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 idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war