Mean machines: why Christmas is the gaming season

Tom Watson is dreaming of the latest console

Christmas is the gaming time of the year and expectations are high for addicts like me. It’s the same for my children. On the big day, I know they’ll wake up hoping for a PlayStation 4, gift-wrapped by the elves. The PS4 is the hottest Christmas buy and it’s already selling out. When it was launched in November, fans queued overnight to get their hands on the console.

We can all dream but the reality is that games are expensive. Even for a former minister, £349 is a lot of dosh, despite what you may have read about MPs’ pay. The price of an Xbox One, at almost £100 more, is prohibitive for thousands of British families.

I suppose I’ll eventually scrabble around and find the cash for a console in 2014. But it’s not just the money stopping me from getting one. Even with Christmas so close, I don’t know which console to buy. What if I stick with the Xbox but the PS4 kills it off, like VHS did Betamax, back in the day?

Worse, I have no idea what games are enjoyable for children to play. I’m supposed to know quite a lot about video games, so if I’m having difficulty, non-games players will be completely baffled. And you can’t rely on your children for advice. If most eight-year-olds had their way, they’d be playing Grand Theft Auto V. (Actually, mine wouldn’t because Minecraft is his chosen alternative world. But you get my point.)

The impressive Pegi rating system can help you decide what content you have to hide from your children. Yet buying games for them is still a tortuous experience. So much so that Game, the video game retailer, has hired a nine-year-old to help parents with their choices when advising Santa Claus. Your child’s first video game can be life-changing. The man who changed my life, on Christmas Day in 1981, was Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari. He was responsible for our first video game console, which resulted in the finest Christmas my brother and I have ever experienced.

Years later, one of my most memorable nights out was with Nolan. He’d been the guest at a conference on using video games to inspire children in the classroom. I never quite worked out whether his presentation was tongue-in-cheek but his pitch was that processing power is so advanced that we can now teach kids in booths and use game theory to measure their understanding. Knowledge could be conveyed to them through bespoke programmes and consumed through screens and headphones. According to Nolan, in the future classroom, teachers would have little to do unless a computer had to be rebooted or a mouse needed replacing.

Understandably, there was a near-riot during the speech, with people walking out before the dystopian predictions had been fully fleshed out. To me, though, Nolan was a mystical figure. At the post-conference dinner, I could do nothing but hang on his every word, even when he told me he’d memorised the hiking route to a survivalist hideaway in the Californian mountains for when the terrorists destroy America’s west coast cities. My memory of him is of a wildly charismatic and opinionated Father Christmas figure with a fantastical imagination.

For me, back in 1981, Christmas started in the first week of December. So addicted to Space Invaders were my brother and I that we hunted down the Atari console we’d been promised. It was hidden under a blanket in a suitcase stored on top of the wardrobe in my mum’s bedroom. In the hours before her return from work, when we were supposed to be completing our homework, we would be like ninjas, removing the Atari from its packaging, playing an hour of Space Invaders then returning it meticulously to the box. And what a Christmas it was. The greatest ever. Only the mind of a magical Father Christmas could make it so special. So I’d better get shopping.

 

Gamers queue for the latest PS4. Photo: Getty.
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 19 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Triple Issue

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era