Is Waterstones eating itself?

What good is an e-reader, without anything good to e-read?

It was depressing enough watching HMV cannibalise itself: devoting a mushrooming allotment of floor space to “devices” and “accessories”, without having to watch the nation’s premier bookseller do the same. Perusing the shelves in Waterstones (look, mum, no apostrophe!) this afternoon, I observed that one of the display tables had been pilfered from an Apple retail store, while another – pilfered, by the looks of it, from the now defunct Habitat – consisted of a collection of leather and plastic dust jackets, aimed at keeping safe the retailer’s bright new hope: the Amazon Kindle.

Being interested in books and harbouring a futile concern for their well-being, I knew this was coming. I was, am and will remain ambivalent about e-readers and what they mean for literature. (A question which is almost always subservient to the question of what they mean for “the industry”.) I await developments with great interest: by no means a technophobe, but certainly a bibliophile. What I found difficult to understand about the new arrangement was the weak defence made on behalf of books. Opposite the Kindle playground stood a bookshelf labelled “Beautiful Books”, presumably an argument about the desirability of paper-and-ink and the surrounding culture. In other words: the Luddite’s retort. The shelf held a series of ugly readers-digest-wouldn’t-even-go-there stocking-filler anthologies, making no strong claims for either beauty or books. And this to distract the endlessly distracted? Try again.

These books, great though they may be (I do not know, I suppose it depends how much you like crosswords), do not make an adequate riposte to the collection of proddable black mirrors jittering and flashing on the new display. A shelf stacked with books is both functional and aesthetic, furniture and form. It is an endless repository of colour, exploration and experience. The texts look fine on electronic devices, but as for the objects themselves? Most already look like they belong in a box labelled “80s” – along with a brick-sized mobile phone and a languid Betamax.

What would a world in which there were endless methods of consuming “content”, but hardly any “content” to consume, look like? In two words: Hong Kong. Nowhere on earth have I seen so many shop-floors dedicated to entertainment technology, with so few offering anything to play. Arguably, the piracy problem in China is not a question of morals, it is a question of taste, and the result of cynical business models. It is equally hard to find Bach’s cello suites as it is Sasha Grey’s Homo Erectus. Both are best discovered in pop-up stalls and underground markets around Sham Shui Po or Causeway Bay. Culture in China – like pornography – is an underground affair.

We are all responsible for the downward trend. In being so eager to sup the latest nectar from the Apple tree, we have failed to see that devices which play “your favourite tunes” or “the latest Hollywood blockbuster” are predicated on a vibrant, credible and worthwhile culture to begin with. If creativity is not nurtured, valued and appreciated where it matters most, we will all have been accessories to the fact. And all those devices flooding the loft will be evidence of our misplaced passions.

Five minutes’ walk from the Waterstones in question lies the Cheapside Daunt Books: a store whose anti-“stack ‘em high” policy has worked wonders, turning over a profit of £912,966 last year. It might be hard for Londoners to imagine a world in which Foyles or Daunt Books do not exist, but spare a thought for the rest of the country’s cities and towns, where it is not uncommon to find Waterstones is the only source of serious books left (library budgets, lest we forget, are being evaluated quicker than you can say tighten your belt). Failure here, is not desirable. The company’s flagship store on Piccadilly Circus has recently been taken over by the team from Nottingham town centre, about whom Daunt has said: “You walk into that store and you say ‘My Lord’ this is a very good example of a shop that has been given autonomy and knows how to get on with it.”

“Amazon are a fact of life,” he continues. “I use Amazon. But we do something else.”

Clearly that something else needs fine-tuning in this particular branch, but with Daunt at the helm – his enthusiasm and love of books, is highly infectious – my hope is that we can extend the franchise, not diminish it. Below are a handful of titles published this year, selected by Nico Taylor, book designer at HarperCollins.

Kimberly's Capital Punishment by Richard Milward. Faber, 2012. Design: Faber.

"Perfectly simple and bold design that does a great job of subtly suggesting the raw and surreal contents within."

The Book Of Life by Stuart Nadler. Picador, 2012. Design: David Pearson.

"David Pearson, of Penguin Great Ideas fame, produces another striking and elegant typographic cover."

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus. Granta, 2012. Design: Peter Mendelsund.

"Such an aesthetically pleasing cover with its vibrant colour palette and cut out paper design which can't help but beg you to pick it up, and in an age when some are starting to see book covers as just flat pixels we see on screens, this can only be a good thing."

The Creator by Guorun Eva Minervudottir. Granta, 2012. Design: Fuel.

"Under the art direction of Michael Salu, Granta have been consistently producing fantastically unique and striking covers for the past year or so and this is no exception with its slightly sinister marriage between title and image."

E-readers jittering and flashing at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Why do games do revolutionary politics so badly?

Too often, you know who the good guys and the bad guys are, but not why.

It is one of the ironies of videogames that they often embrace some of the most radically political situations in the most noncommittal ways possible. After all, just because a game features a violent revolution or a war, that doesn’t mean the developers want to be seen to take sides. The results of this can be unintentionally funny, creepy, or just leave you wondering if you should disconnect your brain before playing, as if the intended audiences are shop window mannequins and crash test dummies.

A recent example of a game falling over itself to be apolitical is Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, an open world game about stabbing people set in London around 1886. The game has you embarking on an extended campaign against a secret organisation which controls London, and by implied extension the British Empire as a whole. You fight against them by murdering assorted senior personnel (as well as hundreds of affiliated henchmen), sabotaging their various endeavours and generally unleashing all manner of mayhem against the group.

Why do we do this? Well, because we’re reliably informed that the people we are killing are members of the Templars or are working for them, which is apparently a group of Very Bad People, and not like the Assassins, who are much better, apparently. London under Templar control is bad, apparently, and under Assassin control we are told it will be better for everyone, though we never really find out why.

Your credentials for being on the side of righteousness seem to stem from the fact that when you meet famous historical figures like Charles Darwin or Florence Nightingale they seem to like you and let you help them out in various ways (usually but not exclusively related to stabbing people). The rationale presumably being that since Charles Darwin is a great man slashing throats at his behest reflects well on our heroes.

Even in these interactions however the game is painfully noncommittal, for example your characters in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate will happily to kill police officers for Karl Marx, but they don’t actually join the Worker’s Party, because heaven help us if it turned out that either of our heroes did anything that might suggest an underlying ideology.

It feels very much that when a developer is so timid in attaching defining ideological or political qualities to the characters or groups in the game then Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is what you end up with. There is no sense that your characters stand for anything, at least not intentionally. Instead your hero or heroine wanders around a genuinely beautiful rendition of Victorian London trying their absolute level best to not offend the sensibilities of anybody (while stabbing people).

By contrast something like Saints Row 3 handles this sort of system altogether better. Saints Row 3 works along a set of almost identical mechanics for how the struggle for control of the city plays out; do an activity, claim an area then watch your minions move in. However what Saints Row 3 does is cast you as an anti-hero. The design is self-aware enough to know that you can’t treat somebody as a regular hero if their most common form of interaction with other people is to kill them in cold blood. Your character is motivated by revenge and by greed, which is probably terrible karma but at least it gives you a sense of your characters purpose.

Another approach is to have the antagonists of the story carry the political weight and let the motivations of the heroes become ennobled by the contrast. The best example of this is a game called The Saboteur. By setting the game in occupied Paris during World War Two, ensuring that everybody you kill is a Nazi or Nazi collaborator, everything is good clean fun. We know that Nazis are bad and the game doesn’t need to go to great lengths to explain why, it’s accepted ideological shorthand. Another example of this is Blazkowicz, the hero in the Wolfenstein games; here the character is not engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering people, he is engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering Nazis.

When it comes to games set in World War Two it is still possible to mess things up when trying to be even handed. For example Company of Heroes 2, a strategy game set on the Russian Front, takes such pains to remind us of the ruthlessness of the Soviets that it ends up accidentally making the fascists look like the heroes. The trick would seem to be when approaching a historical situation with a clear villain then you don’t need to be even handed. It’s a videogame where tanks have health bars after all, not a history book.

Of course it can be argued that none of this ideological and political emptiness in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate makes it any less fun, and to a point this is true. The mechanical elements of the game are not affected by the motivations of the character but the connection between player and character is. As such the motivation to keep playing over hours and hours of repetitive activities suffers badly. This is a problem that past Assassin’s Creed games have not been too troubled by, for instance in Black Flag, the hero was a pirate and his ideology based around the consumption of rum, accumulation of doubloons and shooting cannonballs at the Spanish navy made complete sense.

If a game is going to base itself around important events in the lives of its characters it has to make those characters stand for something. It may not be something every player or potential player agrees with, but it’s certainly more entertaining than watching somebody sit on a fence (and stab people).

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture