The politics of games -- and why there are no virtual romcoms

Weasel News, templars in the supreme court and socialism in <em>Fable 3</em> -- more from Naomi Alde

Yesterday, I posted an interview with the game writers Naomi Alderman and David Varela, who are both tutors on an Arvon course in September (click here to read the piece, here for more info on the course). Here, I talk to Naomi about politics in games and David about their generic limitations.

Naomi, talking about binary choices in video games, how did you feel about Fable 3?

Naomi Alderman: Oh, my god, they were dreadful. It's weird because I think it wants to be a comedy game. They've got a lot of great comedic acting talent -- they've got John Cleese and Mark Heap. Mark Heap is a genius.

They've got John bloody Cleese voicing it and what he's voicing is just a menu. He's there to go: "If you want to change your outfit, go here," or, "If you want to look at how much money you've got, go here." John Cleese! You've got John Cleese, why would you do that?

I was playing it thinking: it would be better if they just accepted this is a comedy game and we're going to have a variety of comic challenges for the hero to face. All those tasks at the end . . . do you want to build a brothel or an orphange? Do you buy up all the houses and get all the rent?

I thought that: I've become a buy-to-let landlord . . . I've journeyed to this magical realm in order to become Foxtons.

NA: Clearly, it is a metaphor for the credit crunch . . . and the correct way to solve the problem is to do what you do in that game -- nationalise all the industries and all the property and use that money to pay off this enormous debt that you have. And the wrong way to handle it is to leave everything in private hands and then you don't have any money to deal with the huge problems facing the country.

H: Maybe it's [Lionhead Studios chief] Peter Molyneux's secret party political broadcast.

NA: Ha! Have you seen the hidden story in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood?

Yes. It implies that the US supreme court has been infiltrated by an ultra-capitalist secret society.

NA: And Dick Cheney, too, is the implication . . . There's the whole thing with: "DC will take care of this."

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts as well . . . I'm surprised their libel lawyers let it go through, really.

NA: I'd love to do an interview with the guys who wrote it and say: "Did you have to get this past anyone?" Also, there's an implication in one of those sections that the government is trying to control us via TV and video games.

Is that an example of a game with an explicitly political message -- or what about Grand Theft Auto 4 and its Fox News spoof, "Weasel News"?

NA: There's a sort of fear that games are quite right-wing . . . because they encourage [violence]. There was some really great research into how attitudes towards the government change, having played these games where mostly you are playing as the American government.

Unlike Jarhead or Generation Kill, they are not narratives, which problematise the whole idea of the wars that we are currently engaged in. But clearly that hidden story in Assassin's Creed and Weasel News, they do problematise the world we live in. That's art, surely -- that's what art does.

David, are games too limited in the genres they cover?

David Varela: I don't think that games generally have as wide a range of genres as you can get in other art forms and that's something that I think is expanding now. You don't get many romcom games but there are independent games at the moment that are exploring different genres and I'm sure they're going to get more mainstream. So something like Heavy Rain, it was mainly a thriller but there was that family drama element to it as well, which you don't tend to see very much.

There is Gravitation, which is all about work/life balance. You're playing this sweet game with this little blonde child and there's a little love heart developing as you play. But to carry on playing, you have to go away [from the computer] and do some work and then you come back. As the game goes on, you have to spend more time working in order to have this precious time playing with the girl.

It's a very beautiful metaphor about growing up and having to make certain sacrifices in life. It's just heartbreaking. To get that kind of emotion from a game is rare but it's certainly possible and I'd like to see more of that.

Why do you think it's hard for games to deal seriously with romance?

It's partly a legacy about where games have come from, developed by boys, for boys. From outside the industry, the audience for games is seen as being only teenage boys but the audience is broadening out a lot more, especially in the past few years and especially with online gaming. Facebook gaming is becoming more prominent and the much wider audience means there is room for all these different genres.

I worked a little bit on a game called Spirit of Adventure (written by Christian Wheeler), which is a Facebook game that is very deliberately targeted at definitely a more feminine audience, probably aged 40 plus -- which actually reflects quite well on the people who are on Facebook a lot of the time.

That was a love story about a woman who is a grown-up, her marriage has gone a bit stale and she discovers the diary of a Second World War airman. She gets swept up in his romance and ends up investigating his life; what happened to him.

It could have worked as a romance novel. It could work in another media. If you were going to try and label it with a genre it's probably a romance but it has gameplay in it; it has some puzzles, but it has a lot of very good writing in it as well.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.