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Allen Baird (Belfast, Northern Ireland)

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Sin to Win
Sin to Win
by Marc Lewis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The anti-christ of good books, 25 April 2015
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This review is from: Sin to Win (Paperback)
Here are the six abominable heresies committed by this appalling book.

1. An interesting premise and concept is utterly ruined by content that is not worth sh1tting on.

2. The ‘bloke down the pub’ style of narration becomes tedious after about two pages.

3. There are no footnotes, endnotes, appendixes, references or anything to back up one single thing he says.

4. Any business applications read more like biographical snippets out of an inferior Wikipedia entry than anything approaching workable.

5. Like most middle-class lefties, once you peel back the anti-authoritarian rhetoric, the author is about as radical as a pint of Prosecco.

6. It is formatted so as to eke out the maximum amount of space with the minimum amount of content, complete with pedestrian advice and exercises.

Read anything by Robert Greene instead.

Joseph Campbell: an Introduction
Joseph Campbell: an Introduction
by Robert A. Segal
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Singular, Systematic and Soulless, 25 April 2015
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It's strange that there aren't more books about the thought of Joseph Campbell. At least in the popular imagination, he is the number one mythologist out there, thanks to the Star Wars connection. So why no books? Maybe because academics are too sniffy to treat someone seriously who pop culture has so heartily embraced. Maybe his academic theories stand out against the flow of current scholarship, and his conclusions seem too grandiose, if not mystical/irrational.

Whatever the reasons, serious scholar Robert Segal has provided a valuable and singular service in writing this book. I'd read Segal's brief treatment of Campbell in his `Myth: A Very Short Introduction' (pp.104-108) in a chapter on `Myth and Psychology'. I was keen to read a more extended scholarly appraisal of Campbell, and no-one out there about from Segal seemed willing to give it a try (that I know of).

Segal's treatment of Campbell in this introduction is nothing if not systematic. After a short section on Campbell's life, he first expounds Campbell's theories by means of his two most significant works: the famous `The Hero with a Thousand Faces' and the wide-ranging `The Masks of God'. The rest of the book consists of Segal's exposition of and interaction with the rest of Campbell's corpus over a standard range of topics i.e. Campbell on the origin and function of myth, as well as Campbell as a Comparativist, a Jungian, and a Romantic.

Here are my random observations:

Segal expounds Campbell's views clearly, perhaps more clearly than Campbell himself does. There are no flights of fancy here, little fare for hippies, creative writers or personal development gurus. What there is, are buckets of comparisons: thinker with thinker, theory with theory, concept with concept. Segal's favourite formula is: where for x this is true, for y that is true. He repeats this reasoning incessantly.

Because of this systematic approach, what is gained is a book about Campbell that succeeds in intersection with many other mythologist along the way. Segal mentions pre-Campbellian comparitivists such as von Hahn, Edward Taylor, Vladimir Propp, and of course, Rank and Raglan. And because Campbell I judged by Segal to be part of the psychological school of myth interpretation, there is plenty of interaction too with Freud, Jung, and Erickson too.

Although I appreciated Segal's use of the full range of Campbell's works, I was a little disappointed with the sparse treatment given to the seventeen or so different steps on the hero's journey or `monomyth' (pp.47-64). Segal did however made some nice, incisive observations about Campbell's conception of a hero:

* Campbell's hero discovers rather than creates his hero journey (34)
* Campbell's hero may sacrifice to other but finally serves himself (35)
* Campbell's hero is not merely the protagonist of a story but also whoever invents, uses or is moved by it (35)
* Campbell's hero stand for what all humans ought to be, not what a few actually become (36)
* Campbell's hero is not a youngster trying to gain full adulthood but an adult trying to gain full consciousness (43)
* Campbell's hero is not so much discovering new physical worlds as rediscovering old psychological ones (52)

If only Campbell himself could write in such a crisp and clear way...

I would suggest that this book is of most use to someone who is already familiar with the main points of Campbell's works and theories, at least enough to be able to judge the accuracy of Segal's views. There were times when Segal was helpful in confirming my own interpretative suspicions of Campbell. For instance, during an interesting discussion of metaphysics - a topic vital to appreciate the breadth of Campbell's project - Segal confirms that Campbell indeed moves from the psychological to the ontological (116), microcosm to the macrocosm. When I first read this is Campbell, I was a little stunned and thought, "Does he really, literally mean that?" Apparently so. As without, so without.

There are other times when I disagreed with Segal's reasoning e.g. when Campbell claims that the everyday world and the new world of the hero are one is to say that the everyday word is illusionary and worthless (62-63), or when he says that the hero is heroic not because he defeats enemies but because he ventures into the unknown (98). The first is a non sequitur; the second, a false dichotomy. There are other interesting places where Segal defends Campbell (36) or where Segal politely but explicitly disagrees with Campbell (70, 88, 94, 130, 258).

What I found most frustrating about this book is that Segal generally refrains from cheering, endorsing or applying Campbell's views at all. My feeling when reading was that the book ends simply because Segal had run out of things to say rather than because he has reached any sort of conclusion. He holds Campbell at arm's length. The sense is that Segal's writing because he has to, not because he wants to. And he wants to get the writing out of the way as quickly as possible.

This is a first step, not a last word. We now have a technical outline. What I wanted, though, was an oil on canvas painting. Anyway, Segal makes some nice contrasts that serve as signposts in Campbell's wider works, especially `Masks of the Gods'. I'll end with that.

Hunters v Gatherers
Eat by Killing v Eat by Growing
Mortality v Immortality
Individualism v Communalism
West v East
Patriarchy v Matriarchy
Hierarchy v Egalitarianism
Hero as Egoist v Hero as Altruist
Distinctiveness v Unity
Aggression v Peace
Male v Female
Ego v Unconsciousness
Progress v Eternal Return
Transcendent god v Immanent god
Obey god v Become god
Dualism v Monism
Hero as Creator v Hero as Finder

Comedy: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Comedy: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Matthew Bevis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What do you get if you cross an academic with a sense of humour?, 22 Jun. 2014
A good book grows on you. It makes you want to read it again, to refer to it, to chew over parts of it. And it takes you to places you didn’t expect. This is what this very short introduction to comedy did for me. Its eight main chapters are short and cover a lot of ground, cleverly sequenced in a rough, chronological order. So we start with the ancient Greeks and end with eschatology. Generous use of illustrations, photos, quotes and further references enhances the reading experience.

My intention was to summarise each chapter, but that would be silly, since you can deduce their contents from the Contents page. Instead, I’ll offer you the insight which struck me the most, namely, Bevis’ contention that comedy’s power lies in its bringing together things that seem divergent from one other. In the context of a conversation about the two different types of clown, Bevis speaks of how these two characters embody a “myth that’s inside all of us: the reconciliation of opposites” (p. 73).

Later on, Bevis expounds his view that laughter and seriousness shadow each other, just as the id and superego did for Freud. Comedy is both an avoidance and an expression of life’s darker side. The opposition between comedy and tragedy is only apparent; in reality, they presuppose each other (ps. 94-6). Thus we can learn to balance detachment from life and engagement with it (p. 100), neither pitiless nor pathetic (p. 112).

How to classify such a comedic, ludic life is an interesting question. Bevis suggest the tragicomedy, in the vein of Beckett (p. 104). Possible even the genre of romance can form a mid-point between comedy and tragedy, or at least an end-point for when comedy comes good (p. 110). More often than not, though, Bevis is content to leave the contradictions in tack and the task of reconciling them to whether we get the joke (ps. 43, 112).

For the fun of it, here are a few of the comedic antinomies Bevis lists throughout his book:
• The comic imagination gets physical and thinks about the physical (p. 20)
• In comedy, bodily pleasures are both exalted and earthly (p. 28)
• A comic character both acting and satirizes himself (p. 35)
• We enjoy comic characters as they allow us to both spectate and participate at the same time (p. 48)
• In comic plots, there is no time like the present and no time but the present (p. 62)
• Comic characters are both idiots and iconoclasts (p. 65), both utilizing and mocking subservience (p. 69)
• Stand-up comedians both threaten and forge a community (p. 74)
• Satirical comedy allows one to be a fatalist and a moralist at the same time, a mixure of the blithe and the biting (ps. 83-4)
• Comedy’s fascination with pain makes its objects both risible and resilient, in which life is serious but not too serious (ps. 99-100), peoples by characters both trivial and also larger than life (p. 102), equally laughable yet able to laugh (p. 109)

Perhaps what I will take away from all this book most of all is Bevis’ contention that comedy is a “way of being in the world” (p. 14) and an “approach to life” (p. 45). Here we have the novelty of a deep interpretation of comedy presented in a playful way. So deep is it that Bevis plays with the notion that it may even be religious is nature. He quotes Kierkegaard. “The religious person is one who has discovered the comic on the greatest scale” (p. 113). I for one would find this hilarious if true.

I didn’t give the book five stars because of a few flaws I feel it has. They are both relatively minor, but together they are significant enough to take away top marks. Firstly, there are gaps in the material. There is, for example, very little in Comedy about comedy as narrowly understood, comedy-as-humour, jokes and japes etc. Likewise there is even less on play and playing; this is despite excellent Further Reading sections for both on pp.136-7.

