Batman: Arkham Origins and why video games are good for the brain

A scientific study and a grumpy gamer.

We video-game lovers of a certain age belong to an emerging industry demographic: the grumpy gamer. Like Frank Underwood, the political schemer played by Kevin Spacey in the US version of House of Cards, grumpy gamers play in snatched moments of privacy in the short breaks of busy, stressful lives.

We buy consoles for our children, in part to recreate our teenage years, the good old days when we had to transcribe computer code from the pages of magazines before the satisfaction of a marathon all-nighter with a Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

We buy the games for the same reason my mum used to give me an apple, an orange and a sixpence every Christmas, or narrate “The Owl and the Pussycat” before I went to sleep. She did it because it took her back to her childhood.

So, I play Lego Batman with my kids, and when they go to bed I can play and review a darker Batman – this month, Batman: Arkham Origins, a cruelly unrewarding game, though not entirely without merit, as one would expect from this franchise.

The theme of Arkham Origins is assassination and survival. Eight mercenary assassins are hired to take out Batman. The Bat is supposed to glide through Arkham, picking up clues and solving problems as he works his way through the list of super-baddies who slug it out for the ransom on his head. Loyal butler Alfred, who dispenses advice to our solitary hero from the lonely Christmas batcave, assists him. I found Alfred a reassuring character – as one would expect from a Martin Jarvis voiceover.

Along the way, Batman meets old adversaries such as the Joker and the Penguin – the latter sounds like a Geordie, playing a New Yorker putting on a cockney accent. Victory requires the Bat to get into many fights with an array of thugs, some old, some new. By throwing old adversaries into the story, Warner Bros have given a familiar feel to its successful franchise.

That’s important because grumpy gamers are sentimental about old friends and foes. They talk about Mario, Zelda and Jet Set Willy as if they were the cast of digital friends reunited. When I press a fresh DVD into its console slot, there is always a parental impulse to lecture children about the artefact called audio tape recorder, the device that used to be the way we uploaded our games, back in the day. They look at me blankly, as blankly as they did on our first visit to Vinyl Revival in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

Grumpy gamers also like to win as easily as possible. Games that require persistence and attention to nit-picking handset detail have less of a premium than they used to. When I slump into that midnight sofa, I want to mash the handset and not worry too much about whether it’s an XXY or an XYY thumb manoeuvre. I just want to deal with the bad guys and clean up the city as quickly as possible.

Is any of this good for us? Scientists in Germany have recently claimed that playing video games augments grey matter in the sections of the brain used for spatial navigation, strategic planning and working memory. On reading this erudite study, my immediate thought was, in an Alan Partridge voice, take down for Mr Keith Vaz. Video games are good for the brain. Gamers win; Daily Mail lose.

Cognitive science may be rebalancing the argument in favour of video games being good for humanity but I’m afraid Batman: Arkham Origins is not. The stimulated grey matter that results from the latest offering by Warner Bros only applies to those sections of the brain usually associated with frustration, intolerance and, well, grumpiness.

The good news: the game, which is a prequel to the successful Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, contains all the old features we’ve come to love from this franchise. The combat system is as graceful as a ninja at the Darcey Bussell dance school. Batman’s tech is all there: batarang and grapple hook, smoke pellets and explosive gel. He gets some new kit too, enhancing but not significantly altering gameplay for loyal fans. If it were a second album, the game would be More Specials – still memorable and loved by fans but less edgy, raw and lacking the shock of the new.

And here’s the bad news: I couldn’t do it. I just could not get beyond the first proper boss level, a dual with Deathstroke. Not being able to kill Deathstroke after 20 hours on a single level says more about my ability than the game but there’s a lot of grumpy gamers out there. Boss levels are by their nature tough to get through but surely it represents a failure for the developers in making the level so hard that you just can’t get past it?

In the end, I reset the game and started from the beginning on “easy” level. This was irritating. Even on this mode, I could not deal with Deathstroke without the advice of Bruce, the teenage son of a friend, which was humiliating. I played it 70 or 80 times before grumpily seeing Deathstroke get his comeuppance. The last time I played a game this punishing to user error was Manic Miner on the Spectrum. Then, nothing could prevent me from being pixel perfect until victorious.

This time round, it’s different. Batman dies but the grumpy gamer is born.

Tom Watson is the Labour MP for West Bromwich East

No joker: 'Batman: Arkham Origins' is not easy.
Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He is also an avid gamer and campaigner for media integrity.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

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