Sunday, August 28, 2011

In The Land of Believers

by Gina Welch
New York, Metropolitan Books, 2010
333 pages     Religion

Unlike Gina Welch, I consider myself a Christian. But like her, I have had my doubts and questions about evangelical Christianity. How can they be so certain in a world of uncertainty? So, I read her book In the Land of Believers with great interest. 

For two years, Gina Welch posed as a new Christian as she attended Truman Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg Virginia, Jerry Falwell’s church. She was there when the congregation moved into larger facilities and she was there when Jerry Falwell died. For two years, she attended Sunday services, participated in a singles ministry called EPIC, learned about evangelism in an evening class, and went on a mission trip to Alaska—a mission trip to save Alaskan souls.

She first thought that her sojourn would be as an anthropologist, trying to understand a culture she didn’t understand. She said that it was a while before she realized that there was “meaning behind the music and minds behind the slogans.” Welch felt that because she had very little understanding of Christianity, she would have to immerse herself in this new culture, and she would have to be saved and baptized in order to have some credibility in her new community. As the weeks became months, she gained friends and a new appreciation for religion, particularly religious music. She found that she loved to sing gospel songs at the top of her voice. The services made her feel good—she called it Feeling X, a feeling of "connection without comprehension."

As in most congregations, there are a myriad of personalities with varying levels of education and religious commitment. Welch discusses the people she meets, the services she attends, and the peculiarity of the religion she experiences. Most of it is done without sarcasm or condescension. What she discovers over and over is that there is true sincerity, generosity, and piety among the believers at the Thomas Road church. One of the things I found most interesting was that she developed true affection for Rev. Jerry Falwell and his message. While critics would scorn his grandstanding and fundraising, she saw the purity of his intent and the truth of his calling. 

What she didn’t expect to find was people with whom she could identify, people for whom she would develop genuine affection—particularly a woman she calls “Alice” and the pastor to the singles group, “Ray.” The friendships are cemented in the mission trip the group takes to Alaska, where they endeavor to bring 100 people to Jesus. When she preached the words of salvation to the people of Alaska, she felt hypocritical, but she began to understand “how the structure of religion could correct personal chaos. Did it matter that the message was a placebo if the curative properties were real?” In this way, she was able to tap down her feelings of guilt and betrayal that were starting to overwhelm her. In the words of the reviewer in the LA Times: “That, in the end, provides the queasy fascination and suspense of this Judas kiss of a book: not Welch's unsurprising discoveries about evangelicals (it turns out they're human, even lovable) but the awareness that eventually someone -- she or one of the people she's fooled -- will unmask her, and heartbreak will follow.”

I am enough of a believer to feel uncomfortable about the deception, particularly her baptism at the Truman Road church. But I am realistic enough to know that I have participated in communion when I was feeling less that godly, and I have said words and prayed prayers that I didn’t quite believe. I appreciated her insight into evangelism, when she notes: “I finally understood what it felt like to believe you knew something that had the power to improve the lives of others. You felt compelled to share it.” In the Land of Believers is a clear-eyed look at evangelical Christianity through the eyes of a young, but intelligent, non-believer. I felt her sincerity even as I was feeling critical of her methods. I am not sure that an older person could have carried it off without exposing themselves or their life experiences. I would have tired of the whole thing much earlier than Welch did. 

I worked for a while with two young evangelical women, naïve and idealistic. They believed that they were working with a bunch of sinners who needed to be redeemed. One day, a co-worker came into my office with a face full of incredulity: “They’re down on their knees in there, praying for us! They don’t need to be praying for us—they need to be praying that they can get all this backlogged work done!” I had to go into their office, thank them for their prayers, assure them that we knew that they cared about us, but that I wasn’t sure that this was the appropriate time or place for a prayer meeting. I didn’t want to dampen their enthusiasm, but really…!

I would draw your attention to two other books—Jesus Freak by Sara Miles, which discusses a whole different type of Christian evangelism and True When Whispered by Paul Escamilla which preaches a more mystical, quieter faith. I would also suggest that you read The Year of Living Biblically, in which A J. Jacobs tries to follow biblical mandates for an entire year. 

Here is the review of In the Land of Believers in the Los Angeles Times:
  An interview in Time Magazine:,8599,1977701,00.html

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Plea for Public Libraries

This is a quote in today's Shelf Awareness newsletter.

