It's PMQs -- the video game

A turn-based battle with odd-looking men . . . has been turned into a game.

PMQs

You might have heard people saying that politicians treat Prime Minister's Questions like a game. Now, you can, too! Mark Richards of Pixel Politics has created PMQs, a text adventure where you duel with competing wild accusations and attempts to blame the previous administration. It even features the dulcet tones of John Bercow.

What's your day job?

I don't have a day job. I'm a graduate seeking employment. PMQs is part of what I'm doing at the moment as work on my portfolio; I'm hoping eventually to get a job in the games industry.

How did you get into games design?

I must have been about 14 when I decided to start designing games. That was when I began to play games with stories and characters that the player could really invest in. I didn't decide it was the career for me, however, whether independently or in the mainstream industry, until I started loathing my degree about a year ago. I talk about what inspired me to start developing adventure-driven games using Adventure Game Studio (the engine PMQs was built with) in an article I wrote for A Hardy Developer's Journal.

What was the idea behind PMQs: the Game?

The idea came directly out of what I was doing with Pixel Politics. I had really enjoyed doing retro video game-style caricatures of political figures and, one day, it just occurred to me that Prime Minister's Questions is a real-life turned based battle, like those bits from the old Pokemon games. The game also happened not to be the straightforward, easy-to-script adventure game format I was used to, so it provided a nice challenge in terms of coding.

How long did it take to make?

It is pretty difficult to pin down how long it took before I was developing it in fits and starts during my final year at university. I suppose it took a few months, maybe. It was a relatively short project.

What were your influences?

As I've already mentioned, definitely "those bits from the old Pokemon games". The HP bars are a mix of all the role-playing games I have played with a hint of fighting games like Street Fighter. The biggest influence, though, of course, is politics. I am obsessed with the drama and image side of politics and Prime Minister's Questions embodies all of that perfectly. I suppose it wouldn't be inaccurate to say I made the game just to use the line "I lead my party; he follows his!"

What do you think of PMQs -- valuable democratic check or juvenile shouting match?

This has been the most-discussed issue since I released the game and, funnily enough, I did not intend for it to be. I made the game purely because Prime Minister's Questions could be squashed nicely into a standard game mechanic and I thought I could make it quite funny.

As a direct response, I would say this: I admit the pantomime of it all is silly and the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition do end up exchanging scripted insults but Prime Minister's Questions is a very important part of holding a government to account in the public eye for a couple of reasons. First, the PM has to be fully briefed for the event and this means he knows what's going on in his own government. Second, it gets all the parties in one room to face each other on the issues of that time and, most importantly, their differences are made public. At least then they are not able to pretend the other does not exist.

As the for the shouting-match issue: the Commons is a small room, so it must be pretty terrifying. Surely the PM should be terrified at his weekly public trial, rather than relaxed?

Are there any other political games out there people might not be aware of?

There are a few but I would be lying if I said I had played them all. Politics-based games hardly occupy a saturated market and people should certainly make more of them.

What's next for you?

I do have another political game planned out but next on the list is a short, quirky platform game. Hopefully, I will be using the release of that to launch my indie games studio, for which I have had the logos and blog prepared and sitting around for a while, now. It will be nice to get that up and running and to have all my projects under one banner. Oh yeah, sorting a job out would be great, too. One can hope!

You can download PMQs here.

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.

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times