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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The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.