Secondly, the way Bevis writes is a little too flowery to my taste. He writes well, very well, both highly moving and amusing at turns, but sometimes the words crowd out the meaning. Many of his sentences are of the sort you study in literature class at college, where everyone has their own interpretation. That’s fine for poetry, but in a book like this, I prefer to know what exactly the author intends, please.

Four-and-a-half, really.

Humour: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Humour: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by NoŽl Carroll
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Shouldn’t a book on humour be…humorous?, 14 Mar. 2014
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So what did I want from an introductory book on humour? Four things: (1) to provide me with a summary of theories on humour; (2) to take a peek into some of the philosophical issues surrounding humour; (3) to provide me with some taxonomies on types and techniques of humour; and (4) to make me laugh.

Of these four, the first and the third were the most important. The second was relatively important to me, only because I have an interest in philosophy, and only then in a small dose. And I want to laugh when I read a book like this because it is not a textbook, it is supposed to be a stimulating, yea entertaining, introduction to a new subject, a subject which after all is HUMOUR.

This little book has three chapters: chapter one covers theories of humour, chapter two dips into humour’s relation to emotions and thinking, and chapter three faces up to the ethics of humour. The first is the best and rest slide downhill from there. Why? The author is a philosopher by trade, which means he sees almost everything in this light, and only this light; the closer he gets to his native subject, the more plodding and pedantic his style becomes.

At the start I thought it would be brilliant to have a book like this written by a philosopher. I expected, and found, plenty of definitions and logical connections. For example, the author champions a theory of humour called the incongruity theory, which he explains, defends and adapts in chapter one. He carries this understanding on into the other chapters, which is good. But because there are only three chapters, it feels like there isn’t much new ground covered, only a smallish area in great depth. More chapters covering a wider area would have greatly improved the readability of the book.

Chapter one was easily the best and the one least directly related to philosophy. Carroll describes all the main humour theories – superiority, incongruity, release, play and dispositional – while revisiting and refining the first of these. Chapter two asks whether comic amusement is an emotional state (probably), and whether humour serves any role in correcting our cognitive bugs (not really). I found the first of these discussions silly, and the second interesting, particularly in light of the link that the likes of Edward de Bono and others make between creative thinking and humour.

Chapter three covers “humour and value” or the morality of certain kinds of jokes, both in the telling and in the listening to/enjoying of. Again, Carroll competently covers the various theories involved: comic amoralism, comic ethicism, comic immoralism, and moderate comic moralism. This should have been interesting but it kind of made me want to tear my hair out.

Partly this was due to our political milieu (i.e. PCness) which underlies the discussion but was not explicitly faced, and partly because to me it felt like listening to a discussion on the morality of a recipe. But that’s apparently because I’m a comic amoralist, believing that humour is a form of play that exists beyond good and evil. The only relevant question for me is, If it’s funny, how come? I do find analysing the moral virtue of this or that joke equivalent to dissecting a still fluttering butterfly.

The book utterly lacked material I expected it include, or I would have liked it to include. Such as: classifications of different kinds of humour and jokes, different methods of humour, a little on how humour has been perceived in difficult cultures and throughout history, a little on the relation between humour and politics/power. I’m very interested in the concept of ‘humour styles’ or the interaction between humour and individual personality. Nothing on this either. In an introduction like this, I think I prefer a little info on a range of topics rather than a few topics bored down to the core.

Please accept my apologies for this un-humorous review. This reflects my giggle count when reading the book.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 17, 2016 7:07 PM GMT

The Ambiguity of Play
The Ambiguity of Play
by Brian Sutton-smith
Edition: Paperback
Price: £28.95

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Play might be ambiguous, but the quality of this book is not, 14 Mar. 2014
This review is from: The Ambiguity of Play (Paperback)
There are books on play, then are books on play studies, then there is this. Stuart Brown has an excellent book on the science of play, Huizinga wrote a pioneering work on play theory, but Sutton-Smith (SS) has outplayed them all.

Let me be Frank. This is a textbook. It reads like a textbook. It contains technical terminology, schema and classifications, definitions, references and all the usual academic tools. Some parts require serious brainpower to appreciate. The list of primary and secondary sources is massive and most impressive.

But it’s more than a mere textbook, much more. Here’s what it does for you.

It gathers together all previous theories, theorists and key works by contributors to the field of play studies. It gathers them from the widest range of disciplines possible. Then it categorises them according to seven major meta-themes or “rhetorics” that nicely bundle together all these disparate elements in such a way as to expose their core meanings and spread them over a timeline from ancient to modern. And then, for each of the seven, it picks out the main adherents, interacts with them in a lively and insightful discussion, and summarises the rest.

The work does have a weakness, but it is not the fault of SS. The Index is inadequate to the task of serving such a key text. It only picks out major interactions with a particular author and excludes all minor mentions. This infuriates me. For example, in the chapter on “the rhetoric of self” I was excited that SS focuses attention on the ‘flow’ theory of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi but there are several places where he (ps. 200, 207) and his theory (67, 81, 174, 188, 192, 195, 207) are mentioned in the text but not in the Index. Same with Nietzsche (57, 60, 132, 151, 190-1, 220). Poor Maslow (184) and Carse (207) don’t get included at all. Grrr!

If the content does have a weakness, then it might be the fact that SS hardly touches on one of the main expressions of play in our world: humour. In fact, there is an entire theory of humour that centres on the notion that humour is essentially a form of play (propounded by thinkers are diverse as Thomas Aquinas, Max Eastman and John Morreall) . Beyond mentioning humour once (208), comedians once (211), and jokes in passing (56, 210), SS does not mention humour or comedy with any depth at all.

A word about the strange title is in order. Sutton-Smith regards play as “ambiguous” for several reasons. Play cannot be captured in one definition or perspective. That why he needs his seven “rhetorics” to cope with all the material. He also believes that play exists in diverse forms and experiences, with diverse players, agencies and scenarios, studied under diverse scholarship. But more than this, unlike some authors (e.g. Stuart Brown), SS allows for valid aspects to play that others might find disturbing. Some scholars (e.g. Schechner) call this “dark play”; SS labels it “cruel play” (p. 56).

I first came across the name of Brian Sutton-Smith when reading him quoted in other books. “The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.” I tried in vain to source this quote in the internet. Finally, after reading this book, I had my reward of a eureka moment. Actually, the usual quote isn’t a full or accurate rendition of what Sutton-Smith says. But it does capture the heart of the matter. Turn to page 198 for the real deal.

Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences (Compass)
Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences (Compass)
by A. Maslow
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.29

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars "These aren't the droids you're looking for.", 4 Jan. 2014
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If I were writing a review of Maslow the psychologist, then five stars out of five would be his mandatory portion. His contribution to the field of psychology, the reach of his impact on fields like management and education, and the quality of his concepts, are all of the highest calibre. But I'm not reviewing him, his ideas or his legacy. I'm reviewing this particular book (RVAPE).

I bought this book because I wanted a primary source on Maslow's theory of 'peak experiences' (PEs). I had read bits and pieces about this topic in some of this other works, particularly in 'Towards a Psychology of Being' and few papers. I assumed that this book, bearing as it does the phrase "peak-experiences" in its title, would constitute Maslow's magnum opus on the topic.

I bought RVAPE, furthermore, because of a promise make on the book's back cover. Allegedly, in this book, referring to 'peak-experiences', Maslow "reveals how they can - and why they should - be experienced by virtually anyone". Only he doesn't. In fact, from what contradictory evidence I've been able to glean from interviews, Maslow denied that it is possible to induce PEs by triggers or techniques at all.

Maslow does, in RVAPE, seem to make a distinction between two different levels of PE: nadir-experiences and plateau-experiences (xiv). The former are exemplified in mystical or "core-religious" experiences, while the latter are lower-level feelings of serenity and well-being. From what I can tell, confusion can arise because sometimes it seems that Maslow (1) describes all PEs in a nadir-type way, (2) explicitly denys that they can be manufactured, and (3) then claims that PEs "can be achieved, learned, earned by long hard work" (xv-xvi).

This is again complicated in my mind by claims made by Edward Hoffman, Maslow's biographer. Let me quote from him on an article on PEs, easily found on the internet.

"Shortly before Maslow's sudden death from a heart attack in 1970, he began developing exercises to help people achieve the plateau state of consciousness, such as gazing at a tiny flower intensely and with total attention, or at a familiar family member or friend and imagining "that you [or he/she] is going to die soon." Such methods, Maslow proposed, can serve to break the dull, habitual way we relate to others and help us to see the world once more with freshness and delight."

Despite my best efforts, I haven't been able to find out any more about these intriguing exercises. Surely they are the very thing that people want from a book of PE? But we get none of it - the 'how to' stuff so loathed by academics - in RVAPE. The closest we come lies in Appendix A, "Religious Aspects of Peak-Experiences", easily the best part of the entire book (along with appendixes D and F). Here, Maslow list 25 points about PEs that hint, if not at methods, then at least at concrete descriptions and metaphors of attainment.

Interesting elements of Maslow's thinking in RVAPEs include:
* His use of Nietzsche's concepts of the Apollonian and the Dionysian to describe two tendencies in religious typology (viii, xi, 42)
* His negative comments on Freudian 'sublimation' as a possible basis for ego-transcending experiences (7)
* His critique of science without values (15-18)
* His shift in opinion from a position that certain people cannot have a PE ("non-peakers") to a belief that everyone can (22-23)
* His mentioning drugs and hypnosis as two artificial ways to induce PEs (27)
* His description of the opposite of a PE as a "desolation experience" (74)

Please be aware, then, before purchasing this book, that about 80% of it deals with Maslow's own naturalistic and dated reflection on religion, and that those parts that actually deal with PEs are mostly covered in his other books. RVAPE is a one-time read for Maslow groupies only. For practical information on PEs, we'll have to go elsewhere. But where, I don't know. Colin Wilson, maybe?

And if you don't get the title of my review, I refer you to Urban Dictionary, the source of all scholarly knowledge.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 25, 2014 7:48 PM GMT

Finite and Infinite Games
Finite and Infinite Games
by James Carse
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.03

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Give the guy a break; he's trying to start an infinite game here!, 17 Nov. 2013
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Judging by the diversity of reviews, people out there tend to be polarised by this book Finite and Infinite Games (FIG). After reading it, I can completely understand why.

Reasons to hate FIG:

Many of the points and especially the distinctions Carse makes seem to exist on a purely grammatical level. Never mind grammar; sometimes the typeface alone suffices for Carse to make bold with meaning (i.e. italics). "Whoever must play, cannot play."

Carse zooms off on many topical flights of fancy that seem more appropriate for New-Agey texts, such as sex, politics and environmentalism. This book takes 180 pages but the essence of it could have been squeezed into about 80. Maybe even a half dozen pages of diagrams or charts would have sufficed.

FIGs structure apparently apes a classic text by Ludwig Wittgenstein, the twentieth century's most significant philosopher. In his 'early' phase, Wittgenstein wrote the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in a numerically-structured fashion, reasoning from axiom to implications. It was one of the most significant works of the time. Carse seems to have Wittgenstein in mind as a model, as he mentions him overtly (p. 131) and contradicts him covertly (p. 108, "A world is not all that is the case..."). For any philosopher to compare himself to Wittgenstein in this way is an embarrassment, unless he has won the Nobel Prize or equivalent.

The style is dense and near aphoristic. That's fine if you are Nietzsche or Pascal and you make your meaning plainer elsewhere. But FIG is all we have to inform and guide us on Carse's thought. We need more; more context, more proof of assumptions, more definitions. None is forthcoming.

As I glanced through the table on contents, I relished tackling some of the chapters. I was hugely disappointed with their actual contents more than once. "I Am the Genius of Myself". Excellent, sounds right up my alley. But after reading the chapter, although it contained many powerful insights, I'm left none the wiser as to what my genius might be, or even what a genius is.

The binding on this publication is pathetic. As I read it, I was scared to open it fully in case it fell apart.

Reasons to love FIG:

Hooray, a book about games that doesn't mention computers, MUDs or MMORGPS!

Hooray, a book about games from a philosopher! Philosophical books on the general subject of games, never mind philosophical books with a particular vision, are very thin on the ground. Along with FIG, the only other equivalent I am currently aware of is Bernard Suits' 'The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia'.

Carse's game metaphor - if metaphor it is - succeeds in offering a deep interpretation of two dichotomous worldviews. These worldviews have been described by other disciplines in others ways e.g. egoism v altruism (ethics), competition v cooperation (economics), zero sum v non-zero sum (mathematics). Carse's finite v infinite model collects all these together under a larger analysis.

What I take from Carse is that the game motif is not in fact a metaphor for our world but a literal description of what is going on. How he explains common facts of life - rank, rules, titles, opponents - is a reversal of 'gamification'. He does not apply game elements to life but peels back surface seriosity to reveal the game elements in life.

How to live as an 'infinite gamer' is not to engage in a specific form of activity. It is certainly not to engage in "playing at" (p.19) or "playing around" (p. 46). This is perhaps what we usually label 'fun' or what Carse calls "a harmless disregard for social constraints", play with no consequence, play as entertainment, relaxation, amusement, diversion, and comic relief. Carse is careful not to exclude these activities from infinite play as long as they are not identified with it.

One of the ways to grasp what Carse means by infinite play is to contrast it to seriousness, something Carse does throughout the book. For seriousness lies at the heart of finite play, and seriousness is not an emotional mood but a mindset. Serious players identify themselves with a role and forbid themselves the freedom to act beyond it (sec. 13). Serious players behave as if a part of a game - a role, an abstraction - is the whole game, as if there is a script to the game that must be obeyed, as if the rules come from outside own range of choice (sec. 14). Seriousness is to demand fixed consequences and predicable outcomes; it is to exclude possibility and surprise. It wants nothing more than play to end by winning (sec. 17). Seriousness cannot experience life itself as joy and laughter (secs. 23-24).

Connected to this portrayal of seriousness is Carse's concept of masking or veiling. To be 'serious' means to be unwilling to drop the veil/mask that goes with a role and acknowledge that one has freely put it on. Infinite players wear masks too, but they acknowledge to themselves and others that they are masked, that they are more than the mask, and that they could chose to put off that mask. Infinite payers regard "each participant in finite play as that person playing and not as a role played by someone" (p. 18). Hence, while finite play is 'theatrical', scripted, infinite play is 'dramatic', improvised, open, free.

This review is becoming too serious, so I'd better stop. I will come back to FIG again and again. I will take its ideas, barely scratched here, into my own game of life. I will have to chart its contents visually to earn a full grasp of them. I will encourage my friends to read it and I will mention it in any relevant talks and lectures I give. Therefore, for all these reasons, despite the real weaknesses listed, I chose to give it the full five points.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 9, 2014 7:17 PM BST

Total Engagement: How Games and Virtual Worlds Are Changing the Way People Work and Businesses Compete
Total Engagement: How Games and Virtual Worlds Are Changing the Way People Work and Businesses Compete
by Byron Reeves
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Business savvy, tech savvy, authorially challenged, 6 Nov. 2013
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Here are the positive points about Total Engagement (TE).

(1) The authors of TE 'get' games and 'get' business and 'get' both together. This is a rare combination. Most books on the business of games are written by gamers who happen to work in business, academics who want to work in business, or business people who want to apply game elements to business ('gamification'). Our authors know business from the entrepreneurial and corporate contexts, and know games as avid players, designers and consultants.

(2) The authors have conducted a wealth of leading-edge research and experimentation. In the Introduction alone, they mention conducting post-graduate research, organising conferences, interviewing professional players, and creating game start-ups. I found the business analysis particularly impressive. They chart in chapter 2 ("the game tsunami") how games are big money, big numbers, and big time. The economic theme is continued in chapter 6 ("virtual money").

(3) Some of the chapters are superb. For example, chapter 4 analyses "ten ingredients of great games": avatars, environments, narrative, feedback, ranks, marketplaces, rules, team, communication and time. I found the material on self-representation by avatars particularly insightful, a theme that they continue in the next chapter ("virtual people"). Likewise, in chapter 9 ("play is not the opposite of work") the authors provide nine forms of play relevant to the topic. Here we encounter play-as: frivolity, power, developmental progress, communal identity, imagination, fate, enjoyment, psychological flow and emotional experience.

(4) On a please-forgive-me-I'm-such-a-nerd note, the Endnotes are mouth-watering. The authors have read every conceivable book, paper, blog, review, site, dissertation, and talk on or around the topic.

There are a few negative points that I need to expunge.

The book is written by two authors and a duality sometimes shows. The tone and writing style is patchy in places. This is highly forgivable. What is harder, though far from impossible to forgive is the uneven nature of the content. Many of the chapters are gold dust, others are fine (chapters 7 and 8), a few read as fillers (chapter 3). This probably flows from TEs nature as an experiential book, one that chronicles the innovative work of the authors and lays out their conferences, products and findings. Smooth is for textbooks.

The level of concentration required to read TE makes it feel like you are reading a textbook, however. TE makes for a tough, largely non-enjoyable reading experience. There is little play in the text, beyond the play of ideas and applications. Why isn't that enough? Because reading it feels like you are in a group of three, listening to two guys who are largely talking to themselves about all the cool stuff they've tried and how big their 'achievements' are. We've all been trapped dinner-party conversations like this. Regardless of how interesting the chat, we always end up drifting away.

The scope of the book may be a little narrow for some in two ways. The type of game examined in TE is computer games as opposed to games of other kinds, and again, within the large range of computer games types the focus here is on MMORPGS. Secondly, the authors choose to focus on the world of work, and leave aside matters of education, leisure, health etc except insofar as they impinge upon work.

On a minor point, the authors err in equating the psychological phenomenon of 'flow' or optimal experience with Maslow's concept of 'peak experience' (p. 182). Other books on game design make this mistake too. They are not identical; in fact, in some ways they are opposites. Flow describes a narrowing of focus to the extent that other factors - such as a sense of self and time - are excluded. Peak experiences comprise of a broadening of experience to include a sense of interconnection and lack of limit.

I also feel the famous Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology deserves a mention when the authors tackle the question of why people play. They suggest the five motivations of achievement, immersion, exploration, competition, and socializing (p. 27-9). Bartle does get a mention in the endnotes here (p. 143, n. 19), although not in the index. This makes me wonder, how much of the rest is derived?

But these are relatively minor points. TE makes a valuable contribution to the field, and marks a shift in the way businesses outside the games industry can use game principles for serious competitive advantage.

Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture
Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture
by Johan H. Huizinga
Edition: Paperback

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars For all who suspect there's more to play than GTA5, 13 Oct. 2013
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I'm not competent to critique or even interact much with Homo Ludens academically. I read it because I'm interested in games, and people in the know cite Huizinga's book as the granddaddy of all games texts. Actually, he has little to say about games in the strict sense; his focus on play studies rather than technology (game design) or strategic decision-making (game theory).

What I can say is that it is a beautiful book, even in translation. It is rich in ideas, personal in tone, broad in scope, impressive in scholarship and radical in claims. Huizinga's central thesis is that the play-element 'of' (not 'in' as the badly translated subtitle suggests) culture is posterior to and generative of culture itself. Culture in its many aspects - law, war, science, poetry, religion, philosophy, art - bears the characteristics of play. Culture does not grow out from play, as an adult from the child; rather, culture advances "in and as play, and never leaves it" (173).

All I wish to do in this review is throw together some of Huizinga's main themes according as to how they struck me. Some of them seem contrary to the more contemporary game thinking I've encountered. Others serve as a basis for what modern games designers take for granted. Yet others have little relation to anything else in gaming literature anywhere. Let's see how these play out.

The Agon-y of Play
Recent literature likes to portray a vision of games as positive-sum, win-win, 'infinite' endeavours in which everyone moves on together (e.g. James P Carse). For Huizinga, the essence of play lies in the ancient Greek word "agon", meaning contest, struggle or competition (30-1, 48). Play assumes an antithesis of two competing parties, striving and suffering in an atmosphere of tension in which something is at stake. There are winners and losers, superior and relative inferior (47-51). This "agonistic instinct" in play is an expression of man's need to fight (61), and it infused the Greek attitude to many activates outside warfare (89), such as litigation (76), art (169) and philosophy (155-6). Indeed, agonistic play lie at the heart of the Greek understanding of the cosmos, in the eternal conflict of opposites (116-7).

Seriousness versus Play
Again, some writers contrast a play attitude with seriousness (e.g. Dan Pink). Common sense seems to agree. Huizinga does not. It has taken me a while to grasp what me means, but here's my understanding of it. Seriousness cannot be the dichotomy of play as that would assume a relationship of equality between them, albeit antithetically. Rather, play is a higher order concept than seriousness, existing at a more primitive and original level of life (119). Play can include seriousness (5-6), whereas seriousness can only try to exclude play (45). Play can operate both below and above the level of seriousness (18-19). In practice, the contrast between then is fluid (8); they form a continuum (110-111). Myth fails to recognise the distinction at all, living midway between the two (129, 131), as does music (159). The greatest human life is a blend of both (145) and the greatest times in history are driven by both e.g. the Renaissance (180-1, 191-2)

The Magic Circle (aka 'Virtual Worlds')
The modern concept of a "magic circle" is as a line that encloses the virtual worlds created by digital media, including games and online social environments, from the outside/offline/'real' world (see Edward Castronova). Huizinga was the first to formulate it. He names the term and uses it to describe one of his main ingratiates in the definition of play: play is secluded, limited in space, a temporary world within the ordinary world, "dedicated to the performance of an act apart" (10) in which the rules of the game apply (11) and outsiders are excluded (12). This playground is identical in form to a sacred spot where rites are performed (20), a startling point Huizinga makes elsewhere (18, 25). The law court serves as a prime example (77), as does the field of war (210). Sometimes the circle can be literal (57); at other times, it can embrace a whole culture (134). We can only disengage our minds from it by "turning towards the ultimate" (212).

Masks (aka 'Avatars')
Masks are made to evoke special emotion, to bring ordinary life to a standstill and make things 'not real' (21-2). When an ancient wore a mask, it was sign of withdrawal from the ordinary world. Wearing a mask transformed him into another ego, which "he did not so much represent as incarnate and actualise" (145). (Remember that avatar is the Sanskrit for incarnation.) Even today, when we attach no religious emotion to a mask, it still conveys the power of mystery, taking us beyond ordinary life (26). And that is its point: to emphasise the extra-ordinary nature of play, where the player takes another part and becomes another being (13, 77). If you are thinking 'super-hero' as you read this, you are right to do so (133 - also 75 and 101-2)!

When it comes to Huizinga's evaluation of the state of play in our contemporary world, it is probably fair to classify him as pessimistic. He contends that play and seriousness have become confused rather than fused together in a positive way. To illustrate his point, Huizinga focuses on an activity only mentioned briefly before (47): games. Many thinkers today wish to contrast games with play by defining games as organized play. Huizinga would have nothing of this; for him, play "creates order, is order" (10).

As games, particularly what we call sports, are taken with increasing degrees of seriousness, "something of the pure play-quality is inevitably lost...The spirit of the professional is no longer the true play-spirit; it is lacking in spontaneity and carelessness" (197). Moving in the opposite direction is business, in which commercial competition and rivalry, egged on by trading records, has turned capitalism into a sport (200). As for the quality of play commonly available and experienced today, Huizinga invented a new label for it: Puerileism (205), a blend of the adolescent and the barbaric. Ouch.

Huizinga cover a multitude of fascinating material from the play perspective, from secret societies and guilds (12, 171, 187, 203), to virtue ethics (64), from Heraclitus (116-7, 211) to creative writing (132 - see also 10). All of life is here. The publishers have classified it as 'sociology' but don't let that put you off. To read it is to engage in mental play with the author, and to engage with your own world in fresh ways as a result. Playful yet profound. No. Playful AND profound. As Huizinga has taught me, there is no contradiction, only shifting waves of seriosity on an infinite ocean of play.

Travels in Elysium
Travels in Elysium
by William Azuski
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.90

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An wonderous excavation of myths, men and the meaning of death, 15 Sept. 2013
This review is from: Travels in Elysium (Paperback)
Forget, for a second, the other excellent qualities of this novel. Leave aside the crisp chapter and paragraph sizes. Overlook the stock of interesting, sympathetic characters, the immersive scene setting, the spot-on dialogue, and so forth. The key question for any novel is: Is it a good yarn? The answer is a resounding yes. Here's why I think so.

It's rare to get a novel that performs multiple functions well, rarer still to find one that combines them satisfactorily. A novel can have pace, but then miss depth and detail. A novel can provide food for thought, but leave me thirsting for friction, action and explosion. As mood and backdrop increases, dialogue decreases. Not here. And how William Azuski accomplishes this seems rather clever to me.

As I read Travels in Elysium, I found it hard not to compare it with other novels. It starts with a young man called Nicholas traveling to a Greek island for educational purposes where he meets an overpowering personality who acts as a dangerous mentor figure. There are beautifully crafted disriptions of his travel to the location and the local culture, written by someone who clearly knows their stuff. My immediate thought was of The Magus (Vintage Classics) by John Fowles (see my reiew).

Then, the atmosphere darkens, the mood becomes nocturnal. Without spoiling the plot, there is talk of vampires, exorcisms, murder, rituals for the dead. The hero becomes a passive pawn, playing with arcane knowledge and forces beyond his merge ken, pushing him to the brink of sanity itself. I sensed the spirit of H P Lovecraft hovering nearby. Instead of the Necronomicon we read instead of the Necromanteion, although the dreamscapes sound similar.

Azuski flips it again, flowing along with the plot. Next, it's all about mysteries, ancient cyphers and sects, well-known legends with a possible basis in fact. The church is not happy with these pagan flashbacks. Rich, shady aristocrats are lining up pro and con with their own agendas. Secret societies show us their hands. Time is ticking. Robert Langdon to the rescue, anyone? Thankfully not.

It important for me to say that Azuski's writing style does not roam wildly over the course of events. These literary comparisons were conjured up in my own brain by the twists and shifts of the plot. Travels in Elysium reads like a single novel with the main characters acting in a consistent way. The yarn is primary, coherent, yet full of surprises, reveals, depths. It grows along with the hero, and with readers understanding of what exactly is happening. It's Indiana Jones for post-modern grown-ups.

I need to mention three other superb futures about Travels in Elysium. One is its intellectual playfulness, or rather, the way Azuski treats his readers as possessing a brain capable of handling plot material that refers to Plato, Atlantean legends, immortality, archaeological processes and questions about the nature of reality. This probably isn't an airport or poolside novel. That is a compliment. Secondly, Azuski has the knack of making you feel like you're there, with local customs and characteristics, phrases and fears, all explicable. Finally, the ending is superb, containing closure without conclusiveness. Many a novel flounders here. I had two possibilities in my mind. Neither were correct and so much the better.

Negative Points? I'd have enjoyed a little map near the start to plot all the hero's initial travels. And maybe a few sketches of the artefacts or legends mentioned along the way. Also, I fear the size of the book's bulk might put potential readers off (98 chapters, 539 pages). It shouldn't. Chapter are short and sweet. Azuski has a great tale to tell, one, like real life, in which answers don't come easy. Finally, the novel's title might seem a little soft in comparison to its rugged, raging contents. 'Travels'? More like 'Tremors' or 'Terrors'! However, there is an internal plot device that makes the chosen title necessary. Which is? You'll have to read it to find out.

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