Game Theory: talking videogames at the New York Times

Games as ballet, a playwright on the medium, and (sorry) me talking about ladies, again.

Before Christmas, I was lucky enough to be asked to take part in the New York Times's "Game Theory" strand, talking about the year in videogames. (The idea comes from writer Chris Suellentrop, who has run a version of it in previous years on Slate.) 

Having read all the pieces, I'm thrilled that a non-specialist title hosted something like this, and thought I'd point up a few of the bits which stood out to me. First, Lucy Prebble - who wrote the play Enron - writes about what games can do that other media cannot:

For me, there’s a sort of identification with your character that other media will never be able to replicate. A game makes a player its subject, while the tyranny of the director’s point of view in film and the author’s withholding of detail in fiction both place the viewer as an observer in the world.

(Incidentally, her game of the year was Catherine, for asking "what gamers are really afraid of. Zombies? Aliens? Terrorists? Or relationships?")

I also really liked Jenn Frank's piece on dying in games, talking about Super Hexagon and Hotline Miami. She wrote:

How does a game torture you, the player, without making you stamp off in defeat? It’s a fine line to walk, and the makers of both games handle it deftly: These games succeed by making the barrier to re-entry so low. The player, in turn, is never permanently punished. (Some games are needlessly vindictive; Hexagon and Miami are instead forgiving, in their own way.)

(If you enjoyed that, do read Wired's recent piece by Andrew Groen on the mini-trend for "permanent death" in games here.)

For me, though, the most unexpected piece was Suellentrop on the link between videogames and ballet - chiefly because I had never thought of the comparison before, and because we so often talk about games in relation to films. 

Ballet is “an art of memory,” Homans writes. “No wonder dancers obsessively memorize everything: steps, gestures, combinations variations, whole ballets.” She continues, “These are physical memories; when dancers know a dance, they know it in their muscles and bones.” And so do gamers, when they know a video game. The players of Call of Duty and Halo have more in common with ballerinas than either might like to admit.

There's also an interesting response to this from Kirk Hamilton, who points out that playing games is more like doing ballet, than watching it, and perhaps that's why it can be so hard to convince non-gamers to try the medium.

Elsewhere, Gavin Purcell, a producer for Jimmy Fallon's TV show, wrote about "antisocial games" - the ones that suck your time and make you feel guilty; Hamilton writes about the mechanics of shooters getting stuck in a rut; and Stephen Totilo addresses game violence in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. The whole series can be found here.

PS. I wrote about women in games - "there’s been a definite backlash against the idea that women are entering the hallowed citadel, dropping in a few scatter cushions and ending all the fun" - and my piece is here.

There's also a response from Stephen Totilo, who has pointed out an intriguing-sounding game from Anna Anthropy, called Dys4ia, about the challenges of being transgender, and Anna's book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form. Which is quite the title.

Dys4ia, the game.

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 boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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