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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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution