Can’t decide what to eat?

They've got you jumping around on their Wii Fit and you can keep your faculties in trim with Brain T

Now regularly invading the Sunday supplements and lifestyle technology sections of the dailies, the middle-brow appears satisfied that gaming is ‘mainstream’, something ‘older’ people and on occasion ‘females’ are now enjoying as a pastime of choice.

Upon closer examination though, it rapidly becomes apparent that such editorial is usually talking about the work of a one company in particular - Nintendo, and the rest of the industry is benefitting from their innovation hugely.

Since the launch of their handheld DS and latterly Wii systems, this old Japanese company has become an accepted synonym for mainstream gaming. Their most recent success, Wii Fit, sent non-gamers rushing to the shops to buy a brilliant (and expensive) ‘balance board’ with software which could apparently measure and improve their fitness.

Despite also emitting the same whiff of pseudo-science which some found objectionable about their Brain Training games, the masses were mostly able to make the leap that their ‘Wii Fit Age’ score was simply a motivational device which encouraged them to play, and not a clinically accurate diagnosis of their cardio-vascular health.

There was of course, the unfortunate subjective analysis (you’re fat) that the software doled out to one ten year old girl, but most people emerged relatively unscathed.

So, having convinced aging gamers that they can delay the onset of Alzeimers with Brain Training, and selling an elaborate set of bathroom scales into living rooms with lucrative success with Wii Fit - they now make a move into a previously untapped room of your house - the kitchen. Their latest DS release, Cooking Guide, prizes open the gap between them and their ‘competitors’ even farther. Subtitled ‘Can’t decide what to eat?’, this is a snappy, convenient little tool designed to help you answer that recurring question and then guide you through the culinary process.

It’s a perfectly effective recipe software and most useful in the manner in which it allows you to interrogate its database, selecting recipe options based on your available ingredients, spare time or country of origin.

Having chosen your meal, the software takes you step by step through preparation and cooking in a surprisingly un-patronising manner. Fears of your DS’s circuitry becoming jammed up with raw pork are unfounded, as there’s really no need to touch the device once you start cooking.

The entire process can be driven through effective voice-recognition, requiring you to clearly shout ‘continue’ to move on to the next step. A chef avatar thankfully devoid of any particular character traits guides you through the cooking, and suggests a real opportunity for celebrity chefs in the future.

Surely Ramsay will see this as an opportunity to stretch his franchise even further and license, ‘Can’t decide what to fucking eat?’

The whole exercise is more a very effective proof of concept than an essential purchase, and it’s unlikely that the software will make the same headlines that Brain Training did. That said, as another demonstration of the durability of the DS as a device, it’s very persuasive.

Quite how effective Brain Training and Cooking Guide are as a gateway drug into other gaming experiences isn’t wholly clear as yet. The DS remains one of the richest platforms for innovation in game design around, and it would be great to think that having had their brains trained, players move on to try other experiences. Cooking Guide is also suggestive of a yet un-tapped market for decision making software. Politics Guide : Can’t decide what to think? Anyone?

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.
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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.