So much more than a game

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Mr T plays them, Ozzy Osbourne grudgingly admits that he's not as scary as some of them, and Ant & Dec fall out over them. No longer the preserve of socially inept adolescents, computer games are now possibly the world's biggest industryFun Inc, the new book by Tom Chatfield, has some interesting theories on how this came to be, and what we can expect in the future.

Chatfield argues the dramatic growth of the industry has less to do with raw marketing and improved technology, and more to do with how games are increasingly seen as applications that can be used in business, education, and, in an increasingly non-geeky way, for valuable social interaction.

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Fun Inc presents a detailed look at the gaming industry: from it's commercial beginnings with Pong to today's masterpieces, such as Grand Theft Auto IV – which generated $500 million in sales in it's opening weekend, at that point more than any movie ever made.

Chatfield, who is an editor for Prospect Magazine, also discusses the effect of this explosion. Like the movie industry, games are now so expensive to create that increasingly companies are rolling out simpler concepts – notably Guitar Hero or the WII Sports series. The former generated Aerosmith more revenue in royalties than any of their stadium sell-outs. 

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Where Fun Inc really comes into its own is when it steps into the territory of Massively Multiplayer Online Games. World of Warcraft's sheer coverage (over 14 million at the time of print), Chatifield argues, has made it an increasingly useful analysis tool.

Chatfield goes on to describe a number of situations, all based on the idea that there's a blurring between the concept of 'real' and 'unreal' – the increase in people paying 'real' money for 'unreal' weapons and privileges, the going rates for mercenary warfare, for assassinations and for medical help, or even the growing industry in Westerners paying 'real' money to groups of Chinese teenagers to develop a character to order for them.

Additionally, the actions of a group of players that decided to release a disease into the game was used by the US government as a study of both the behaviour of terrorist groups, and the behaviour of people during a pandemic in the 'real world'. 

All this leads into a look at the future of gaming. Whilst many modern movies portray the horror of a world lived via computer, Chatfield points out a number of well-designed 'games' that have been used to great success by the military as well as in the fields of medicine and education.

Fun Inc compares shifting attitudes and a diversifying audience for games to that of the fledgling movie industry: predicting that the recent growth of  the avant-garde game is evidence that one day great games will be regarded on the same cultural pedestal as great movies or great books.

What emerges ultimately from Fun Inc is a detailed and engaging analysis on an increasingly influential medium. Even non-gamers may find themselves seduced. In the meantime, we’re off to take out Fat Tony in a drive by shooting. Ally Byers

Fun Inc - Why Games are the 21st Centruy's Most Serious Business by Tom Chatfield (Virgin Books) is out on January 14, priced £12.99