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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

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 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit