Tuesday, 21 March 2017

REVIEW: "Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality" by Richard Thompson Ford

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality 
by Richard Thompson Ford
Copyright October 2012
Paperback, 288 Pages

This book is uncannily shrewd; it is in a league of its own with its plentiful offerings of unorthodox perspectives, profound arguments, piercing observations and refreshing legal reasoning. The prospective reader might need to perform mental gymnastics to successfully navigate through this book—an absolute treasure consisting of intellectually stimulating analyses and discussions of legal instances which the author considers illustrative of “rights gone wrong.” 

This book is indeed exceptionally entertaining and enjoyable in the hands of the right reader. This book also laudably makes one think—a rare and precious quality. The reader has to get his or her mind churning in order to fully appreciate the cerebral arguments raised. Certain intellectual discoveries to be made turn out to be so astonishingly unexpected that they could thus be seared memorably in one’s mind. 

Knowledge of or a background in law is not necessary to peruse this book; the easy readability and great accessibility of legal concepts and arguments make the title ideal for the general reader, who will enjoy a privileged and occasionally fun glimpse into the seemingly elusive legal sphere and its battalion of noteworthy cases. The reader is offered a pragmatic look at the complex mechanism of the law, the formidable extent to which the discipline of law could be, and the challenges of formulating effective legislations. The general reader could surely further benefit from reading this book by gaining the opportunity to gauge one’s affinity for, or even to acclimatize oneself to, seemingly idiosyncratic legal reasoning.

This is a fascinating read for pre-law students, and potentially invigorating for future law students. The selection of legal cases cited and examined in the book whets the appetite and provides ample fodder to jumpstart personal research into the law. The sound analyses and evaluations of legislations and phenomena in the book also make the book serviceable to aspiring students of politics or policy; the analytical process underlying the arguments is an art and skill in itself. Those seeking a reasonably challenging academic workout for the mind ought to consider this book as well. 

Discussions of the convoluted legal implications of the Ricci v. DeStefano case, the counterproductive Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), and the engrossing details of the class action suit Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes are representative of the delightfully interesting content in the book. It is certainly curious that the Wal-Mart plaintiffs insisted “decentralization and subjective job criteria”—supposedly “legitimate and effective management styles”—to be “inherently discriminatory.” The Ricci case brought forth a labyrinth of incongruous circumstances—the City of New Haven got sued for violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 upon carrying out a series of actions intended to actually avoid such a violation; a decision borne out of the intention to avoid committing disparate-impact discrimination was in fact distorted into a case of allegedly having committed disparate-treatment discrimination. 

It is beyond astounding to learn of well-intentioned but potentially counterproductive legislations such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the previously mentioned ADEA. One is left speechless to learn that the ADEA, in its purported aim to protect aged job seekers, in fact “probably encouraged employers to discriminate against older job applicants” due to the greater risks and costs hereby involved in such a hire, and encouraged litigation amongst the presently employed elderly over issues of promotion and termination, and more. It is also somewhat disturbing to be made aware of instances where self-serving members of society have attempted to abuse the IDEA, therefore perversely turning a law designed “to help the disabled and needy” to “a giveaway for the rich and greedy.” Yet another excellently addressed concept in the book pertains to the legal defense bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ), of which was interestingly illustrated through cases involving companies such as the Playboy Club and Hooters, and corresponding decisions that determined whether sex is or is not a BFOQ for the jobs of Playboy Bunnies or Hooters Girls.

Commentary in the book on unexpected ramifications of prominent rulings or legislations are comparably outstanding. Given the prevailing consensus of reverence shown toward the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling, one might never have imagined that Brown could ever be referred to as “a cautionary tale of the limitations and hazards of legal rights, a story of rights gone wrong,” a position which the author convincingly corroborated. Similarly, the author boldly supported his conviction that rights to women’s equality have sometimes only unfortunately reinforced “chauvinistic condescension and women’s isolation.”

A handful of observations noted in the book strike one as being distinctly astute, thus further perpetuating the intellectual vibe of the book. It was an absolute joy to read the author’s elucidation of certain peculiar or even provocative statements he made such as “poor schools are inherently discriminatory,” and “cheating an [elder] employee of his pension doesn’t involve anti-elderly bias,” or even his efforts at highlighting what he considered a contentious logic, “discrimination is discrimination,” by offering an analogy that equated the harm of “offering your seat on the bus to a woman because of her sex” to “making black people stand in the back of the bus because of their race.”

In addition to excellent analyses of the “aimless activism” of, male chauvinism and contradictions that plagued the Million Man March demonstration, or the engaging discussion of the black identity crisis that Barack Obama seemed to embody, this book certainly consistently delivers and surpasses expectations. 

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Sapphire Ng | Berklee Guitar Styles Skills - Jazz (Week 15) SPRING 2016 [Class Materials & Concepts]

Guitar Styles Skills - Jazz

Berklee College of Music
SPRING 2016 Semester

Class Teacher: John Baboian

[Week 15]

Today we will be jamming over "Freddie The Freeloader" by Miles Davis. And John posed us a question: Since the melody of the tune is really simple, what could we do to make it more interesting. One of the answers was harmonization, yes we could harmonize the melody; or even play the melody in different octaves. And the goal for this tune is to play the "out" sounds.

We played the melody through the form of the tune, and then every student in the class got 2 choruses to solo over. John's feedback for me, after our first round of improvisations was that I needed to play more "out" sounds. For another student, John also gave the feedback that it seemed the student appeared a little hesitant to go into playing "out" sounds, and the student replied by saying that he did not want to play "out" sounds just randomly, he wanted to "practice more" before he did it.

And then we were asked to attempt a second round of solos, each of us getting only one chorus of the tune this time. Haha after our first solos, I heard a student say that he just moved a half step up or down to get the "out" sounds, so this time round I tried that method instead of the one I was using. To get the "out" sounds, I would play using the dominant 7th arpeggio fingering for B7 instead of Bb7 in order to get the "out" sounds, and then only returning and "resolving" back into the sound of Bb7. 

After our second attempts at soloing to "Freddie The Freeloader," John told me that I sort of started playing the "out" sounds a little too early in my solo. Haha so apparently I over-compensated, because I wanted to play more "out" sounds, I ended up started playing them too early even before I really established the diatonic sound for the Bb7 chord in the progression. Next time I should dwell on the diatonic sound longer before I start playing using, for example, the B7 arpeggio. There was an upside to my second improvisation though, John said the "last four bars" of my solo was really nice hahaha LOL.

It was interesting to hear other students solo over the same tune and using their own unique ways to create "out" sounds. John later highlighted a student who did something really interesting: In order to magnify the degree of "out"ness, not only the student played out-sounding notes, he combined those notes with rhythms that created an effect of rhythmic polyrhythm against the groove of the accompaniment rhythm that further emphasized the "out"ness of the sound. It was really cool.  

John actually used an analogy that is pretty fun and funny to illustrate the degree of "out" sounds we are comfortable with and want to incorporate into our solos. He compared it to how much salt you want to add into your food, certain people prefer more, others prefer less. It is up to us to decide the amount and degree of "out" sounds we want in our solos, our freedom and our choice. 

Concepts/content covered in class:

~ We were given the handout "Stella By Sustain," which is actually a title spin from the tune "Stella by Starlight" composed by Victor Young. "Stella By Sustain" contains rhythm slashes to the progression of the tune. John mentioned as well that for any chords we see here, we are free to add any tensions we want to embellish the chords, though we would have to ensure the tensions work well with the melody of the tune. For this case however, we are not working with melodies, so we may not need to consider the melody when considering tensions. Immediately, we were asked to play the rhythms as notated together as a class. 

[An interesting thing John mentioned was that we could use an exercise like this to practice specific chord types or voicings. To practice specific chord voicings systematically, we could set rules for ourselves, for example:
—We would play through all the notated rhythms in the handout using only drop 2 voicings occupying the first four strings of the guitar, i.e. the 1st string to the 4th string.
—We could play using only drop 2 voicings in the middle set of strings of the guitar, i.e. the 2nd string to the 5th string.
—We could also choose to practice drop 3 voicings, and force ourselves to only play the voicings that have a bass note on the 6th string of the guitar, and the rest of the notes on the 4th, 3rd and 2nd strings. 
This practice method will allow us to discover and play voicings that otherwise we would not play on a routine basis. 

[John also drew our attention to the F13(b9) chord found on bar 30 in the lead sheet. He immediately held the chord at the 1st fret of the guitar, and then every student in the class followed. We may choose to omit the bass note on the 6th string if we prefer, and just play the voicing on the first 4 strings of the guitar. Play the "Gb" note equivalent to the b9 on the 2nd fret of the 1st string, "D" note which is the 13th of the chord on the 3rd fret on the 2nd string, the "A" note which is the 3rd of the chord on the 2nd fret of the 3rd string, and then the "Eb" note which is the b7th on the 1st fret on the 4th string of the guitar. Otherwise, we can also choose to insert the bass and root note of the chord, the "F" note on the 1st fret of the 6th string.]

~ "Large Intervals & Important Notes - Stella By Starlight." John said that apart from two instances within the notation (in bar 2 where the "D" note comes after a "C" note, and in bar 5 where the "C" note comes after a "Bb" note), all other intervals written are greater than the minor 3rd interval. Again John refreshed our minds that when we practice scales, we merely become good at playing intervals of 2nds, and when we play arpeggios we practice playing intervals of 3rds. Along with a previous lesson where John focused us on practicing intervals of 4ths, he said this exercise is an augmentation to that and covers a range of greater intervals that we otherwise might not play so often. 

[John asked the class to just play a simple bassline over which he will demonstrate playing what was notated, and we can focus on the sound of the notes. I really love the sound, it is rather unusual and I think the unusual is really cool. After that John drew our attention to the interesting triplets in bar 14 which contains the chords E-7(b5) and A7(b9).

[Moving onto the "Important Notes" part of the handout, John very swiftly called out notes from the bars and asked us to identify the tensions relative to the respective chords. At the second bar, the "D" not is the 11th of A7b9; In bar 3, the "D" note is the 9th of C-7; In bar 4, the "D" note is the 13th of F7, and the "G" note is the 9th; In bar 5, similarly the "G" note is the 9th of F-7, while the "Bb" note is the 11th of F-7; Moving onto bar 6, the "G" note is the 13th of Bb7, the "C" note the 9th, and so on.]

Class Homework:

Final exams on the following Tuesday:
~Prepare a solo transcription; 
~Practice improvisation to a tune (that is not a blues—John initially said that since "Freddie The Freeloader" is a blues tune, it will not be allowed to be chosen as an option. He however changed his mind and said that if we highlighted very clearly the Ab7 chord that stands out in the tune, we can play that tune.)

Class Materials/Handouts:

~ "Stella By Sustain"

"Large Intervals & Important Notes - Stella By Starlight"

Monday, 6 March 2017

BLOG TOUR: "Just the Essentials: How Essential Oils Can Heal Your Skin, Improve Your Health, and Detox Your Life" by Adina Grigore

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Just the Essentials: How Essential Oils Can Heal Your Skin, Improve Your Health, and Detox Your Life
by Adina Grigore
Harper Wave
Copyright March 2017
Hardcover, 240 Pages

An introductory book on essential oils ideal for DIY enthusiasts eager to embark upon the journey of incorporating essential oils into their lives and revel in their own essential oil concoctions. This reasonably informative book conspicuously and commendably presents the basics of essential oils, a potentially daunting and complex subject matter, in a highly accessible, easily understandable and effortlessly readable way.  

The assortment of interesting recipes and their easy-to-follow instructions included make the book most useful to DIY lovers. The reader primarily seeking an informational text on essential oils without the intention of necessarily applying the DIY projects furnished in the book however might potentially find the book to be less of a valuable purchase. Intriguing pieces of information and excellent content are certainly presented in distinctly digestible and relevant ways to the consumer, including the restructuring of fundamental information of for example, the constituents of essential oils. The free availability of huge amounts of information on the internet on this subject matter—though requiring more targeted research in certain cases—in addition to the retail price of this book however make it seem rather costly for one not intending to utilize the recipes. 

Arguably the most interesting chapters in the book are chapters 7 “The Beginner’s Top Ten” and 8 “It’s Time to DIY.” The practicable content and creative ideas make these chapters particularly outstanding. In chapter 8 for example, brief but interesting descriptions accompanied each carrier oil discussed, namely jojoba oil, sweet almond oil, coconut oil, avocado oil and more. Fun DIY ideas included are also segmented into categories of skincare, perfume, personal care, home care, and aromatherapy.

The reader could choose to concoct a Choco-Mint Dry Shampoo if she or he would absolutely love to “smell like a mint chocolate bar all day!” Or create formulations by the names of Marvin Gaye Massage Oil or Sweet-and-Spicy Body Scrub. One could learn to make Candles for the Four Seasons, such as Vanilla Citronella for the summer. A rather visually appealing and easy-to-reference chart informs the reader on essential oils as allocated to the different categories of fragrance scents—floral, herbal, spicy, woodsy, or citrus. One would also get the opportunity to utilize recipes for essential oil projects which the author assigned eccentric names such as “Dude” Perfume, or I-Gotta-Barf Blend, and re-create the exotic-sounding Mediterranean Cuticle Soak, or the Non-Greasy Beard Oil. 

The book laudably includes pieces of information likely deemed to be highly interesting to its readers. One is warned to check a DIY perfume for signs of molding, and was informed that “you would need to drink more than twenty-eight cups of peppermint tea to match the potency of one drop of peppermint oil.” One learns of the potency of French green clay in clearing pores, and the aromatherapeutic potential of eucalyptus oil and peppermint oil. One is also very fittingly warned of the superficiality of essential oil “grades” in their indication, if at all, of actual quality, and informed of distinctions that could clear up confusion between clary sage and sage oil, or sweet orange oil and bitter orange oil. 

“Mommy[s]-To-Be” are gifted with a dedicated and brief table listing “Safe Oils” for them, and general advice is also given pertaining to using essential oils on or diffusing them around a baby. Some other especially practicable content in the book relate to terms to look out for whilst browsing essential oils, the likes of “steam-distilled” or “cold-pressed,” and a brief mention of unsafe “oils that shouldn’t really be part of anyone’s routine”—sassafras, elecampane, cassia and more. 

The author’s freehanded and seemingly unrestrained expression of her quirkiness especially in part I of the book is potentially problematic. The bountiful insertions of personal, and possibly unnecessary, commentary in parentheses is especially irritating for those who might expect a more professional approach adopted in the book. Example instances include “Young Living, one of the companies at the top of the essential oil food chain, reported sales of over $1 billion in 2015. (That’s buh-billion.);” “Why did the Taylor Swift of the oil kingdom make it onto my top ten list?…it’s impossible to deny how amazing lavender oil is. (Just like it’s impossible to deny the amazingness that is TayTay. Or is that just me?);” “So while we’ll never know if [frankincense] cures the bubonic plague (or if Harry Potter could have used it against Dementors), we do know those doctors were definitely onto something;” “In one story, Jesus forgives a woman her sins after she gives him a foot massage with essential oil. (Who wouldn’t have?)” 

Such commentary seemed more suited for conversational contexts. Whilst such stream of consciousness comments could be considered to be merely harmlessly out of place, these unwarranted comments however unfortunately undermine the author’s credibility. And especially so when slipped into chapters supposedly elucidating for example, the history of essential oils or that which aim to deliver scientific and/or factual information. Along with the use of colloquial expressions such as “what the eff”—in the sentence “So what the eff are essential oils anyway?”—, “uh” and “you know,” part I of the book seems set on imprinting on the reader a lasting bad impression. 

The tone employed by the author in part I of the book also seemed to be almost too self-promotional. Apart from shamelessly referring to her own book as “this kickass book” and making conspicuous promises— “By the end of this book, I promise you that you’ll be in awe of the magic of plant extracts;” “So, basically, no matter who you are, you’re also going to find this book really fun. I promise”—, the author tawdrily said the following, “Consider me the new PR person for essential oils, because I want to give them a makeover and turn them into stars. If essential oils were a baby Justin Bieber, I would be their Usher.” 

Whilst mentions of her own company could certainly be appropriate, the coupling however with overly overt positioning of herself as the be-all and end-all solution to the reader’s concerns and problems seemed too reminiscent of sales pitching in business settings. The author said, “But that doesn’t mean the research [on essential oils] doesn’t exist. It’s just been waiting for me to come along and tell you all about it.” Such a self-promotional stance and tone adopted by the author early on in the book only persuades the reader, though potentially false, that this book is merely another vehicle to promote her company and gain new customers. The self-laudatory comments in the introduction to chapter 8 of the book was also rather appalling. In addressing “DIY junkies” who “skipped the first seven chapters and are just now joining us,” the author proclaimed the presence of “hilarious jokes!” and “pretty amazing” chapters that these readers might have missed. 

The author appeared to commit an earnest mistake for assuming the following, “For me, if it’s not easy, I’m probably not gonna do it, and I’m going to take a leap of faith and assume the same rule applies to you.” It seemed rather unprofessional on the part of the author, who positioned herself as an authority of the subject matter, and not to mention in addition to the exaggerated claims and promises she made, to make such a sweeping statement and potentially alienate a demographic of readers interested in learning slightly more elaborate or more challenging concoctions. In the context of a book, as opposed to for example during daily interactions with clients, such a generalization seemed even less justifiable. 

The abundant inclusion of mostly decorative and sometimes exemplifying illustrations in the book invites interpretation. The unmistakably reassuring tone of address employed particularly in part I of the book and the book’s contents reinforce the impression that the book primarily targets mothers, working women, and females in general, some of whom possibly exhibit signs of stress and anxiety. The plentiful illustrations in the book seem to hint at the book doubling as entertainment and distraction to relieve the reader of stress. The illustrations also very noticeably beautify the book and help keep the reader engaged and interested.

On the other hand, the fact that a majority of the illustrations in the book are primarily ornamental and not particularly necessary might be a subtle acknowledgement of an uncomfortable truth. A particularly revealing question was included in the Essential Oil FAQs section right at the end of the book, “Can you please just tell me where to start? This book is too long and I skipped to this section.” Also as previously mentioned, the author conceded to the possibility of “DIY junkies” skipping the “first seven chapters” and heading straight to chapter 8 which contains the bulk of DIY projects. As such, this seems to imply the acceptance of the potential primary value and functionality of the book as a resource for DIY recipes despite the dedication of a sizable number of chapters to foundational information about essential oils, thereby indicating that extra incentives might be required in the form of visually appealing distractions—the illustrations—just to motivate its target audience to trudge through the predominantly informational chapters preceding the holy grail. 

Considering that this is an uncorrected proof, the book unsurprisingly contains editing errors. Instances including a duplicated subsection, a disjointed table, and typical errors are expected to be resolved by the book’s official release. It is however confusing to the reviewer that this book seemed to be composed of two distinct writing styles and tone, with part I of the book hugely contrasting with the rest of the book. The reviewer is left speculating whether it is the case or not that the entire book, except for part I, has gone through an additional round of editing. 

In the event of the official published version, especially part I, of the book containing chiefly proofread corrections without addressing potential problematic areas as mentioned above, it might be safe to say that part I of the book indeed does not do justice to the quality content delivered in the rest of the book. At its worst, the reader might form a premature perception of the entire book as similarly flawed as part I, thereby bypassing this book and opting instead for a competing title. 

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours for this review.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

REVIEW: "Game Love: Essays on Play and Affection" by Jessica Enevold, Esther MacCallum-Stewart

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Game Love: Essays on Play and Affection
by Jessica Enevold, Esther MacCallum-Stewart
Copyright January 2015
Paperback, 284 Pages

A mostly interesting and decent book exploring the theme of love in videogames. This book compiles a miscellany of material in varying styles and approaches in service to the subject matter of the book. The inclusion of moderate amounts of descriptive and general content makes the book seem most useful to non-gamers; The Sims and the Mario franchises are examples of well-known games approached rather ordinarily in the book. Gamers familiar with the Dragon Age series on the other hand might find the abundant descriptions in the book somewhat redundant. 

Whilst not an ideal resource for scholars—this book fluctuates between somewhat scholarly to more casual works—those who peruse this book with academic intent will still stand to gain and be inspired by nuggets of valuable and interesting concepts. Considering that this book is mostly easy to read and generally entertaining, interested gamers of course could pick up the book; the gamer will be engaged intellectually and critically on occasion and possibly be acquainted with a wider repertoire of games. 

The better chapters in this book are especially fascinating. The essay discussing the virtual pet game Kinectimals and the function of its Kinect natural user interface is one of the most riveting chapters in the book, also bolstered by intriguing citations including that which referred to games as “iOpiates” for “emotion junkies.”

One of the most entertaining chapters in the book spotlighted a darling of the Mario franchise, Princess Peach. Reading about the various romantic narrative angles featuring Princess Peach in the realm of fanfiction—specifically ‘het’ fiction—was certainly enjoyable, be it a narrative setup reminiscent of the “beauty and the beast,” that which deals with the idea of class disparity, or most interestingly the notion of Peach exercising meta awareness by “complaining about her in-game life.”

The chapter examining “Suspended Fulfillment in Fallout: New Vegas” is an absolute gem. The dexterous, creative expression and candid exploration of internal conflicts arising from romantic attraction to a non-existent in-game entity is beautifully complemented with analytical considerations of and intriguing distinctions made between ideas of “vicarious love,” “fictional love,” and “love in bad faith.” The reader can only imagine the depth of self-awareness the author possessed that facilitated such a nature of self-discovery. Amidst the discourse, the author also seamlessly interjected a citation of a really fitting analogy relating to the psychological state of one upon reaching the ending of a game—unemployment. Some avid gamers might find this chapter especially relatable and even comforting to a certain extent through mutual understanding of the emotional complexities associated with the bittersweet phenomenon of “pixel crush.”

Other rather remarkable content in the book includes an analytically fascinating essay which explored the seeming pathology of game addiction from the intriguing dual perspectives of ludophilic versus ludophobic, and 2 chapters which investigated the games Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2 respectively in terms of in-game narrative and Non-Player Characters, and ideas of “romantic bleed” and the contrasting identities of “projected” versus “explorative.”

One of the chapters in the book rather laudably furnished an interesting taxonomy of hearts as found in videogames, namely Regenerative Hearts, Emotive Hearts, Consumptive Hearts, Narrative Hearts, and Decorative Hearts. This chapter falls short however with its rather brief descriptions of each type of Heart which only sufficed in helping the reader differentiate between each; the dramatic lack of depth and detailed exploration or more extensively elaborated examples arguably failed to do justice for such a supposedly promising theory. 

The very last chapter of the book “Bad Romance: For the Love of ‘Bad’ Videogames” generates mixed feelings on the part of the reader with regards to its appeal, relevance and overall fit with the rest of the book. As the title might imply, the chapter spotlights substandard videogames otherwise known as kusoge. Considering that an appreciation of kusoge could be a cultivated taste and necessitates progressive immersion, the brash start to the chapter in extolling the “beauty” of abysmal games coupled with successive name-dropping of such an assortment of bad games potentially turns off the typical or even serious gamer. 

The unpropitious positioning of this chapter with such a negative and eccentric outlook as the very last chapter of this book seems only to further reinforce negative parallels between kusoge and the book itself, thereby perpetuating a less-than-excellent impression of an otherwise already flawed book. Whilst the discussion of kusoge followed by a decent critical treatment somewhat justifies its inclusion in this book, this chapter along with a few other chapters in the book however gave the impression of being forcefully molded just to appear relevant to the overarching theme of love. The mere declaration of appreciation and pleasure in engaging with bad videogames to be equitable to the manifestation of “love” for these games is not convincing, and only further draws attention to its tenuous link with and thus general irrelevance to the theme of love in the book. 

The chapter “NPCs Need Love Too: Simulating Love and Romance, from a Game Design Perspective” is particularly flawed. One’s feelings of eager anticipation at the onset of the chapter gives way to mild disappointment. The reader is titillated with promises of being let in on privileged, or at least targeted, content geared toward game designers—“we,” inclusive of the reader, were addressed as game designers—only to be inundated with multiple superficial repetitions of the idea of “as game designers, we should be cognizant of our own mental model of what falling in love involves, and how we want to communicate that model to the player.” The glaring lack of in-depth analyses or apt illustration furnished in support of the statement is disappointing, and that was before taking into account possible expectations of more vigorous treatment in a chapter that purportedly attempts to address practitioners in the game industry. 

This chapter is unfortunately also problematic as a whole. Another seemingly promising subsection assuring the reader of a “Case Study” on the game Redshirt fell short with its rather brief coverage and lack of in-depth analyses and work. On a probably more minor note, there was no reference as well to the screenshot image “Redshirt Relationship Code” to explicitly tie it in to the prevailing discussion or to better assimilate it into the established context. 

This lackluster chapter could have seized its final chance to redeem itself, but opted instead for its modus operandi in presenting its final point before the conclusion. The idea of a “diverse” game development team not being able to preclude the occurrence of “subconscious decisions and assumptions” that “undermine that diversity” is an interesting finding that surely could be further fleshed out. Such fleeting treatment of multiple great ideas in a chapter lacking in a unifying focal thesis or study merely fortifies the impression of the chapter as being incohesive. 

As for a separate chapter discussing Tabletop Role-Playing Games (TRPG), the reader unfamiliar with a specific game might experience some difficulty making sense of several minute details. The tabletop format of these games do make it slightly more challenging to find “gameplays” of them on online platforms such as Youtube in contrast to digital games. 

This book is unfortunately additionally flawed, for being guilty of one of the publishing sins of poor editing. Examples of misspellings include “customization” spelled as “custimization”— “custimization of one’s avatar”—and “appreciation” spelled as “apprecation,” in the phrase “express their apprecation of.” Other editing mistakes present include that which “where” occupied the rightful place of “were,” as in the following, “long before the pervasiveness of digital games, concerns where raised about the computers on which they run.”

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion. 

Saturday, 18 February 2017

REVIEW: "Playing with Religion in Digital Games" by Heidi A. Campbell, Gregory P. Grieve

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Playing with Religion in Digital Games
by Heidi A. Campbell, Gregory P. Grieve
Indiana University Press
Copyright April 2014
Hardcover, 314 Pages

A phenomenal critical work guided by a patently cogent intellectual vision. Engrossing from the beginning to the end and uniquely cohesive as a collective whole, this book is the commendable result of rigorous examinations of compelling issues intersecting the realms of religion and videogames. 

Perspectives, arguments and hypotheses in the book are conspicuously presented in incredible lucidity, effectiveness and accessibility. Along with adventures into the intertwining territories of religion and videogames, this book incorporates traces of religious studies, immerses the reader in various games’ rich narratives and intriguing fantasies, and emphasizes the versatile ingenuity of videogames. With delightful examination of videogames through the lens of religion, the avid and ambitious gamer can expect to level up his or her gaming vocabulary.

This book is great for religious, atheist and secular game scholars alike; the topic of religion is rather professionally, sensibly and neutrally handled. Scholars and students of all faiths would feel equally invited to engage whole-heartedly and academically with the contents of the book. I consider this book to be an excellent model for scholar-researchers, -writers and -editors venturing to publish a collective scholarly work; the structuring of and strategic role of each chapter in this book in contribution to the overall subject matter is strikingly ingenious. The nonbelieving general reader is encouraged to peruse the text with an open mind, and to guard against involuntary surfacing of cynicism and skepticism that might arise from reading content related to expressions and behaviors of religious faith.

Arguably the most excellent academic material in the book pertains to distinctions between various typologies of religious games, the look at the audiovisual, narrative and procedural layers of videogames separately through comparative examinations of American versus Arab games, and the practical application of the concept of “spiritual efficacy”—“an essential aspect of the implicit religious potential of games”—fascinatingly and methodically illustrated through the analysis of the videogame The Path

The clear distinctions established between the likes of allomythic games—that presuppose new religious landscapes—, theoptic games, digital didactic or praxic games and more are made all the more compelling with the range of examples provided. It is absolutely enjoying, the way Chapter 5 explored Islam through unpacking the narrative of the “European medieval travelogue” of the American game Age of Empires 2 in contrast to the “Arab prophetic literature,” the game Quraish, and thereafter explicating the elements contributing to for example, the humanization of Islam. The analyses of the elements forming and somewhat quantifying the notion of spiritual efficacy—flow, meditation, empowerment, disempowerment and morality—of The Path is astoundingly fascinating, achieved through meticulous consideration of factors such as the presence or absence of in-game moral systems, moral feedbacks, predetermined goals, elements generating “meditative states,” or availability for an avatar’s abilities to improve.

Comparably captivating and exceptional includes content dealing with ideas of religious “transcendent horror” explored through the games Silent Hill and Fatal Frame, of neomedievalism in fantasy role-playing games, and of the outstanding intellectual concept “mechanistic bias” as purportedly perpetuated to religion by the videogame medium. The very human fascination with supernatural horror makes the heart thumping investigation of fundamentalist Christianity in Silent Hill, and of the signifiers of Japanese Shintoism and Buddhism in Fatal Frame really captivating indeed. Another excellently argued hypothesis is the idea of the precise, reductionist and mechanistic approach of videogames in rendering religion, as manifested in the forms of “formulaic deities,” technological gods, the “strategic” religion, and the quantifiable faith, and which is eloquently said to result in “an impoverished vision of what religions mean to their adherents.”

Some religious controversies stirred by the gameplay or the virtual environment of certain videogames are compellingly covered. For example, the game Resistance: Fall of Man which was sued by the Church of England for purportedly desecrating the Manchester Cathedral in England through its virtual depiction of its ruins, and the game Hanuman: Boy Warrior based on Hindu mythology which instigated furor for supposedly empowering gamers to “control and manipulate” the Hindu deity Hanuman and thus “disrespect[ing]” and “trivializing” the deity. This book flawlessly boils down this topic of contention to the seeming irreconcilability of the notions of “interactivity” and that of “theological inevitability.”

Other ideas in the book are distinctly transformative and therefore precious. The positive empowerment of the gamer is absolutely valuable, for one to guiltlessly and whole-heartedly embrace videogames, by liberating the self from the mainstream stigma and condemnation of videogames as frivolous. With one’s consciousness being imbued with the alternative perspective that games and the act of gaming can be viewed as a “religion,” and as a medium simultaneously warranting fun and serious treatment, the gamer is freed to boldly accept that gaming can be an earnest venture and a meaningful pursuit in life. The book contains ideas for example, that indicate games to be not “unreal,” but instead to be “human worlds revealed to be symbolic universes accessible through a machine.” 

Another extraordinarily unconventional, convincing and fluently constructed perspective is as follows, “One could even argue that from the player’s perspective computer worlds are superior to reality in some respects. The example of Manchester Cathedral in the game Resistance: Fall of Man makes this clear. For players, the cathedral was more ‘real’ in its virtual representation than in the actual building in Manchester, because the game allowed the players to work in it in the Schutzean sense and thus make it part of their life-world. The building in Manchester had no reality for most of the players.”

Whilst religious purists and zealots likely might not peruse this book, it could still be necessary to highlight the rare statement or so that could potentially be taken wrongly by this demographic of readers. Atheists might nod their heads in agreement to statements proclaiming the close resemblance between religion and gaming, for example that religion is potentially as “unreal” as videogames, religious purists however might not take such insinuations amiably. The same could be said with regards to instances such as when the spiritual and virtual worlds are noted as “close cousins,” and to be “equally isolated from the material world’s play and prayer.” 

Hardline religious adherents might also not appreciate or even downright reject respectful and scholarly considerations of religion as a game, in the sense of “the game of religion” or “religion, as a game.” Other potentially problematic statements communicated the possibility of religion “devolv[ing] into assumptions of certainty where certainty does not exist,” and expressed notions that “we are increasingly enchanted with computers because they do what our religion has always done for us, but in some ways they do it better.” 

Though probably inconsequential and barely noticeable to the average reader, the book at one juncture however could possibly furnish an additional sentence or so to contextualize an example provided on game localization. In Chapter 8 “Filtering Cultural Feedback,” it was cited that the movement speed of the U.S. version of The Dirge of Cerberus to be “reportedly 1.2 times” faster than that of the Japanese version. The curious reader however is left wondering the rationale, whether cultural, technological or otherwise, which explains the disparity. Whilst the lack of an answer here is hardly tragic due to the introductory nature of this material as preceding the comprehensive core of the chapter, any refinement in the attention to detail in the book however could certainly leave distinct impressions in the minds of attentive readers or book reviewers. 

Considering the masterly fleshed out premise of gaming as “implicit religion” in the book, as an atheist, I just might adopt the religion of gaming from this moment on. 

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

REVIEW: "Parables of the Posthuman: Digital Realities, Gaming, and the Player Experience" by Jonathan Boulter

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Parables of the Posthuman: Digital Realities, Gaming, and the Player Experience
by Jonathan Boulter
Wayne State University Press
Copyright December 2015
Paperback, 168 Pages

Posthumanism and videogaming probed through the lens of philosophy and phenomenology. This episodically challenging read provides rather interesting and unique insights into the “machinic, posthuman” phenomenon and its play experience in digital play. Very well-written, this book structures its analyses and arguments through examinations of representative videogames such as BioShock, Crysis 2, Half-Life 2 and Fallout 3.

Parading its scholarly style of writing reinforced with rather substantial use of jargon, this book surely appears to primarily target philosophy scholars and students, game scholars, and potentially the game student. Though relatively short and compact, this book could be a challenging read for the non-philosophically educated reader, and likely formidable or even downright inaccessible for one without higher education. Readers of diverse professional backgrounds and especially avid gamers not repelled by the academic prose are absolutely encouraged to read this book. Certain nuggets of insights will preciously enhance the gamer’s understanding and even affinity for videogames. 

Some material in the book strike one as being marvelously excellent. The intriguing analyses of the element of the posthuman in Crysis 2, the rigorous examination of the idea of melancholia, and the exploration of the significance of the catastrophe and the apocalypse in posthumanism are absolute gems. The author asked distinctly thought-provoking questions such as “Is posthumanism grounded in the devastation of space and place?”, shrewdly highlighted the posthumanist irony of and contrast between the “devastated” and “torn down” virtual world against the “enhanced” game protagonist, and very aptly verbalized the notion of the unpleasant limitations of humanity and “lessness of this [real] world” as opposed to the virtual world.

Other ideas raised are positively and pronouncedly profound. The idea for example, of identifying the “true” narrative of a videogame, whether the “explicit” or the “hidden” narrative or otherwise, is truly fascinating. Similarly stimulating include the discussion of the application of the concept of “deterritorialization” in conceiving hypotheses pertaining to the avatar and the player-avatar relationship, and indication of the incorporation of “a morality system” into BioShock’s gameplay. The comparison of the “fantasy” videogames offer to “a kind of virtual tourism” is certainly intriguing, whilst attributing the constituent of the “faceless” and “voiceless” protagonist in a first-person game for successfully “placing the player in the closest psychological proximity to the agency of the avatar” is surely convincing. 

To his credit, the author beautifully vocalized factors that elucidate the appeal of videogames and the posthuman gaming experience. A diverse range of fantasies were noted—to transcend limitations of the biological, gravitational, physiological and even psychological; to enjoy a freedom from “singularity, the singularity of a limited and static subjectivity” of real life; and even to embrace “pleasurable” threats to one’s own identity or to fulfill one’s supposed “fantasy of loss.”

The reader might not agree with every statement or assessment made by the author; the analyses remain interesting nonetheless. The idea of the “very human desire to alter our ways of being, the very real desire to become other, and permanently” might be thought-provoking but not necessarily persuasive. The book is occasionally dry, with not all philosophical approaches discussed and elaborated upon to be equally engrossing, prompting one to sporadically skip ahead. The density and extent of jargon found in the book also seemed to make the text less accessible than necessary, thus potentially curtailing readership by excluding a certain demographic of readers who otherwise would have eagerly devoured the fresh and incisive perspectives offered. 

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

REVIEW: "Understanding Minecraft: Essays on Play, Community and Possibilities" by Nate Garrelts

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Understanding Minecraft: Essays on Play, Community and Possibilities 
by Nate Garrelts
Copyright September 2014
Paperback, 232 Pages

A piercing intellectual discourse on Minecraft and its identity as a videogame. Beautifully written, this scholarly book provides a multifaceted analysis of Minecraft—its mechanics, aesthetics, features, value and applicability—and theorizes the game’s appeal, popularity, uniqueness and success. Organized in compact chapters, discussions in the book are adroitly interweaved with the fields of education, psychology, literature, sociology and technology. The inclusion of interesting comparative assessments also allows the reader to gain additional understanding of a variety of other videogames. 

This book is accessible even for researchers, scholars and students who have never experienced or played Minecraft firsthand. Examinations of the game within the videogame canon is built upon the provision of foundational details of the game—its basic features, the idea of mods, the game’s developmental narrative, and its developer’s policies and vision. This book will also be a delectable treat for ardent gamers who enjoy engaging with critical and theoretical texts. Videogame neophytes can expect to be blown away by the expansive world of Minecraft, and be stimulated and inspired by the immense creativity and talent existing within the Minecraft community. For those who earnestly scrutinize the book’s contents, he or she could surely gain satisfaction from continuing to hone his or her game analysis skills and the ability to verbalize the virtues of videogames and the virtual world the games reside within. 

The book contains a sizable amount of content that spans from being magnificently fascinating to positively interesting. The discussion of Minecraft University as a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) in educational settings is one of the most engaging topics found in the book, along with the bold attempt to critically relate Minecraft’s virtual environment mechanics and gameplay dynamics to ideologies and issues of the natural environment in our world. Whilst some may dismiss the relevance or even prudence of relating the environmental discourse to Minecraft—where Minecraft was referred to as a “failed ecological game”—it is however incredibly refreshing and intellectually compelling to be exposed to the perspective indicating Minecraft as being antithetical to highlighting important issues of environmental exploitation and its consequences due to the state of its virtual world—as “a theoretically infinite world with inexhaustible soil and virtually waste-free resource conversion.”

The idea of the growth of the community of Minecraft animators and fan producers such as The Yogscast being spurred on by the game’s “narrative silence” or “blankness” is interesting, and the contrast established between the concepts of authenticity versus validity in videogame design is astounding. Observations on the correlations between player personalities—labelled “Curiosity,” “Tranquility,” or more—and their virtual behavior in Minecraft is another outstanding piece of information found in the book. The book is also bolstered with additional interesting content such as the role of Procedural Content Generation (PCG) and the necessary concept of “operational radius” in Minecraft; the range of tools and features of the game which reinforce the player’s autonomy, enhance the game’s universal accessibility, and reinforce its dual creative and survival modes. 

Going beyond expectations, an analytical portion of Minecraft was even corroborated with an intriguing literary citation, namely the book Eunoia by Christian Bok where “every chapter is written using only one vowel,” an example being the first line of “Chapter E” which went, “enfettered, these sentences repress free speech.” In line with the book’s literary qualities and as an instance of its beautiful writing, a sentence went, “In Minecraft, the player character literally spawns on the grounds of an imaginary and abstract wilderness that has been designed for colonization and exploration.”

The chapter “Look What Just Happened: Communicating Play in Online Communities” is rather lackluster, with its lack of academic rigor especially pronounced in contrast to other chapters in the book. Whilst the mention of the Player-Game Descriptive Index (PGDI) and simple demonstrations of its application in the discussion was somewhat interesting, the predominant discourse in the chapter about social dialogue in online communities was mostly descriptive and painfully lacking in insightful syntheses and analyses. Some of the cosmetic descriptions went, “Many responders provided mostly unhelpful comments. Some challenged or denied the validity of a question, without answering it or providing a contrasting remark. In response to a question of what others do to keep from being bored, one responder simply said that he didn’t do anything because Minecraft never got boring for him.” 

Though not perfect, this book as a collective and cohesive whole has surely convinced me that Minecraft is “indeed every nerd’s dream.”

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.