all, this is a multi-billion-dollar business in which the UK is a leader. And yet not only does the industry get no government support, but the average MP would probably rather confess to having an illegitimate child than to playing computer games. To some extent, this is how people behave around any new medium. But playing computer games is double-dipping in the shame stakes: not only are you risking being seen as a pathetic, poorly socialised geek but you are also admitting — oh, the horror! — to understanding something about…computers.
Of course, as Chatfield writes, this is ridiculous. By now, people who, like Chatfield himself, grew up playing SuperMario are having second-generation gamer children. Plus, Wii Fit and other 'respectable' titles are bringing games to the mainstream. Contrary to the mass media's depiction of games as isolating experiences, Chatfield has always experienced them as social; even before the complex guilds required to succeed at World of Warcraft, text-only puzzle games like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy were sufficiently complicated as to require strategy discussion with equally frustrated friends.
Chatfield makes a reasonable case for the argument that the more complex games require their players to develop considerable skill at being part of a team — both as a leader and a follower. In enlightened companies, your experience leading a World of Warcraft clan looks good on your CV. Along those lines, Chatfield tells the story of Jenova Chen, the Chinese producer of Cloud, flOw and Flower, who arrived in the US to study for a Master's degree and discovered there were thousands of people taking games seriously enough that he could build a career to bring his parents 'a sense of honour'.
In the early to mid 1990s, quite a few books were published about the internet that effectively worked as travel guides, primarily for those who had never been there but wanted to understand what that new world had to offer. To some extent, Fun, Inc is like those books: if you have never spent time playing WoW, Eve Online, Doom or Grand Theft Auto, you'll definitely get a feel for these games and their context from reading Chatfield's discussion of them. The one you may like to try is Passage, not least because a single run takes only five minutes.
Fun, Inc: Why Games are the 21st Century's Most Serious Business By Tom Chatfield Virgin Books 258pp ISBN: 978-0-7535-1985-1 £12.99