Future Tense

The Six-Point Inspection: New Tech Books on the Exquisite Pain of Video Games and More

Each month in “The Six-Point Inspection,” Future Tense and Zócalo Public Square take a quick look at new science and technology books that are changing the way we see our world.

The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games by Jesper Juul

The nutshell: Using the lenses of psychology, philosophy, game design, and fiction, New York University gaming scholar Juul explores the strange paradox of video games: we hate losing, but we only like games in which we lose most of the time.


Literary lovechild of: Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World and Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch.

You’ll find it on your bookshelf if: You’re a loser. But in the nice sense of the term.


Cocktail party fodder: Video games have gotten easier. In the early days, developers designed using the arcade model, which gave players a limited number of lives in games like Super Mario Bros. In the 1990s, they started giving players infinite lives in single-player games like Uncharted 2.

For optimal benefit: Play Juul’s Suicide Game and get an extra-twisted taste of the book’s central paradox—that we enjoy failure. In this case, the goal of the game is for the protagonist to die.


Snap judgment: Juul’s essay is lean, pleasingly bold, and follows through on an intriguing premise.

Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology by Caroline Paul, drawings by Wendy MacNaughton

The nutshell: Shortly after writer Paul began dating artist MacNaughton, Paul’s beloved cat Tibby disappeared. When Tibby reappeared five weeks later and a half-pound heavier, Paul reacted with joy—and bought a GPS system and a CatCam so that going forward, she could see where Tibby was sleeping (and eating) around.

Literary lovechild of: Sandra Cisneros’ Have You Seen Marie? and Vicki Myron’s Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World.

You’ll find it on your bookshelf if: You can make room for it amid all your cat figurines.


Cocktail party fodder: Somewhere, there’s a guy working out of a garage making GPS systems especially designed for cats, says Paul, who ordered one for Tibby off a website she describes as “strange … full of crude drawings and stiff English.”

For optimal benefit: Read before investing in history’s most expensive and technologically advanced scratching post.

Snap judgment: Cute without being treacly, Lost Cat has an appeal that even dog partisans will have to acknowledge.

Fatal Flaws: How a Misfolded Protein Baffled Scientists and Changed the Way We Look at the Brain* by Jay Ingram

The nutshell: Science writer Ingram unravels the scientific mystery of prions, protein molecules that, when misshapen in the brain, are behind fatal ailments like mad-cow disease.


Literary lovechild of: Francis Crick’s Of Molecules and Men and David M. Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story.

You’ll find it on your bookshelf if: When you think protein, you don’t think about red meat, leafy vegetables, and legumes—you think amino acids like valine and methionine.

Cocktail party fodder: You can’t donate blood in the United States or Canada if you spent a significant amount of time in Western Europe between 1980 and 1996, because you might be incubating mad-cow-like prions. Might be. Calm down.


For optimal benefit: Put down the cheeseburger before picking up this book.

Snap judgment: Ingram’s tales of discovery, though told with suspense and careful clarity, would carry more weight if the author pulled back to explain their broader significance.  


Previous Six-Point Inspections:
March 2013: Robot Futures, Math on Trial, and Can’t Buy Me Like.
February 2013: Pukka’s Promise, Entering the Shift Age, and Data: A Love Story.
January 2013: Contagion, Mankind Beyond Earth, and Raw Data Is an Oxymoron.
December 2012: Saving Babies, Near-Earth Objects, and Learning To Change the World.
November 2012: Netflixed, Discord, and Million Death Quake.
October 2012: The Launch Paid, Regenesis, and The Digital Rights Movement.
September: 2012 Unfit for the Future, Automate This, and This Machine Kills Secrets.
August 2012: Resilience, Interop, and Green Illusions.

*Correction, April 3, 2013: This link originally went to another book called Fatal Flaws. The link has been updated.