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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New Statesman readers on Jeremy Corbyn, one year on

We asked you what you thought of Corbyn, and found that New Statesman readers are apparently as divided as the Labour membership.

Earlier in the summer, we asked readers for their views on Jeremy Corbyn as he prepared for another leadership contest. Below is a selection of responses. To avoid accusations of bias, I divided the submissions into broadly pro- and anti-Corbyn positions (usually based on whether the writer thought Corbyn should continue as leader) and the proportion of each that the NS received is reflected here. It seems our readers are as divided as the membership over a leader who has turned Labour into a mass-membership social movement.

 

Labour had been drifting

I voted for Jeremy Corbyn because he held distinctly socialist ideas and because he had a long record of standing up for these. I felt the Labour Party had been drifting and it was no longer clear where it stood on some of the big issues. Under Jeremy, Labour has shifted – and clearly Owen Smith, like him, is also on the left of the party. Jeremy has conducted himself with dignity under enormous duress. Locally, we have seen many new members join the party, attracted by Jeremy’s focus on serious political issues and by his clear views.

John Boaler, Calne, Wiltshire

 

The party might split

I remember Jeremy Corbyn from the 1980s onwards, so I wasn’t surprised that he refused to “play the game”. I saw this as unhelpful but not necessarily harmful. He inspired many to get involved in politics, especially younger people, which was and is good. However, I thought he would realise sooner or later that he wasn’t up to the job. My views changed when he didn’t stand aside after the MPs’ vote of no confidence. My impression of him then was as someone obstructive – destructive, even – not charmingly rebellious. If he wins decisively, I think the party may have to think about splitting.

James Chater, London

 

A divided party cannot rule

While most Labour MPs oppose Corbyn because they see him as unelectable, they fail to see that a divided party is causing much more damage to Labour’s prospects than his leadership. Perhaps Labour MPs would serve their party better by presenting to the public a united front, even if it isn’t one they fully support.

Oliver Callaghan, Lancashire

 

We need a snap election

I cried when Corbyn won the leadership election last year, as I felt that it would be the end of the Labour Party. There was nothing about his campaign which inspired me and I found his lack of ability to think on his feet very worrying. Recently, I have been perplexed at how even the unfairness displayed in the nepotistic employment of his son Seb [who works for the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell] has failed to puncture the aura of sanctity. The only solution seems to be a snap election to prove that he is absolutely unelectable, so that Labour can rebuild.

Caroline Dorber, Lichfield, West Midlands

 

I’ll be voting for Smith

I voted for Corbyn as a refreshing change from politicians repeating patronising soundbites. However, the turning point for me was during the Paris attacks [in November 2015]. He was asked to confirm that he would use lethal force against terrorists if a similar incident happened here and he hesitated, as if considering an interesting philosophical point. I will be voting for Owen Smith (but wish I could vote for Owen Jones).

Philippa Barton, London

 

We are poised for change

I resigned from the Lib Dems to join Labour because of Jeremy Corbyn. His task is to re-create the Labour Party as a socialist, not a Blairite centre-left, party. He is right to persevere. “Labour” MPs should support him or resign. My view is that he has the right principles and is very courageous, but is still receiving unfair and corrupted coverage by the British media. This country is poised for great change.

George Macpherson, Dulverton, Somerset

 

We need a Labour government

I voted for Jeremy Corbyn first time round, believing a new standard of politics could be achieved, and to some extent it has. He is undoubtedly a decent, principled man whose politics I share and actively advocate. His staunch defence of the NHS, his solidarity with striking teachers and junior doctors and his sustained attack on austerity are admirable. Yet it is clear that to overturn six years (and counting) of austerity, we need a Labour government. With Corbyn as our leader, we won’t achieve that aim any time soon.

Josh Wilmer, Leeds

 

Corbyn has been underestimated

Undeniably the biggest surprise for many about Corbyn’s term of leadership has been the way they underestimated the man himself. Those who sought to remove him simply didn’t understand the nature of their prey. His resilience, courage and respectful loyalty to his supporters are qualities that perhaps should not define a person as being unfit to lead or incapable of winning an election. With his experience and involvement with the needs of the disabled, to take just one example, he has a social and political CV more relevant to the needs of many in Britain today than a business or public relations background.

Ian Flintoff, Oxford

 

Labour has become a cult

I used to think of myself as on the left of the Labour Party. No longer. The way Corbyn and his supporters have behaved over the past year – the immaturity and ineptitude – has contaminated my view of the whole socialist project. They are not interested in winning. Fine if you’re well fed and middle class (like most Labour members): you’ll be OK whoever is in power. Not so good if you’re poor or working class (like most Labour voters) and you’re relying on a Labour government to improve your life chances. That’s Corbyn’s unforgivable crime, turning a practical, pragmatic party into an irrelevant cult.

Another year of this will finish Labour off – possibly for good.

Adam Patrick, via email

 

Lone voice in wilderness

Three people have struck me with their steadfast principles and quiet resolution in the past year: Ken Loach, Michelle Obama and Jeremy Corbyn. Though consistently demonised by the MSM [mainstream media], JC has maintained the principled stance he has always had. What mighty hypocrisy he would be accused of if he now abandoned it for short-term gain. His is a lone voice in UK politics speaking out for the ordinary citizen.

The New Labour rump should reflect on the fact that it was their policies that lost the last two general elections, largely because they were indistinguishable from the Tories. It is my hope that among the newer Labour intake of MPs there will be those who are not tainted by connection with global business interests or petty personal ambition. Most politicians say they entered politics to “make a difference”. JC and a principled team could do that.

Vivien Jones, Powfoot, Dumfriesshire

 

Metropolitan figure

Jeremy Corbyn’s “overwhelming” mandate was 60 per cent of the votes of a group comprising 0.05 per cent of the UK electorate. What about the other  99.95 per cent? What does Corbyn have to say to the bloke in Sunderland who reads the Daily Mail, used to vote Labour but is now Ukip, wants immigrants to go home, thinks Corbyn is as remote a metropolitan figure as David Cameron, and doesn’t think much of a bloke who won’t sing the national anthem? One year on, Corbyn and his cohorts do not seem to have recognised that or, worse, don’t care.

Iain Macniven, Highlands, Scotland

 

No to a Tory clone

New Labour won elections because it behaved like the Conservatives, turning a blind eye to tax avoidance/evasion, big bonuses and big-business bribery and corruption. David Cameron was pleased to call himself the “heir to Blair” but one who would do better because he had the willing support of his party. We don’t need a clone of the Conservative Party; we want an effective opposition that can shame the Conservatives into doing the right thing. Corbyn has done rather well in that respect.

Alice Edwards, Wokingham, Berkshire

 

The Micawbers dithered

I expected nothing from Corbyn and he hasn’t surprised me. He is not and never will be competent. Currently, the party is unelectable, but not indestructible. Scotland is the ominous warning. However, Corbyn and the people who manipulate him (John McDonnell, Seumas Milne, Momentum/Militant) are not wholly to blame for our dire state. I wrote in the NS in January what the PLP needed to do. But the Micawbers dithered and delayed. The Parliamentary Labour Party should at last go its own way, or face electoral oblivion.

Joe Haines, Tunbridge Wells, Kent

 

A purge of neoliberals could be his legacy

Any assessment of the Corbyn leadership has to be considered on two levels: how has he performed as a “traditional” leader of the opposition, and how has his leadership impacted on the political debate in the broader community? On the first question, certainly by the usual measures (unifying the parliamentary party, point-scoring against the government, etc) he has not been what the majority in the PLP want or expect. However, purging the Labour Party of the neoliberalist ideology that has compromised its capacity to confront the challenges of globalisation could well be his lasting achievement.

Paul Pearce, New South Wales, Australia

 

Greens against Corbyn

You may assume that, as a Green Party supporter, I am thrilled to have a lefty like Corbyn as Labour leader. Last year I was thankful for him having put such issues as Trident and austerity properly on the agenda. However, a year later, I’m calling for him to stand down. As long as we have first-past-the-post, Labour must be centre-left, and must be a broad church. Corbyn will not win a general election, and shouldn’t punish those who need help most by proving this in 2020, and extending Tory rule by another five years.

Freya Pigott, via email

 

Remarkable courage

I cannot tell if Corbyn has been a good leader of the Labour Party. From the moment he was elected 11 months ago a senior group of Labour MPs has plotted unceasingly to remove him when they should have been attacking a socially divisive Conservative government.

Corbyn wants to create a Nordic-style social-democratic party that recognises the important role of the public sector. They remain wedded to austerity and New Labour’s policy of privatisation.

How successful would I have been as leader if I had been surrounded by people whose sole aim was to remove me? I think that Corbyn has shown remarkable courage in fighting for what he believes in.

Barry Bennett, Kingston-upon-Thames

 

The experiment flopped

You can’t sit at the back in a grump with your arms folded then expect loyalty when you become leader. It needed an astute approach by someone who cared enough about Labour to work out how to unite everyone, and go on to become a radical, reforming, electable party.

It could have been magnificent, a spectacular achievement – but it flopped. I know this is a rant, and I am ashamed it’s personal, but I am furious.

Audrey Laughlin, Sandwich, Kent

 

An end to Blairism

Blairism doesn’t work; it is based on false premises, especially that the private sector is always superior to the public sector. Corbyn is not perfect, but he remains the only leader who consistently rejects these false premises. Until this changes, he’ll get my vote.

Peter Nicklin, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

 

Man of great integrity

Corbyn stepped up as Labour leader promising straight talking and honest, kinder politics; in his first year, he has delivered just that. He has conducted himself with great integrity at Prime Minister’s Questions. He has, however, taken a while to hone his style, and his determination to keep things civil has, on occasion, proved costly. This was demonstrated most clearly with his failure to capitalise on Iain Duncan Smith’s acrimonious departure from the cabinet. If Corbyn wins again, he should maintain the energy of his leadership campaign by making frequent public appearances and stating his case in the communities with which Labour must reconnect to ensure victory in 2020.

Samuel Peers, via email

 

It’s all over

I didn’t vote for Corbyn. A leadership candidate needs to be electable, not just selectable by members. I liked the way he contrasted with Cameron at the despatch box. But despite airing the emailed concerns of everyday Britons, he failed to speak clearly to Labour voters on the EU; a third opted for “Leave”. Moreover, he has failed to present a compelling policy offer to support his “new kind of politics”. With only feeble support from his parliamentary colleagues, the question is: if Corbyn wins again, will the last Labour MP to leave the party turn out the lights?

James Young, London

 

Should he play the game?

Corbyn has not been a complete disaster for Labour. He has navigated electoral tests – performing adequately in some, such as the local elections, and exceptionally in others, as in recent mayoral votes and by-elections. His finest achievement has been his influence on politics as a whole, gradually pulling the political and economic consensus over to the left and hugely expanding the party’s grass-roots potential by inflating the membership. As a supporter, I by no means wish him to become a professional politician, but he may now have to start playing the game to recover.

Tim Bliss, Kent

 

Don’t blame the media

Expected little, got even less. Intellectually feeble, organisationally incompetent, ideologically Neanderthal and copes poorly in adversarial situations, Corbyn lives in a neo-Marxist bubble surrounded by unpleasantly hard-nosed ideologues. He is incapable of convincing anyone beyond the faithful, who are as depressingly unrealistic as he is. His continuation as leader will make me review over 50 years’ support for the party. The attempt to blame his negative image on a hostile media is disingenuous and patronising. I and other critics are perfectly capable of making a judgement on what we see and hear.

Mike Penny, Northampton

 

Stop the selfies!

He appears well mannered, principled, different, refreshing, tough, genuine – and you have to admire the man for sticking with it. He shares initials with another great rabble-rouser and you can feel this is starting to become a cult – especially when he requests cuddles with his admirers. Some of us are starting to shudder. He appears to be unable to lead a team with credibility. Or is he just being blocked by the press, the cynics, the Blairites? How on Earth are we supposed to know the answers to such questions when the mainly right-wing press vilifies him and his party have never all rallied behind him?

If there is a credible alternative, bring it on. I don’t see one.

Lyn Poole, Tameside, Greater Manchester

 

I’ve lost my excitement

As a long-standing active Labour member, I was excited, if tentative, about the idea of Corbyn as leader. Sadly, his election has caused division from the bottom to the top of Labour and created an atmosphere of disrespect. A good leader should not let that happen.

Veronica Ward, south-east London

 

Who’s the alternative?

Due to his preference for angrily ranting at rallies to sensible debate with his colleagues, and allowing his praetorian guard to cut off contact from MPs and members alike, I have, regrettably, come to support replacing Jeremy as leader. My problem now is that those whom I trust to lead Labour to electoral success are not stepping forward, leaving us first with Angela Eagle, who is as wet as a bank holiday Monday, and now Owen Smith, who looks like a poor impression of John Oliver. However, I haven’t given up hope that one day, sooner or later, our talents (Dan Jarvis, Tristram Hunt, Chuka Umunna) will step forward from the back benches to lead our party.

Neal Rubow, via email

 

Smith is a weasel

When I heard that Jeremy Corbyn had been selected as leader, my heart soared. Here was a leader who was truly socialist in his values. If the party would stand behind him, ignore the little weasel that is Owen Smith, and save the energy that it uses trying to destroy him to rally round him and the causes he champions, we would have a leader par excellence and a party that can win the next election.

Kate Colgrave, Milton Keynes

 

Labour must reach out

The point of the Labour Party is to seek representation at all levels of government and through such representation to implement the policies agreed by its members. The most important role of the leader is to be a face of the party who can inspire. It is not sufficient to enthuse party members. Our message has to reach out to the majority, to people who in the past may have voted for other parties. Corbyn has signally failed to achieve this.

Michael Jefferys (former PPC, West Suffolk)

 

Politics should not be a business

The events and commentary surrounding Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader have brought some disturbing truths about our political system and society to the surface. Arguing whether he is electable is essentially turning politics into a business, with a politician’s agenda transformed into a service, to be bartered and shaped to best fit the market. A more pertinent question than “whether Corbyn is electable” would be: “Should Corbyn be electable?” If the answer to that is yes, we should fall behind him.

Erik Edman, Brussels, Belgium

 

Talk to the north

Labour voters in the north of England and elsewhere who look like abandoning us do want to hear about jobs, good pay, a better social life for them and their families. But Corbyn just seems to feel this is secondary to the central message of socialism. If he can’t put the economic well-being of the people and the country at the centre of the party’s message, then he will have failed the British people. Sadly, I believe he has.

Guthrie McKie (Labour councillor, Harrow)

 

“Yes” to the EU . . . with caveats

One thing Jeremy didn’t get wrong was his contribution to the referendum debate: a critical “yes” was far more in tune with most Labour voters than the last-minute pandering to racist attitudes, which did nothing but muddy the waters.

Jon Bounds, Abingdon, Oxfordshire

 

Support, not sniping

Corbyn has the right party but the wrong MPs. He should lose many at the next election; he should enter an electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats and the Greens on proportional representation and he should control better who gets on candidate shortlists. He deserves support, not sniping.

Roger Steer, via email

 

Missed open goals

I did not vote for Jeremy but I tried to support him as I have done every other leader. Yet I soon became disillusioned by his continual missing of open goals and the lack of any clear policy definition. Worse, on the doorstep, it was clear he did not resonate with voters.

We invited him to speak at a fundraising dinner but, despite many reminders, we could not get a reply. Ian Murray MP stepped in at short notice and we raised over £500. Many new members joined after Jeremy became leader but not one has supported any of our campaigning activities. This is not the new party of activists we were promised.

Peter Young, Strachan, Scotland

 

We need a realignment

I voted for Corbyn. I’m a Labour-voting union member – not the Daily Mail’s Trotskyite version, but a hard worker who could be made redundant at any moment. For me and my family, Corbyn talks sense: about social justice, about Trident, about the kind of society that Britain could be. But one thing has dismayed me – his failure to engage with the Remain campaign. And without election wins, nothing is possible.

I’ll be voting Corbyn again. But I suspect the best hope for change now is the implosion of both main parties, with a broad, socially minded, Europe-aspiring coalition taking on the ruling hard-right orthodoxy in a brutal, post-Brexit,
post-Scotland “rump UK”. Ken Clarke for leader, anyone?

Simon Procter, Ilford, Essex

 

From nice to stubborn

I thought he was a “nice” and principled man (though I didn’t vote for him as leader). Now I think he’s stubborn, rigid and more interested in his own principles than changing the UK for the better.

Georgina Webster, Keighley, West Yorkshire

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge