Cure for the Common Universe

Book review by
Darienne Stewart, Common Sense Media
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Callous gamer wises up in smart rehab tale.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Clearly articulates the potential dangers of using digital distractions to avoid personal problems and some of the ways an obsession with gaming can disrupt meaningful relationships. Discusses privilege and how it can narrow perspective and impair empathy. Shows how powerfully therapy can change the way people view themselves and the way they engage with the world.

Positive Messages

Healthy relationships require work from both parties. Avoiding uncomfortable emotions usually just makes things worse -- you may have to turn toward the pain to understand why it hurts and then heal. Teamwork requires both a shared goal and shared effort. What might seem insignificant to you can be life-changing for someone else. Empathy helps people live richer, more rewarding lives.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Jaxon is generally selfish and calculating, but he begins to open his eyes to the needs, wants, and struggles of those around him. His teammate Aurora is particularly perceptive and thoughtful, working through deep emotional terrain to find her strengths. Another teammate, Soup, is very empathetic but debases himself to try to win friendship. Guild leader Fezzik is patient and compassionate. Other adults show concern for Jaxon's well-being, but their attempts to help him are generally ineffective. Parents are emotionally -- and sometimes physically -- distant from the teens though engaged enough to recognize the need for professional help.

Violence

Lots of hostility, aggression, and feuding among teens. Punching and fighting, a go-kart collision, bullying behavior, and lots of crass name-calling and insults targeting people for appearance, race, and gender. Anecdotes relate disturbing incidents: receiving aggressively crass insults while playing online, injuring another player with a controller, the death of a sibling, inuring oneself to learn a lesson, a parent whose son struck him with a car over video games. Boy's misogynistic attitude and language (for example, at a race: "This track is your bitch. Use it and then leave it behind") is met with reprobation from peers. Mention of shooting prostitutes in a video game and brief reference to the Gamergate discussion of how women are treated in video games and gaming culture.

Sex

Teen boy flirts with girl and successfully asks her on a date, but then becomes obsessed with her and uses some sexual innuendo (for example, he wants to "charm the pants off her"). Insults and banter include mentions of vibrators, masturbation, hickeys, wet T-shirt contests, "tea bagging," breasts, and genitalia. Boy insultingly refers to smell of "girl parts." Teen tries to kiss another and is rebuffed; adult makes a very public romantic overture and is rebuffed.

Language

Frequent, casual use of coarse language and vulgarities, often directed against others: "badass," "balls," "bastard," "bitch," "blow job," "boobs," "dammit," "damn," "d--khead," "d--ks," "douche bag," "fags," "hell," "jerkhole," "man boobs," "pissed," "pussy," "screwed," "shitty," "tea bagging," and many variations of "ass" and "f--k."

Consumerism

Plentiful video game references, both explicit (such as game titles) and subtle (references to iconic scenes and characters that might not be known to non-gamers). A few other brands, including car and bike models.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teen gets exceedingly drunk while gambling in a casino and is taken into custody by police. Another teen has a parent with addiction problems, and another is undergoing heroin withdrawal without appropriate treatment. Reference to smoking crack.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that the central character in Cure for the Common Universe is a self-absorbed, manipulative gamer who resents being stuck in video game rehab with what he regards as a group of losers. Jaxon becomes increasingly unlikable as he cheats his way through the program while his peers make therapeutic progress. In this debut novel, author Christian McKay Heidicker has a lot to say about the appeal of video games and the temptation to sink too far into digital life, and the most striking insights come from Jaxon's peers. The quarrelsome teens in "V-hab" hurl vulgar, foul-mouthed insults -- and sometimes punches and worse -- at one another, but the behavior seems fairly realistic. There's some sexual innuendo that's countered by a few strong female characters, and there's bullying behavior and some racist taunts, all underscoring a point about how privilege shapes the way we experience the world.

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What's the story?

Hard-core gamer Jaxon, 16, can't believe his luck: He met a gorgeous girl, she seems to like him, and they have a date in four days. Moments later, though, his dad and stepmom pack him off to video game rehab. Jaxon, certain the best way to change his life for the better would be to go on his date, decides to game the system to try to get released in record time. Luckily for him, the program is modeled on games: He needs to complete challenges with his guild and earn one million points to get out of "V-hab." But the closer he gets to his goal, the more he alienates his teammates and enrages his rivals, leaving a trail of angry, hurt feelings in his wake. Winning in real life, Jaxon begins to realize, is nothing like winning in a game world.

Is it any good?

This funny, well-told story makes the case that compulsive gaming is just as devastating as other addictions, letting gamers tune out troubles in favor of predictable, satisfying virtual interaction. Christian McKay Heidicker's CURE FOR THE COMMON UNIVERSE is a sure win for gamers, full of smart references and understanding for all the highs and lows of gaming culture.

There's terrific fodder here for talking about how our relationship with technology affects our self-awareness and connections to each other. Wonderfully developed supporting characters give the book heart and depth. The sticky issue is that Jaxon's moment of clarity feels like too little, too late. By the time he takes a good, hard look at himself, he's alienated everyone around him -- including readers. The focus on privilege is interesting, if a bit forced. Jaxon clearly still has a lot of work to tackle on his own.

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