"I have been discussing libraries as places and in the current struggle to preserve public libraries not enough stress has been laid on the library as a place not just a facility. To a child living in high flats, say, where space is at a premium and peace and quiet not always easy to find, a library is a haven. But, saying that, a library needs to be handy and local; it shouldn't require an expedition. Municipal authorities of all parties point to splendid new and scheduled central libraries as if this discharges them of their obligations. It doesn't. For a child a library needs to be round the corner. And if we lose local libraries it is children who will suffer. Of the libraries I have mentioned the most important for me was that first one, the dark and unprepossessing Armley Junior Library. I had just learned to read. I needed books. Add computers to that requirement maybe but a child from a poor family is today in exactly the same boat." --Alan Bennett

Yesterday, my daughter and infant granddaughter spent some time in the beautiful children's room of the Kalamazoo Public Library. We noticed that they have story times for all ages, even children as young as Adela (3 months). Adela and I read books while her mother looked for the books she needed to teach her parenting classes. It was a lovely experience, and Adela will be going to the infant story time next week.

It reminded me of my first library experiences at the Carnegie Library in Little Falls, Minnesota.  I remember vividly walking up those marble steps and into a wonderland. My favorite books were Flicka, Ricka and Dicka, Snip, Snapp and Snurr and others in those series by Maj Lindman. Oh, how I loved that library. One of the big events of my childhood was when I was old enough to walk myself to the library, open those huge doors, find my own books, and present my own card to the librarian. A love affair began.

We moved to Duluth Minnesota when I was in the sixth grade, and I was able to have the same experience in another Carnegie Library, an even larger and more imposing edifice. There I was able to access what is currently called "Young Adult" fiction, and if I was very clever, I could sneak some adult fiction past the librarian. At that time I was into Vicki Barr, Cherry Ames, and other "career" books. I remember looking at the last page of the book, and if there was a boy's name on the last page, I knew that it was a romance and therefore readable on a summer afternoon. The Carnegie building in Duluth still exists on the hill overlooking the harbor, even though it no longer serves as a library.

Thanks to the money of Andrew Carnegie, children all over America were able to have the same experiences that I had. Between 1899-1917, Andrew Carnegie's money helped build over 2500 libraries in the United States--65 in Minnesota--two of which were so influential in my childhood.

Public libraries are one of the great treasures of the United States and whatever form they will take in the future, it is my fervent prayer that they will continue to be there for children, young and old.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

County LIne

By Bill Cameron
Madison WI, Tyrus Books, 2011
409 pages     Fiction

Skin Kadash is in love with Ruby Jane Whittaker. He is a retired Portland OR police officer; she is an enigmatic owner of a chain of coffee shops. And she has disappeared and apparently doesn’t want to be found. This is the premise of County Line by Bill Cameron, the third in a series of books featuring Skin Kalish and Ruby Jane Whittaker.

Publisher’s Weekly calls County Line “noir” fiction, and I suppose it is, although it doesn’t have the sexual overtones that one has come to expect from such novels. What it does have is a protagonist who is as much a victim as he is a hard-boiled detective. Actually, he is a bit of a bumbler.

County Line is divided into three sections. The first section sets up the action; Skin returns to Portland following a convalescence from a shooting. Ruby Jane has disappeared. He engages her former lover, Pete to travel with him to the Midwest to try to find her. They have to contend with a couple of dead bodies before they even get to Ruby Jane, and when they finally find her, she quickly disappears again.

In a rather abrupt shift, part two of the book takes place some twenty years previously and tells us about the circumstances of Ruby Jane’s life as a teenager; circumstances which most likely led her back to her roots as an adult. I found this the most engaging section of the book, because it gives us our only real glimpse into the character of the mysterious Ruby—up to this point, we really know nothing about her. Life is neither easy nor fair for Ruby in her teenage years; she is only comfortable when she is playing basketball or running down country roads away from a horrid home life.  I was particularly fond of the compassionate teacher who guided her through turbulent times. 

We return to Skin and Pete in Part 3  when their search takes them to the San Juan Islands in Washington State and the climax of the book. Everything moves very quickly until the ending, and there are quite a few surprises in store for the reader. 

Skin is an interesting character; frankly, he is pretty ordinary and very human. One reviewer says: “Rather than operating as a carefully objective investigator, he is caught up is his own emotional attachments. Kadash is not one of these machine-like master minds that populate so many of the popular thrillers of the day."

The teenage Ruby Jane is the star of this novel. She is feisty and creative in the ways in which she tries to solve rather unsolvable problems. Since the author gives us few clues as to the character of the adult Ruby Jane, we have to be satisfied with what we know of her as a teenager. I probably would have been happier reading about her teenage years if I had known her better as an adult. Perhaps if I had read the previous books by Cameron in which she is a character, Day One and Chasing Smoke, I would have a better understanding of her.

There are some unanswered questions in this thriller and some places where things just don’t ring true. On the whole, however, County Line is engrossing and fun to read from start to satisfying conclusion. Cameron has a knack for weaving a plot together in ways that keep the reader guessing.  

Bill Cameron places his characters in settings he knows well; the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest. He currently lives in the Pacific Northwest, and Ruby Jane’s home and school are in the community where he grew up. As a Midwesterner, I was able to envision the country roads Ruby ran down. Cameron makes the setting very vivid. 

One interesting sidelight is that there are several QR codes embedded in the book that a person with a smart phone can scan. These QR codes contain photos, interviews, and a deleted scene. A novel device in a novel—no one I knew had the application that could read them, however. There’s more information  about how to use these QR codes on Cameron’s website.

I received County Line from the publicist. I can recommend it to my readers who like noir, crime, and thrillers. Start with the first book in the series for the best impact. 

Bill Cameron’s website:

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Butterfly Cabinet

by Bernie McGill
New York, Free Press, 2011
227 pages     Fiction

Where do I begin to reflect on the ingenious book, The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill? Ah—by its inspiration. McGill lives on the north coast of Northern Ireland, near the Cromore House, the inspiration for the novel. In 1892, a 4-year-old girl was found asphyxiated in the wardrobe of the house, and her mother was found guilty of her death and served a short term in prison where she gave birth to another daughter.

With these basic facts, McGill weaves a story that is as evocative of Northern Ireland as it is of the tragedy that transpired there. The narration alternates between the words of Maddie, who had been a housemaid in the house, and the diaries from prison of the mother, Harriet. When Maddie decides she must tell someone her version of what happened, it is the late 1960s, and she is in her mid-90s. She relates the tale to Harriet’s granddaughter Anna and her husband Conor. As one reviewer mentions, “The interplay of the voices of two exceptionally different personalities is perhaps the book's major achievement.”

Maddie’s point of view comes from her background as a child of rural Ireland. Taken into the household as a young teenager, she is in effect raised by the household’s staff. Compassionate and impressionable, her eyes take it all in, but the decisions she makes during those fateful days are those of a young girl. She remains in the employ of Anna’s mother until she returns to Cromore House as an old woman; the house has been converted to a retirement home. It is with the wisdom of old age that she is able to confront the circumstances of the death of Charlotte.

Harriet comes from an upper class Scottish family, marries Edward and moves to Ireland, and within 12 years has given birth to several sons and one daughter. Overwhelmed by parenting, she finds solace in riding horses and collecting butterflies, which she kills and mounts on shelves in a butterfly cabinet. She is free of restraints when she rides her horses and she is very much in control when she collects her butterflies. She says, “The end result is magnificent: I wish the catching of them could be more dignified.”

The history of Ireland in the late 1800s, the revolutionary changes of the 1960s, and the customs, legends, and characteristics of life by the sea are woven into the fabric of the novel. Everyone is close to the land, and McGill knows enough Irish lore to have her characters evoke the spirit of the setting as well as its physical characteristics. At one point Maddie says of Irish stories, “That’s what we do: tell made-up stories to fend off the night, to put off telling the truth.”

At the same time that we are imbued with the spirit of the place, we are led to feel compassion for the family and the staff, caught as they are in their circumstances. And surprisingly, we even feel compassion for Harriet as we begin to understand what brought her to the place where she felt she must shut Charlotte in the cabinet for soiling her clothes. She feels there is no way to deal with her many children except through punishment; they are just so naughty. "How are they ever to learn the effects of their thoughtlessness," she writes, "if not by punishment?"

I recently met up with an acquaintance that I hadn’t seen for many years. As mothers are wont to do, we caught up on the whereabouts of our offspring. My friend is one of the most rigid women I have ever known, and her childrearing was harsh and unyielding. Only one of her four daughters lives anywhere near her, and she hasn’t seen that daughter or her grandchild for several years. They are completely estranged because “she knows I don’t approve of her lifestyle.” It was an incredibly sad moment for me because I knew that daughter to be a lovely girl who grew up struggling to comply with arbitrary and debilitating rules. All the time I was reading about Harriet in The Butterfly Cabinet, I was remembering my friend and the pain she must live with every day. They are very similar women.

The theme of The Butterfly Cabinet comes in one of Harriet’s diary entries:  “Death is so very straightforward when compared with the complexities of living.” Scattered throughout the book are bits of wisdom that  helps us understand motivation even as it inspires us with the creativity of the author. As I read the book, I could imagine McGill pondering the events of 1892 every time she walked on the shoreline, gazing up at that home. What really went on there?

The Butterfly Cabinet came to me as part of a blog tour from The Free Press. Many other people have written about the book as part of the tour. I can highly recommend it.

Bernie McGill’s website:

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Angela Sloan

By James Whorton, Jr.
New York, Free Press, 2011
203 pages     Fiction

Just what we need for August—a quirky, funny spy caper novel. James Whorton, Jr. has delivered this in a book named for its 14-year-old heroine, Angela Sloan. The novel takes place in 1972, a quirky time in American history, for sure.

Schoolgirl Angela realizes something is up when her father, a retired CIA agent, tells her that they have to go on the lam following the Watergate burglaries. Ray has been educating Angela about espionage, code names, and covers, and ultimately he leaves her on her own with a Plymouth Scamp, a fake ID, and a stack of $100 bills. Angela wises up fast and becomes less of a ninth grader and more of a spy as the summer wears on. Through no fault of her own she ends up with a Chinese Communist girl named Betty in her car and together they negotiate diner food, fleebag motels, road maps, and CIA agents. Betty is as much of a unique character as Angela is, and together they make a great pair, in the style of Thelma and Louise, only younger.

As the road trip wears on, the plot wears out a little bit, but not before some of the questions about Ray and Angela and Betty get answered. Betty and Angela meet up with a CIA agent and a band of hippies all of whom help to bring the book to a teetering halt. Whorton throws in an acid trip as well as an aborted bombing of CIA headquarters for good measure in case we have forgotten the era.

The best part of Angela Sloan is the deadpan style in which Whorton writes. There is a total suspension of disbelief because the heroine seems so credible. Although there are few laugh-out-loud moments, I had a constant smile on my face. I couldn’t help but love Angela and her go-for-it attitude. Would that I had had so much spunk when I was 14!

The book jacket says, this “is a priceless coming-of-age story about stealing diner food and salvaging lost identities.” Last month, I read the brilliant coming-of-age novel, Once Upon a River, by Bonnie Jo Campbell. All the way through the book Angela Sloan, I wished that Whorton had the marvelous writing style of Bonnie Jo Campbell and that Campbell’s heroine, Margo, had Angela’s ability to “just get out of there!” What a pair Angela and Margo would have made.

James Whorton Jr. is the author of two other books, Frankland and Approximately Heaven. He is a professor in the State University of New York system.
James Whorton Jr. website:

The book has just been released. I was sent a copy by the publisher and am participating in a blog tour today. Although I usually quote reviewers in my blog, the book is so new that reviews are few and far between.

Here is my review for Once Upon a River:

Monday, August 8, 2011

Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound

By Scott Rigby and Richard M. Ryan
Santa Barbara, Greenwood Books,  2011
175 pages   Non-Fiction

Everyone knows someone who seems to spend an inordinate amount of time playing video games. I have several video gamers within my own family. Scott Rigby and Richard M. Ryan have written a fascinating study on video games and their place in the lives of youth and adults. Glued to Games discusses the phenomenon of video games, the life skills that are manifested by their usage, how games are overused, and a practical roadmap to games. The book discusses why specific features and content connect with the psychological needs of players, and exactly how games build value and enthusiasm.

Rigby and Ryan, both PhDs, have come to Glued to Games from their interest in what motivates gameplay at a fundamental level, and not with the strident tone of those who would focus on the dangers of video games. For the parent (or in my case, the grandparent), the whole tenor of the book leads to different conclusions than might be met with another type of book.

I respect the approach of the authors. They suggest that video games satisfy three basic needs: the need for competence, the need for autonomy, and the need for relatedness. They say: “Competence refers to our innate desire to grow our abilities and gain mastery of new situations and challenges. Even watching infants at the earliest stages of development, we can clearly see the innate energy for competence at work as the child learns to master movement, language, and problem solving. Autonomy needs reflect our innate desire to take actions out of personal volition, and not because we are “controlled” by circumstances or by others. Experiencing a sense of choice and opportunity in our lives, and acting in ways that truly reflect our wishes, result in a satisfaction of this intrinsic autonomy need. Relatedness refers to our need to have meaningful connections to others. As with competence and autonomy, we see time and again that people seek out quality relationships simply for the intrinsic reward that comes from having a mutually supportive connection with others."

Games can give us “a rich field of opportunities to pursue, activities to undertake and challenges to conquer.” I really enjoyed thinking about how when the job is lousy and the stress levels are too high, video games are one way to find value. An hour or two spent with a video game can relax a tired mind and rejuvenate a worn-down psyche. The authors do suggest, however, that when people spend so much time with video games that their other life activities are curtailed, perhaps the gamer is not getting their needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness met in other areas of their lives. “This perspective allows for an approach that begins by addressing the core issue of basic need satisfaction, rather than simply criticizing, attacking or shaming too much game play.” 

In the last chapter, the authors offer strategies for spouses and parents to help the gamer find balance in their gaming lives. This is a valuable book because it offers aha moments for game players, parents, and significant others. It puts an entirely different spin on the whole phenomenon.

I interviewed a grandchild and a son-in-law. Here is what they shared about their own video gaming.
Interview with my grandson, Lachlan, age 12
Lockie tells me his favorite video game is Call of Duty: Black Ops, and there is a fair amount of blood, because “Well, Grandma, it is a war game.” But he understands that the blood doesn’t really mean anything except that he is having success with the game. This would go along with what Rigby and Ryan indicate in the chapter on violence. Very few gamers act on the violence they experience in the game. Lockie says that he truly understands that this violence is an online experience that doesn’t translate to the real world.

Lockie says he particularly likes that he can be an expert at a game, but he also likes to play with his friends. His neighbor, Jack, is his favorite gaming partner, and they like to work cooperatively to complete the game. He does say that he has occasionally played against an online competitor, but he doesn’t think it is too much fun, because the interaction is too sporadic.

He says that he is too busy playing outside in the summer to play video games too much—maybe five hours a week, but in the winter he often plays two hours a day. One of his failings, he says, is that he gets too focused on the game and can’t stop and his parents have to make him get off the game. I know Lockie to be a fairly obsessive child, and he thinks that his ability to focus intently helps him to be really good at video games. But, he asserts that he doesn’t “clog up his brain” thinking about the game when he is off line.

What! Another gamer?
Garth’s impressions
My son-in-law Garth is a fairly intent gamer, both video games and role-playing games. He’s not playing nearly as much now that his baby daughter has come, but he has played fairly obsessively in the past. He says that playing a video game is like reading a book. He has a hard time putting a book down, and in the same way, he has a hard time quitting a game before he has completed it. For Garth, the plot is everything. He says that if the story line of a game isn’t good, he will never get engrossed in the game and takes it back to the rental store.
I would think that my son-in-law and my grandson are fairly typical of most video game players. I’ve given Lachlan’s mother a copy of Glued to Games, which ought to ease her mind a great deal.

 The following is an interview with Scott Rigby that was sent to me by the publicist, who also gave me online access to a copy of the book.

Q & A with Scott Rigby, Ph.D
Co-author of Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound
Q. You say that "fun," at least when it is defined as mindless entertainment is not really what hooks people into video games and that what really underlies their appeal is their ability to satisfy basic human needs. You call this the Player Experience of Need Satisfaction (PENS) model. Can you explain?
A: Sure -- there are two points to make on this. First, fun isn't a terribly precise word, and so it doesn't really give anybody trying to understand and manage games a good handle on what's happening when we see people so deeply engaged and drawn in to game experiences. If you think about it, you use the word "fun" to describe basically any momentary, passing experience of enjoyment. Games are taking hold of us in much deeper ways -- ways that even don't even seem very "fun" at all! Gamers will study tables of numbers to learn how to play better, and will give up food, sleep, and even bathroom breaks to keep playing. Nothing about this looks "fun" when we think about the usual breezy way we use the word.
So what the "player experience of need satisfaction" model is all about is explaining the deep satisfaction and engagement in games in a much clearer and more complete way. Specifically, we've identified that games can densely satisfy some very fundamental and intrinsic human needs: The need for competence (i.e. effectiveness, growth, and mastery), autonomy (i.e. volition; meaningful choice), and relatedness (i.e. meaningful connections to others; the experience that "I matter"). This model turns out to be a much stronger predictor of sustained engagement, value, and many other factors such as ongoing motivation to play.
Q. In GLUED TO GAMES you say that, unlike old arcade games, modern games typically satisfy more than one need and therefore pull us in more strongly. How so?
A: As gaming has evolved, both game developers and gamers themselves have gotten more sophisticated. Of course technology has allowed for much more "fantastic" graphics and complexity, but more importantly this technological capacity has enabled games -- when well designed -- to satisfy multiple needs simultaneously, thus creating even greater value for the player and motivational pull. So for example: First-Person Shooter games used to be largely about competence satisfaction. They didn't offer a lot of choices about where to go, nor did they let you play with others. You just picked up a gun and started firing away. Today's FPS games provide more open environments with more meaningful choices (thus adding autonomy satisfactions), and also allow for complex team play with other players in which team members really rely on each other -- which also simultaneously satisfies relatedness needs. When games can hit this kind of "trifecta," they can be particularly compelling.
Q. There is a lot of debate about whether or not video games are addictive. What does the research say?
A: Addiction has a very specific clinical definition, and so at the level of whether games addiction is a true clinical disorder -- such as alcohol or drug addiction -- is still being debated and examined. And I think it is important for this issue to be explored thoroughly. However, on a day-to-day level, there is no doubt that many people are overinvolved with games, with gaming crowding out relationships, work, and other important life experiences. So in this sense, we need to acknowledge that -- as with any deeply compelling and satisfying experience -- there is a legitimate issue to be addressed here with a subset of gamers who become overinvolved. In our research, we are interested in identifying the core motivational and emotional "draws" of games so that there is a foundation for both greater empathy for this issue, as well as a stronger basis for intervening in ways that are both compassionate and effective.
Q. Who is most likely to overuse games?
A: Our research suggests that when people are not getting their basic needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness satisfied in life, this is more often related to becoming over-involved in video game play. So while more research is needed to really understand the causal links and risk factors, we emphasize that overuse of games is quite possibly a symptom of a life that isn't finding basic need satisfactions elsewhere. This perspective allows for an approach that begins by addressing the core issue of basic need satisfaction, rather than simply criticizing, attacking, or shaming too much game play.
Q. Let's look at a particular game, such as Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, or any other popular game within the PENS model. Tell us how this particular game satisfies the three basic needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
A: I touched on modern FPS games earlier, and this is an example of how a blockbuster FPS game such as Call of Dutyachieves satisfaction across all three of our basic motivational needs. World of Warcraft (WoW) is another great example of a "trifecta" game (i.e. one that hits on all three needs quite strongly). In WoW, the design of the game world always presents to       the player a dense "field of opportunity" for them to take action, by engaging in quests, exploring, or battling monsters (or other players). The design has been tuned so that for dozens and dozens of hours of play, you always feel there is more to explore and discover, which fundamentally satisfies the basic need for autonomy. Then, these explorations lead to greater and greater challenges that stretch the players skills and abilities, which simultaneously satisfy needs for competence/mastery. And if that weren't enough, woven into this basic gameplay are group quests that are more difficult, requiring teamwork and cooperation (which provides significant satisfaction for relatedness) as well as a greater degree of skill (leading to even more competence and mastery satisfaction).
We often explain the draw of games not just in terms of their ability to satisfy these three basic needs, but the way in which successful games do so with such immediacy, consistency, and densityImmediacy means that you can turn the game on and have a satisfying experience within seconds or minutes (something that is hard to do in other areas of life). Consistencymeans that you can count on the game to provide rewards and satisfactions in a way that is reliable. In other words, games don't overlook your hard work (another thing that often happens in real life). Finally, games provide a density of need satisfaction -- with opportunities and successes available almost moment-by-moment. This is a remarkably strong dynamic and helps to explain why great games in particular are so compelling.
Q. More men than women play video games. Is there any research as to why this is, and if not, what are your thoughts about it?
A: More and more woman play games every year, and I think that it is just a matter of time before this difference (which is shrinking) goes away entirely. Some data shows we're almost there already, perhaps at a 60/40 male to female split. Remember that video games started in computer labs that in the 60's and 70's were predominantly male, and many early games revolved around themes of war, violence, and power -- which is still true today in many areas of gaming. So it follows -- and I'm speculating here -- that this would draw a male audience that is socialized more in that direction to start. But what's amazing is how quickly gaming is becoming a mainstream activity for men and woman alike, and what a strong and growing force woman have in gaming today.
Q. You devote a chapter of GLUED TO GAMES to the controversial issue of whether or not violence in video games leads to violence in the real world. Your research on this has taken a different perspective and your findings are pretty startling. Please explain.
A: Well first, let me say that as psychologists we are not trying to either grind an axe (so to speak) against violence in games,       nor do we dismiss the concerns about violence in games which we feel are legitimate to raise and to research. Our research was really to get at something more basic -- do players really VALUE the blood and gore itself? This has always been the assumption, but it didn't really make sense to us because many people who are kind, gentle folk love blowing people's heads off in video games. Our hypothesis was that the value of the violence wasn't the blood and gore per se, but that gore was just an effective way in which the game provided competence/mastery feedback. In other words, if I shoot you in the shoulder, I can see the impact immediately -- I get immediate informational feedback on my effectiveness -- and that is satisfying of my basic need for competence. If I blow your head off, I get even more powerful feedback on my competence. So if it's really the competence feedback that matters, then if you can provide that in other ways besides blood and gore, the game should be just as enjoyable.
That's the kind of experiments we did -- and that's exactly what we found. In one study, for example, we designed two versions of basically the same game, only one had lots of blood and gore, and the other didn't. Because we included competence feedback in both, players enjoyed the less bloody version just as much as the bloody version. And what was really interesting was this was true even for young, adolescent male players of violent games who scored high on trait aggression (i.e. those who stated that the loved violent games)! So even for those players who are the "core audience" for violent games, the enjoyment of a less bloody version was the same as long as basic need satisfactions were met. For us, it shows the value of how you can apply a basic understanding and model of game engagement to answer a lot of interesting questions with greater precision.
Q. The public debate about gaming tends to be a binary one, with one side saying gaming is at the very least a waste of time and the other side touting the challenges, community, and intellectual challenges of modern games. Your position is more nuanced. Can you tell us what you think some of the benefits and the perils of gaming are?
A: I think games are deeply fascinating in their ability to engage us, and in this sense they have both promise and peril. I am lucky in that I spend a lot of time talking to psychologists, parents, and other groups that are more concerned about gaming, and also work with the game developer community -- so both I and my co-author on Glued to Games, Rich Ryan, get to listen       to all sides of the debate.
On the one hand, those who argue that games are a waste of time will often make false comparisons. If you ask them "games are a waste compared to what?" they will often say things like "you could be climbing a real mountain instead of a virtual one," but that really isn't true. More likely, you'd be watching TV, or walking around the local mall, etc. Is that really better? Games offer a gateway into mentally engaging and often thrilling and satisfying experiences, and we think it is only fair to acknowledge this potential and see where that takes us in how we can do interesting things with games to make life more meaningful.
That said, I only have to look as far as my own life to see that when I am in a game world, I am not in the real one. My wife could be three feet away from me, but as far as she's concerned I'm a million miles away. Even if I'm playing with others in the game world, games can be isolating to those around us -- in particular those who we love the most and are closest to us (i.e. our own families). Also, I do think we need to ask ourselves whether what we're "learning" in the game world really translates beyond the boundaries of that world into who we are. Are we truly growing and experiencing things in games in ways that are lasting? The movement to create more meaningful games -- games that link in to real world issues -- is a fascinating approach to these kinds of questions. But they persist for me, and I think they are important to consider.
Q. Many parents are concerned about how much time their kids spend in games. How can they foster healthy gaming and recognize when there really is a problem?
A: First, I think it is important to understand why kids are so compelled to spend time in games, and this is part of why Rich and I wrote the Glued to Games book: To make the motivations for games less of a mystery so that parents and kids could engage the topic more honestly and clearly. This connects to healthy gaming because parents can better talk to their kids about what kids are experiencing and "getting out of" games, and this can lead to healthier choices and less of a rift between parents and kids about gaming. Then, I think when games start to "crowd out" other meaningful relationships and activities that this should be considered a danger sign and a red flag that there is a problem, one that perhaps is rooted in basic needs not being satisfied in the kid's life, thus leading to them to turn to games too frequently.
Q. Are you a gamer? If so, what are your favorite games and why?
A: I am a gamer -- have been ever since I played "Space Invaders" back in the 70's at a big arcade in Penn Station in New York City. I still play games regularly both because I enjoy them, but also because I think it's important to play them if we are       going to try to understand them and their psychological dynamics. My favorite game of all time -- hands down -- is Civilization,       by Sid Meier. It's the only video game I still play after twenty years. For me, it is definitely the incredible autonomy the game provides in making meaningful decisions and responding to a very dynamic play field, moment to moment. Or maybe I just like the idea of world domination. Yeah . . . unfortunately that is probably the real reason . . .
© 2011 Scott Rigby, co-author of Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound
Author Bio
Scott Rigby, Ph.D, 
co-author of Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound, is founder and president of Immersyve, Inc., a research and consulting group specializing in the psychology of virtual worlds and interactive technologies. In addition to publishing scholarly research on human motivation, Dr. Rigby has himself developed interactive applications for entertainment (Sony, Warner Brothers), education (The Smithsonian Institute), and health care.

For more information please visit and follow the authors on Facebook and Twitter

Thursday, August 4, 2011


 by Jennifer Hillier
New York, Gallery Books, 2011
367 pages     Fiction

When one gazes at the lovely face of author, Jennifer Hillier, on the back flap of the book, Creep, it is hard to believe that such perverse characters could come from her pen. But indeed, this first-time author has delivered a memorable thriller with enough plot twists to keep even avid readers of thrillers happy.

The plot hinges around a psychology professor named Sheila, her graduate assistant Ethan, and her fiancé Morris. Sheila is having an affair with Ethan, but she has issues that extend beyond the affair. She is a recovering sex addict, a condition she has hidden from her fiancé. This however, is not her biggest problem. Ethan, with his murderous psychoses, is her biggest problem. The plot is fast paced and lurid, and at the conclusion has one more, rather unexpected twist. In an interview with Hillier, she suggests: “I've always been fascinated by worst-case scenarios. What if you cheated on your boyfriend? That's bad, obviously. But what if you cheated on your boyfriend with Hannibal Lecter? That's about as bad - and scary - as it gets.” This, of course, is the main premise of Creep.

Other reviewers relate the plot to Radiohead’s song, Creep, with its lyrics:
I don't care if it hurts
I want to have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul
I want you to notice when I'm not around
You're so fucking special
I wish I was special
But I'm a creep
I'm a weirdo
What the hell I'm doing here?
I don't belong here
Of course, I have a huge learning curve when it comes to all things pop culture, so I had to find a video of Radiohead singing on You Tube. I was surprised that the lyrics were ugly but the music was kind of melodic and easy to listen to. Go figure!

One reviewer mentions that Creep “delivers on its main good, which is for the reader to gulp the book down in a sitting, maybe two.” That is most definitely true, and as you read quickly, you read through some of the plot devices that upon closer inspection are a bit opportune.

The characters are not pleasant people to know. It is hard to understand how Sheila, with her obvious problems, could have gotten as far in her career as she has. Morris, the fiancé, is a bit too nice. He certainly comes across as the “good guy” and may be too naïve and trusting for Sheila. I wondered how Morris and Sheila got this far along in their relationship—the wedding is scheduled for the next week—for there to be such a lack of understanding between the two. Ethan’s motivation is convenient and the reason behind his endless supply of money defies logic. He reminded me of the character Martin Vanger who lives on the island in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Steig Larson, the one with the killing room in his basement. (By the way, I am a big fan of the Steig Larson books. I have a link to my reviews at the end of this blog posting.) Ethan seems way too young to have what he has and to have accomplished what he has accomplished (if accomplished is the appropriate term.) That being said, the whole plot does hang together and the action keeps the reader engaged.

I am not a huge fan of thrillers, but sometimes just sitting down for a few hours of pure escapism is just what I need. For that reason, I really enjoyed Creep. I received it from the publisher and participated in a blog tour to publicize the book.

 Jennifer Hillier’s website and blog:
A YouTube Video of Creep by Radiohead: