A still from Dishonored.
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Why are we still so bad at talking about video games?

In the past 30 years, video games have become more beautiful, more intricate and more intense - but we still lack a critical language to evaluate them. Will we ever move beyond previews and reviews?

I can’t remember the first computer game I played. It might have been Killer Gorilla, which was written by a British 17-year-old called Adrian Stephens who had seen screenshots of Donkey Kong in a magazine and decided to make his own version in his bedroom.

Killer Gorilla was published in 1983, the year I was born, so it must have been hanging round in my brother’s collection for several years before I played it. In those days, games came on a cassette tape, which whined with static if you put it in a music player. The machine we had was an Acorn Electron – another knock-off, this time of the more expensive BBC Micro.

Looking at pictures of Killer Gorilla now, it’s hard to believe it kept me occupied for so long, furiously tapping away at the keyboard – Z for left, X for right, and “return” to jump. There was no story (save the jealous love of a primate for a princess), the graphics were basic and the sound consisted mostly of a sad “bingy bongy boo” whenever you died, which was often.

Compare that with the big-name releases in the run-up to Christmas 2012; the so-called triple-A titles that dominate games magazines and newspaper reviews. In the past few weeks, I’ve played three of the best: Bethesda’s steampunk stealth adventure Dishonored, Gearbox Software’s sarcastic space western Borderlands 2 and 343 Industries’ straight-faced military romp Halo 4. Each will have cost more than £15m to make, and several million more to market, and would have involved hundreds of people (Halo 4 had 300 just in the game development team).

These games are gorgeous, delivering both sweeping vistas and fine-grained details, and Dishonored, in particular, has a voice-acting cast to rival a Hollywood film: Susan Sarandon, Chloë Grace Moretz and Mad Men’s John Slattery. They are all critically acclaimed, with each scoring around 90 per cent on the review aggregator site Metacritic.

And yet, I can’t help feeling that something is missing. Technically, video games have matured hugely since I was mashing the Electron’s keyboard in the 1980s, but I don’t have the conversations about them that I have about books or film or music. Having missed out on Channel 4’s GamesMaster from 1992 to 1998, I can think of only one recent television programme I’ve seen devoted to them: Charlie Brooker’s one-off Gameswipe. Most newspapers have a single short review a week, if that and games are rarely mentioned on bastions of arts programming such as Radio 4 or BBC2. Discussion of games focuses heavily on whether a particular title is worth buying.

Now, you might not find that surprising – because you think games are a niche pursuit or that they’re new. But you’d be wrong on both counts. In the US, 245.6 million video games were sold in 2011, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Microsoft says users have spent 3.3 billion hours playing its Halo series online. Read that again: 3.3 billion hours. As for being newfangled, how about this: a ten-year-old who played Pong when Atari first released it will have celebrated her 50th birthday this year.

Does this matter? It does if you think the unexamined hobby is not worth having. And it does if you wonder, like me, whether the lack of a serious cultural conversation about games is holding back innovation. The background of games in programming culture meant that for many years their development was seen purely in terms of what they could do. But while, say, improved graphical rendering means that modern titles look astonishing, I find myself thinking: is it really such an achievement for a sunset to look 96 per cent as good as a real one?

In 2004, Kieron Gillen wrote a much-referenced essay called “The New Games Journalism”, in which he eviscerated most of his contemporaries for being unimaginative drones, who churned out previews and reviews, and stopped writing about a game at the exact moment their readers started playing it.

He rejected the idea that “the worth of a video game lies in the video game, and by examining it like a twitching insect fixed on a slide, we can understand it” and instead urged writers to become “travel journalists to imaginary places”. The New Games Journalism would be interesting even to people who would never visit those places.

Gillen’s article prompted much soul-searching, and many sub-Tom Wolfe pieces in which people bored on for thousands of words about seeing a pixel and suddenly understanding what love was. But eight years later, the state of games writing is even more bleak. Metacritic, which I mentioned earlier, presents an obvious problem. The industry places enormous weight on the scores it aggregates; as Keza MacDonald of the gaming website IGN noted, “eager, inexperienced writers from smaller sites have been known to give very high scores knowing that their review will appear near the top of the listings and refer traffic”.

