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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.