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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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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