Memo to Nick Clegg: It isn't video games that are corroding people's minds - it's you

Nick Clegg is the latest in a line of politicians and journalists to scapegoat video games for violent behaviour in society - conveniently forgetting the military and societal damage he and his political allies are doing every day.

Oh Nick Clegg. Cleggo. Nicky C. N-Clegz. We were getting along so well. Well. Kind of. That is to say I consider you to be one of the most morally hollow figures in British politics; a man whose near infinite selfishness has betrayed not only the electorate and the party that appointed you to lead them like some kind of Lemming King into the political abyss. But apart from that I had no specific beef.

I never took it particularly personally. I was angry, even outraged, at times with the things you enabled the Tory party to do to this country, this country that might not even exist in a couple of years if Scotland votes to leave. That’d be a feather in your cap, eh Nick? Being a part of a government so utterly impossible to tolerate that a great big chunk of said country would sooner cut itself adrift into a sea of uncertainty than spend one more day looking at your face beaming out of the television with the caption "Deputy Prime Minister" underneath.

But for all that anger, and for all that indignation, for all the things you’ve helped Dave and the gang to do to people in this country, young and old, poor and poor, nothing really lit the blue touch paper until now.

It was when you said this: "Clearly these games can have an incredibly powerful, and I suspect in some cases corrosive, effect on someone’s behaviour, someone’s outlook," that a new level of fury was reached.

This man is going to sit there, the Deputy Prime Minister in one of the most venal and sadistic administrations in modern British history, and he’s going to say we’re the corroded ones? That people who enjoy video games are corrupted, corroded, ticking time bombs just waiting to flip out and shoot everybody we can see? No.

I want to know something. If people who play video games are victims of these powerful, corrosive effects, with such a terrible effect on behaviour and outlook, what video games have politicians been playing for the last couple of decades?

But let’s be clear, it’s not just about Nick Clegg.

In both the UK and the USA we have seen politicians blaming video games for the corruption of society. For instance, we have men like Keith Vaz complaining about the fact that GTA V contains a torture scene.

Now I respect the right of people in general to be critical of things. I have yet to play GTA V and I won’t judge it myself until I have, and the torture scene is not something I look forward to. When groups like Freedom from Torture and teachers unions say that a game is a bit screwed up, I think their concerns merit consideration. We, as adult human beings, should respect the right to make games free of censorship, and we should equally respect the right of people to be critical of those games.

But if you are a member of parliament, and maybe for example you voted in favour of the Iraq War, or you tried to get Syria bombed because this week the government killed people in a new way, or you did nothing to stop the NSA and GCHQ spying on All The Things, then you probably need to shut up about all the bad things in video games. You probably need to shut up about all the bad things in video games, take a good look at yourself in the mirror and seriously consider just what the hell happened to you that you are where you are, doing what you do, with the world in the mess that it is.

Here’s the thing you see, torture in video games is relatively new, at least in the mainstream, but why is it here at all? Is torture something that was invented by games developers? Is it something that was brought into the mainstream consciousness by games and media? No. We deal with torture as a part of our culture now because politicians decided that torture should be a thing that government agents, be they soldiers or spies, do to people. It is politicians who brought torture into the public sphere because in the post 9/11 world, torture was legitimised.

We can see this hypocrisy in the former Labour government with its involvement in prisoner rendition and in the current government with its continual support for the USA despite the continued existence of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in spite of the general acceptance that it no longer serves any purpose.

We have a political class in the UK and USA who decry the corruption caused by video games, while making no secret of detaining and torturing men without charge for over a decade. Our leaders think it is acceptable to detain and torture a man without any intent to charge him; that is the message we can take from the last decade of watching politics in action. This should be shocking, yet we live with it now almost comfortably. We live in a world where politicians will try to destroy you for speaking truth to power, whether it is Dr David Kelly, Chelsea Manning, or Edward Snowdon.

But it is video games that are corrosive.

It is not just torture either, it’s the violence. Even moving past Iraq and Afghanistan what can we possibly make of the current approach to the use of violence in foreign policy? Drone strikes, for example, have dehumanised the process of taking a life to the extent that missions have been referred to as "bug splats". Thousands of people killed, some possibly legitimately, but does anybody really know for sure who all these men women and children are, or why precisely they have to die? How many must die to ensure our freedom, is there a precise formula? If the drone pilots stopped killing for a week, or a month, or a year, would the free world as we know it be overrun? We allow our governments to kill, but we no longer even demand to know why, or do demand due process. Somewhere along the way we embraced assassination on an industrial scale, because politicians told us this was the thing that we should do.

We live in a world shaped by politicians, not by video games. We live in a world of staggering wealth disparity, of injustice, of conflict in which the freedoms we took for granted at the turn of the century hang by a thread or have been axed.

The games we play are the product of this world, not the other way around.

Nick Clegg called video games "corrosive". Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times