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  • From Playgrounds to PlayStation: The Interaction of Technology and Play by Carroll Pursell
  • Joseph Wachelder (bio)
From Playgrounds to PlayStation: The Interaction of Technology and Play. By Carroll Pursell. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. Pp. 216. $28.95.

As the title suggests, this study by Carroll Pursell provides an overview of the interactions of technology and play. It departs from a social-historical angle, though it does not specify its research focus, methodology, or unit of analysis. Play, of course, has many facets. The choice of the “right” toys may encourage ideological reflections and elicit debates. Playing is a practice as well. Further, games and sports need infrastructure and employ gear and equipment. All these various facets are addressed by the author. The brief final chapter presents a number of general claims, including the observation that play and technology are omnipresent in modern society.

Moreover, toys and playthings are often intended to educate, socialize, or discipline youth. The persistent (discriminatory) impact of gender and racial distinctions in toys and sports is striking. It is argued that leisure and [End Page 303] work appear to be intricately connected: hobbies and recreation frequently go together with education, while it can be difficult to distinguish amateurs from professionals. In the development of sports, technological innovations in infrastructure, media, and equipment are increasingly intertwined, sometimes leading to unexpected effects. The latter applies to playing as well: one may try to discipline young players by having them follow the institutionalized rules of a game, but they can always try to undermine these rules or decide to quit playing altogether.

The chapters are thematically organized, with no particular geographical focus, but the United States most often serves as a frame of reference. The book addresses gender and toys; urban risks and the striving for safe playgrounds; pleasure grounds and amusements parks; hobbyists; games and sports; extreme sports; and, finally, electronic games. This list suggests a broad interpretation of play. The first chapters deal with children’s play and the practices of amusement parks, which target young adults (of both sexes) and families. Hobbies are presented as relevant only for adults, and in this context the author also pays attention to the Do It Yourself movement, home improvement, and hot rods. Another chapter deals mostly with institutionalized and organized sports. Adventure sports allow for highlighting the role of venturous individuals. A discussion of electronic games leads the reader into the digital era.

Although more recent developments are increasingly highlighted as this study unfolds, all chapters also address the long history of playing. The chapter on electronic games, for instance, guides the reader back to the Château de Bagatelle in 1777 to discuss the introduction of the eponymous table game. Via coin-operated versions of bagatelle, pinball machines, video games, and gambling machines we arrive at arcade games. All of these machines link up differently with technology. If this approach reveals many varied and interesting connections, the broad historical scope also makes it harder to cover topics or the (recent) literature about them in full or to arrive at detailed conclusions, as is well illustrated by the chapter on electronic games.

Because of this study’s rich content and general claims, it will provoke different readings. I was struck by the varied, and changing, roles of locales and space throughout the book. If tabletop games and nursery toys celebrate the security of familial domesticity, the effort toward creating safe and rational playgrounds was a response to the increasing risks of urban environments. Amusement parks introduced the thrill of speed and adventure under controlled circumstances in enclosed spaces. Institutionalized sports require facilities, such as stadiums, training facilities, and parking lots. Moreover, to play in leagues, athletes and teams have to travel.

Pursell interestingly addresses and compares the effects of technology on different sports. Wild nature and extraordinary circumstances are needed for action sports. Video games can create virtual worlds to explore, [End Page 304] conquer, or destroy. Technology is applied in different ways: to make environments safe, challenging, or thrilling. Alternative threads can be spun as regards the relationship between technological innovations, equipment, and game rules or, to give another example, between technological innovations...


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pp. 303-305
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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