“As games have developed and there are more interesting things to talk about, like their narratives, their artistic statements, occasionally even their cultural significance, reviews are still often expected to be an overview of a game’s features with a numerical value on the end,” MacDonald tells me. “This is as much the audience’s problem as the outlets’. Readers expect scores and they expect ‘objective’ analyses of games, even as the games themselves have got to a point where that’s not possible any more.”

Gillen is surprisingly relaxed about the direction criticism has taken since his manifesto (and he has now “retired” from games journalism to write comics). “I’ve learned to be philosophical about this one,” he tells me. “The old has always feared and suspected the new. They’ll reject the new for failing to match the old on the old’s terms, failing to realise that its achievements are entirely separate . . . Fundamentally: eventually old people die.”

Elsewhere, however, others are continuing the fight he started. Naomi Alderman is a novelist, a games critic and a games writer, and she concurs that we need to find a way to write about games for people who don’t play them. “You need the vocabulary of an art critic to talk about the graphics, of a novel critic to talk about the storytelling, of a film critic to talk about the performances: not to mention music criticism, and gameplay criticism,” she says. “We need to find a way to talk about what’s interesting about a game –what makes the gameplay so enjoyable, what’s great about the aesthetics, how good the narrative is, and where it fits among other similar games.”

Playing Halo 4, Borderlands 2 and Dishonored side by side made me think of all the common features of first-person shooters; the tropes born of necessity, like slowly opening gates to disguise loading times, or travels by boat or aeroplane to keep you still while expository dialogue is delivered.  But there’s so little criticism out there that writes about games belonging to the same genre: in fact, the only sustained critique of the “narrator” character common to many shooters – because you need someone to tell you where to go and what to do – comes from 2007’s BioShock, where that control itself becomes an integral party of the story.

Perhaps that revolution in games criticism will never happen. Ed Stern, who was a writer on the 2011 shooter Brink, says: “It’s currently easy for the book-literate to find everything fascinating about games other than the games themselves. Culturally, sociologically, technologically, in terms of gender and race and sexual and generational politics, they’re a fascinating prism. They just tend not to mean very much in themselves – because it’s spectacularly, trudgingly hard to make games mean things, not least because the big ones are made by so many different pairs of hands.” For the sake of readers – and writers – I hope he’s wrong.

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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Happiness is a huge gun: Cold War thrillers and the modern nuclear deterrent

For all that books and films laud Britain's strength, ultimately, they show that our power is interdependent.

Francisco “Pistols” Scaramanga, the ­assassin for hire in Ian Fleming’s 1965 James Bond novel, The Man With the Golden Gun, has invested more than money in his favourite weapon. Bond’s colleagues in the Secret Service have concluded from Freudian analysis that Scaramanga’s golden gun is “a symbol of virility – an extension of the male organ”. It is just one of many phallic weapons in the Bond saga. In Dr No, for instance, Bond reflects on his 15-year “marriage” to his Beretta handgun as he fondly recalls “pumping the cartridges out on to the bedspread in some hotel bedroom somewhere around the world”. Objectively speaking, guns comprise little more than highly engineered metal and springs, but Fleming invests them with an ­extraordinary degree of psychosexual significance.

Size matters in the Bond novels – a point made by a furious Paul Johnson in a review of Dr No for this paper in 1958 (“everything is giant in Dr No – insects, breasts, and gin-and-tonics”). One of the Bond stories’ biggest weapons is a rocket carrying an atomic warhead: the Moonraker, which gives its name to the third Bond novel, published in 1955. The most important thing about the Moonraker is that it is apparently British – a gift to a grateful nation from the plutocrat Sir Hugo Drax. And, like Bond’s Beretta, it is freighted with psychosexual significance. When Bond first lays eyes on it there is no doubt that this is an erotically charged symbol of destructive power. “One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” Bond says, with a “rapt expression”:

Up through the centre of the shaft, which was about thirty feet wide, soared a pencil of glistening chromium [. . .] nothing marred the silken sheen of the fifty feet of polished chrome steel except the spidery fingers of two light gantries which stood out from the walls and clasped the waist of the rocket between thick pads of foam-rubber.

The guns in the Bond books can be seen as expressions of their bearer’s power – or, as with Scaramanga’s golden gun, compensation for a lack of virility. The Moonraker is equally symbolic, but on a far larger scale: an expression of a nation’s geopolitical power, or compensation for its impotence.

As what is known officially as Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent (“Trident” to everyone else) returns to the top of the political agenda, the cultural dimension of the debate will no doubt continue to be overlooked. Yet culture matters in politics, especially when the issue is a weapon. As the guns in the Bond novels remind us, weapons are not merely tools, they are also symbols. Trident is not just a system comprising nuclear warheads, missiles and four Vanguard-class submarines. Its symbolic meanings are, to a great extent, what this debate is about. Trident stands for Britain itself, and it does so for different people in different ways. Your opinion on whether to cancel or replace it depends to a great extent on what kind of country you think Britain is, or ought to be.

The Cold War British spy thriller is particularly topical because it developed in tandem with Britain’s nuclear programme through the 1950s and 1960s. Moonraker was published just weeks after Churchill’s government announced its intention to build an H-bomb in the 1955 defence white paper, and three years after Britain’s first atomic test on the Montebello Islands, Western Australia. These novels drew on technological reality in their plots concerning the theft of nuclear secrets or the proliferation of nuclear technology, but they influenced reality as well as reflected it, with stories of British power that helped create Britain’s image of itself in a postwar world.

The main theme of the genre is the decline of British power and how the country responded. Atomic or nuclear weapons serve this as symbols and plot devices. Len Deighton’s debut novel, The Ipcress File (1962), for instance, concerns a plan to brainwash British scientists to spy for the Soviet Union, and has as its centrepiece an American neutron-bomb test on a Pacific atoll, observed by a British double agent who is transmitting Allied secrets to an offshore Soviet submarine. The novel’s technical dialogue on nuclear technology, and its appendices providing a fictionalised account of the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb test and a factual explanation of the neutron bomb, are in the book not merely for verisimilitude: Deighton’s British spies are observers or victims of the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR, agents with remarkably little agency.

A more dour variation on the theme is John le Carré’s The Looking Glass War (1965), in which the prospect of obtaining information on Soviet nuclear missiles in East Germany provokes “the Department”, a failing military intelligence organisation, to try to regain its wartime glory with an intelligence coup. This hubris leads to tragedy as its amateurish operation unravels to disastrous effect, le Carré’s point being that military and economic might cannot be regained through nostalgic wish-fulfilment. These novels situate British decline in the context of superpower domination; their characters recall the technological and operational successes of the Second World War but seem unable to accept the contemporary reality of military and geopolitical decline. For Deighton and le Carré, Britain simply doesn’t matter as much as it used to, which is why, in le Carré’s later Smiley novels and Deighton’s Game, Set and Match trilogy (1983-85), the spymasters are so desperate to impress the Americans.

Fleming is usually seen as a reactionary, even blimpish writer – his England was “substantially right of centre”, Kingsley Amis remarked – and he signalled his own politics by making a trade unionist the ­villain of his first novel, Casino Royale (1953). So it might seem surprising that he was as concerned as his younger contemporaries Deighton and le Carré with British decline. The historian David Cannadine, for one, emphasises that although Fleming may have been aghast at certain aspects of postwar change such as the welfare state and unionisation (opinions that Bond makes no secret of sharing), he simply refused to believe that Britain was in decline, a refusal embodied in Bond’s very character.

Bond the man is more than the “anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a ­government department” that Fleming described to the Manchester Guardian in 1958. He is an expression of the British state itself, demonstrating Britain’s toughness while besting its enemies – the Russian agents of SMERSH and, later, the international criminals and terrorists of SPECTRE. He is supported by a formidable apparatus of technological and logistical capability that mythologises British research and development, which had peaked during the Second World War (a point made more obviously in the film franchise when Fleming’s Armourer becomes the white-coated Q, heir to Barnes Wallis and the ingenious technicians of the Special Operations Executive). And, as Cannadine astutely observes, “this comforting, escapist theme of Britain’s continued pre-eminence” is most evident in Bond’s relationship with the United States. The Americans may have more money, but they cannot spy or fight anywhere near as well as Bond, as is made plain when the hapless Felix Leiter, Bond’s friend in the CIA, literally loses an arm and a leg to one of Mr Big’s sharks in Live and Let Die (1954).

Moonraker, however, exposes a more complex and sceptical side to Fleming’s Bond. It is significant that this emerges in a book that is explicitly about Englishness and the Bomb. The rocket is being built atop another symbol: the white cliffs of Dover, prompting some surprisingly lyrical passages on the beauty of South Foreland coast. And yet, though replete with emblems of English tradition and bursting with hatred of ugly, evil-minded foreigners, this novel has an unmistakable political subtext that undermines its apparent confidence in British power. Drax, it turns out, is a patriot – but a patriot of Nazi Germany, which he had served as an SS officer and plans to avenge with a missile that is pointing not, as everyone believes, at a test site in the North Sea, but at central London, the intended Ground Zero being a flat in Ebury Street, Belgravia (the location, incidentally, of Fleming’s own bachelor pad in the 1930s and 1940s). The missile has been designed and built by engineers from Wernher von Braun’s wartime rocket programme, and its atomic warhead has been generously donated by the Soviet Union, which is looking to bring Britain to its knees without having to go through the rigmarole of fighting a war.

The Moonraker, we are told repeatedly, will restore Britain to its rightful place at the global top table after its unfortunate postwar period of retrenchment and austerity. But the rocket is not British, except in being built on British soil, and the aim of the man controlling it is to destroy British power, not project it. The implication is that Britain is not only incapable of looking after its own defences, but also pathetically grateful for the favours bestowed on it. After the missile is fired, its trajectory diverted by Bond back to the original target (thereby fortuitously taking out a Soviet submarine carrying the fleeing Drax), the government decides to cover it all up and allow the public to continue believing that the Moonraker is a genuinely British atomic success.

One of the ironies of the Bond phenomenon is that by examining the myths and realities of British hard power, it became a chief instrument of British soft power. Of the first 18 novels to sell over a million copies in Britain, ten were Bond books, and Moonraker (by no means the most successful instalment of the saga) was approaching the two million mark 20 years after publication. The film franchise continues to offer Cannadine’s “comforting, escapist” image of Britain (the two most recent pictures, directed by Sam Mendes, are especially replete with British icons), but the novels are altogether more uncertain about Britain’s role in the world. Moonraker is full of anxiety that the myth of British power is nothing more than a myth, that Britain lacks the industrial and scientific wherewithal to return to greatness. It even conjures up an image of the apocalypse, reminding readers of the precariousness of those cherished British values and institutions, when the love interest, the improbably named Special Branch detective Gala Brand, imagines the terrible consequences of Drax’s plan:

The crowds in the streets. The Palace. The nursemaids in the park. The birds in the trees. The great bloom of flame a mile wide. And then the mushroom cloud. And nothing left. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

***

Even though their plots ensure that apocalypse is averted, Cold War thrillers thus made their own contribution to forcing us to imagine the unimaginable, as did more mainstream post-apocalyptic novels such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), Nevil Shute’s bestseller On the Beach (1957) and The Old Men at the Zoo (1961) by Angus Wilson. In Desmond Cory’s Shockwave, first published in 1963 as Hammerhead and featuring the Spanish-British agent Johnny Fedora (whose debut preceded Bond’s by two years), Madrid is saved from destruction by a nuclear bomb that the Soviet master spy Feramontov almost succeeds in delivering to its target. As he contemplates his objective, Feramontov muses that, in the “bomb-haunted world of the Sixties”, death in a nuclear fireball “might even come as a release, like the snapping of an overtautened string; and after the rains of death had flooded the Earth, those who survived in the sodden ruins might think of him as a benefactor of the race”.

But where the post-apocalyptic dystopias might be viewed as an argument for nuclear disarmament, later Cold War thrillers such as Cory’s usually accepted the fact of mutually assured destruction – and that British peace and prosperity were guaranteed by US nuclear firepower. Nowhere is this more apparent than Frederick Forsyth’s 1984 bestseller, The Fourth Protocol, which turns the Labour Party’s famously unilateralist 1983 election manifesto into a uniquely party-political espionage plot. In it, the general secretary of the Soviet Union conspires with the elderly Kim Philby to smuggle into Britain a small, self-assembly nuclear bomb that a KGB “illegal” will put together and ­detonate at a US air force base in East Anglia.

Unlike in Moonraker and Shockwave, however, the objective is not to provoke hostilities or prompt military capitulation, but to persuade the British public to vote Labour – by provoking horror and outrage at the risks of US nuclear weapons remaining on British soil. However, the new and moderate Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, will have a scant few hours in Downing Street, as a hard-left rival under Soviet control (such as a certain Ken Livingstone, whom Philby describes as “a nondescript, instantly forgettable little fellow with a nasal voice”) will at once usurp Kinnock and reinstate a policy of unilateral disarmament, leading to the removal of the US missiles.

The ideological force of Forsyth’s novel is clear enough: Britain is beset by enemies within and without, and must arm itself morally and politically against communism. But although this is an insistently, even tiresomely patriotic novel, its plot makes no attempt to conceal Britain’s relative military weakness and dependence on the United States, though disaster is averted by the combined brilliance of MI5, MI6 and the SAS. The Fourth Protocol thus becomes an allegory of this country’s world-leading “niche capabilities”, which maintain Britain’s prestige and relevance despite its declining military and economic might.

Today, the political argument remains on much the same terms as at the start of the Cold War. Whichever way you look at it, Trident symbolises Britain. To its supporters, it is symbolic of Britain’s talent for “punching above its weight”, and its responsibility to protect freedom and keep the global peace. To its opponents, it is an emblem of economic folly, militaristic excess, and a misunderstanding of contemporary strategic threats; it is an expression not of British confidence but of a misplaced machismo, a way for Britons to feel good about themselves that fails to address the real threats to the nation. One academic, Nick Ritchie of York University, argues that Britain’s nuclear policy discourse “is underpinned by powerful ideas about masculinity in international politics in which nuclear weapons are associated with ideas of virility, strength, autonomy and rationality”.

In 1945, shortly after Hiroshima became a byword for mass destruction, George ­Orwell predicted in his essay “You and the Atom Bomb” that nuclear weapons would bring about what he was the first to call a “cold war”. Because an atomic bomb “is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship”, it could be produced at scale only by countries with vast industrial capacity; this would lead to the emergence of two or three superpowers, confronting each other in a “peace that is no peace”.

Orwell’s point about industrial capacity helps explain why Trident is totemic: it is proof that our industrial might has not entirely vanished. Alternatively, it can be seen as a consolation for industrial decline. This may be why the huge cost of the Successor programme – one of the main arguments wielded by Trident’s opponents against replacement – appears to be a source of pride for the government: the Strategic Defence and Security Review proclaims that, at £31bn, with a further £10bn for contingencies, Successor will be “one of the largest government investment programmes”.

Clearly, size matters today as much as it did when Fleming was writing. But Moonraker again helps us see that all is not what it seems. Just as the Moonraker is a German missile with a Soviet warhead, even if it is being built in Kent, so the missiles carried by the Vanguard-class submarines are, in fact, made in California, Britain having given up missile production in the 1960s. The Trident warheads are made in Berkshire – but by a privatised government agency part-owned by two American firms. Trident may be British, but only in the way Manchester United or a James Bond movie are British.

The Cold War spy thriller presciently suggests that true independence is an illusion. Britain may consume the most destructive weapons yet invented, but it can no longer produce them or deliver them without America’s industrial might. British power is interdependent, not independent: that is the Cold War thriller’s most politically prescient message.

Andrew Glazzard is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of “Conrad’s Popular Fictions: Secret Histories and Sensational Novels” (Palgrave Macmillan)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt