This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
03.07.19 / Robinson (Little, Brown) / Non-Fiction / Paperback / 288pp / 978-1472141606
Target Audience: Readers who want understand more about the psychology behind videogames; their appeal to many different people; the positive and negative effects; how beneficial play can be for mental health and how much the public image of the typical gamer has been misinterpreted in the media and psychological research over the years.
About Universal Play
Even as the popularity of videogames has skyrocketed, a dark cloud continues to hang over them. Many people who play games feel embarrassed to admit as much, and many who don’t worry about the long-term effects of a medium often portrayed as dangerous and corruptive.
Drawing on years of experience working directly with people who play games, clinical psychologist Alexander Kriss steers the discourse away from extreme and factually inaccurate claims around the role of games in addiction, violence and mental illness, instead focusing on the importance of understanding the unique relationship that forms between a game and its player.
Through vivid psychotherapy case illustrations, autobiographical memoir, and a wide range of psychological theory and research, Universal Play lays out an honest and humanistic vision of games, their potentials and risks, and how they can teach us more about who we are and who we could be.
My Review Of Universal Play
‘Not all games are violent, or sexualised; not all players and creators of games are white men; not all straight white men who play games are obsessed with violence or sex. Even if not factual, though, these ideas have been regarded as true in the public consciousness for decades. To confront and ultimately revise these narratives it is essential to understand how they came to be. As Turing turned to games as an escape from shame and Ferranti felt some measure of shame for turning to games as a means for self-promotion, following generations would continue to wrestle with the notion of games as a cause of and solution to shameful emotions. Games would alternately serve as a perpetuator of and cathartic outlet for this tension, a kind of digital repository for the taboo and the countercultural fantasies of a repressed group of mainstream Americans: an uploaded unconscious.’ Alexander Kriss p64 Universal Play.
Both videogames and psychology are subjects that are very close to my heart so when I got the opportunity to read about both in one place, I couldn’t believe my luck. Alexander Kriss’ Universal Play sets out to clarify quite a few important things. First to bust the stigma surrounding the stereotypical ‘gamer’ and their motivations, behaviour and attitudes. Secondly to address the poorly handled or mis-interpreted research/media coverage that has lead to such a stigma. Thirdly to show that playing games in any calibre, from Fallout to Candy Crush, can tell us more about our state of mind, personality or psychological issues than we currently give them credit for. Finally that games are as diverse as their players and can offer many differently individuals an alternative experience in life, that it is the player that makes the game and if it is punishment, connectivity, relaxation, healing, fantasy or creativity you want then games always have your back.
Alexander Kriss is a clinical psychologist but he also became a gamer at a young age. Playing games like Myst and Silent Hill 2. A fascination that, through grief and shame, lead him to the field of psychology. Shame is synonymous with games, especially in adulthood, with most people sheepishly admitting their enjoyment of games when asked. Feelings of shame when playing games instead of doing something more ‘productive’ are very common. Mainly being aware of what other people associate videogames with such as violence and antisocial behaviour. But AK understands and appreciates the potential of games, the idea that games can be as much the cure as it can be the illness. Putting forward his own views on key questions such as do videogames make us violent? How should we be approaching videogame addiction? Why do we play videogames in the first place? And how can videogames help people heal?
Through multiple case studies from his work as a therapist AK talks about the many aspects of the games we play and the positive and negative traits involved. Opening up about addiction, sex, violence, socialising, mental health, boundaries, shame and grief amongst many different subjects within games. Discussing the concept of the gamer through interactions with his patients and their own experiences related to gaming, both good and bad. Showing that the demographic of the typical player isn’t so clear cut after all. Also delving into the history of how videogames came to be and how the image of the industry and the people who play the games was created more or less by the media and how important it is moving forward to accept games, or play in general, as a critical part of the human experience.
Alexander Kriss is defining what games are to us. How games (or play) have been intrinsically tied to humanity for as long as we can remember. How videogames offer us the chance for freedom, choice, catharsism, testing, experimentation without consequences and even providing confidence or fulfilment (whether you regard it as false or not is another subject). Revealing how people have come together to play in these virtual worlds and what they have achieved within the smallest limitations. The sheer amount of nuance that exist inside games. How role play allows us to think freely without worrying about cultural or societal judgement. Universal Play is for readers who want to understand games and those who play them but also for those who want to understand their own relationships with video games too.
I think Alexander Kriss’ coverage of both gaming and psychology in Universal Play was impressive. The detail, scope and honesty of his writing really made this book whole. He could have easily reeled off research, case notes and definitions which would have made this a passable effort but he went the extra mile. Using context, consideration and personal anecdotes and insights to bring each element of his work together in harmony. His respect for his patients and their plights was admirable. AK could easily agree with his colleagues and dismiss gamers as a type, addicted, antisocial or worse but he knows that there is something deeper to our need to play. Underlying feelings or notions that reveal themselves through psychotherapy, being able to address the unnecessary shame, and open new ways of thinking about our own minds. Battling ignorance for the sake of the misunderstood.
It was so interesting to see psychological terminology being combined with game speak. My two favourite languages in one place. My own appreciation for games made me pick up this book in a flash. It was an amazing experience to look at my connection with videogames in a new light and reminisce about how some of the games I played shaped my mind. I cultivated a thirst for knowledge (oh Ross) through games. Needing to know every little detail about a subject or setting to bolster my understanding of the world around me. I became a perfectionist in some regards due to being put to task by games to be come better. I owe a lot to gaming and it is good to share books with readers that show them in a natural light. Both positive and negative but ultimately fair.
I can’t recommend Universal Play enough to everyone. It isn’t groundbreaking in a psychological sense but Alexander Kriss manages to break plenty of ground in clarification and explanation of the reason that games appeal to many people. Taking apart the various thought processes, both conscious and unconscious, that draw us to certain games. And what the games truly tell us about ourselves. The word potential used a lot in Universal Play and it is the best way to sum up this whole book. There is so much potential in the future of games now is the time to reinvent the image of games and appreciate them as a platform for change.
About Alexander Kriss
Alexander Kriss runs a private psychotherapy practice in New York City, where he combines psychoanalytic and existential approaches to treat adolescents and adults dealing with a wide range of issues, including anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder and videogame addiction (though he’s not a fan of that term). Kriss’ writing has appeared in Logic, Kill Screen and various academic books and peer-reviewed journals. He lives in the village of Sleepy Hollow with his wife and son.