Spec Ops: The Line is unusual in that it encourages you to shoot at American soldiers.
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Why is it so appealing to play as a terrorist in video games?

In real life, we abhor terrorism and everything associated with it. So why do so many games manage to convince us that playing at it is fun?

The scene in the trailer for the upcoming game Homefront: The Revolution paints a somewhat familiar scenario in modern warfare: the attack by armed civilians on a military checkpoint. From Ulster to Afghanistan this is a situation that soldiers have faced countless times. When it happens we very often call the perpetrators terrorists, and such attacks are considered cowardly and criminal. So why would somebody want to play a character who carries out such attacks in a game?

It is tempting to say that video game fans simply love explosions and violence in games just for the sake of it, but in practice this is seldom enough. You can’t just give a player a character and expect them to enjoy using that character to slaughter non-player characters. To get a player into a position where they are not only comfortable with violence but actually enjoying it takes some doing.

The first thing to do is dehumanise the victims so that nobody feels bad about their being destroyed, and there are plenty of ways to do that. We can see the most overt in the Homefront trailer above: you hide their faces. The aesthetic of Homefront is very similar with regards to the soldiers as seen in Half Life 2 and also Wolfenstein: The New Order. Make the enemy look like machines, computerise up their voices a little bit and suddenly stabbing them, blowing them up or feeding them to giant alien insects is no problem. Other elements can make enemies appear less human too, such as their behaviour. Enemies that don’t express fear or pain or other emotions likely to create sympathy are more comfortable victims. Lastly the art style can make a big difference. Hotline Miami, for example, was a game that featured some incredibly violent scenes, but the art style gave proceedings a marked sense of unreality.

The next thing is to make sure that the people who are going to be killed are of a suitably expendable nationality or ideology. Nazis are a good shout, as evidenced by Wolfenstein or The Saboteur, but Russians will do at a pinch, especially in a Cold War setting. Another of the current favourites is North Koreans, appearing as villains in both Homefront games and also Crysis. Very few games will actually risk putting the player into a situation of killing NATO soldiers as part of a single-player campaign (one notable exception being Spec Ops: The Line).

Spec Ops: The Line demonstrated the difference that the nationality of fictional victims of violence can make, because shooting at American soldiers in the game, hearing their voices as they get gunned down or blown up, was unsettling. It was unsettling because it is just not the done thing to shoot American soldiers. It’s jarring. Spec Ops: The Line was invoking Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness. It aims to unsettle players, and it works. For games that don’t want you to worry, for games that don’t want you to be uncomfortable, the victims can just be from some other country.

While most games will typically say that one set of characters are perfectly fair game based on their nationality or being a bit robotic, or just being Nazis, another justification that is often used is geographic. In The Saboteur you are killing German soldiers in France, in Homefront you are killing North Koreans in the USA. Players are invited to accept that the presence of a foreign soldier as an occupying element in another country legitimises his being targeted. In this instance the act of killing soldiers in cold blood becomes instead an act of liberation.

In some ways it could be argued that the way games try to legitimise acts of great violence by players are similar to the propaganda sometimes used to motivate soldiers in war time. Paint the enemy as less than human and stress how different they are to us and our allies. Make them the other. Rationalise any violence by saying that it is their choice to be where they are and by not going home they are really bringing this upon themselves. This kind of thinking is not limited to any one culture or even one period in history and even in a digital world tribalism can be used as a shield against sympathy.

All this work to make acts of violence more palatable isn’t necessarily going to make them fun of course, empathy is powerful, even collections of pixels on a computer screen can provoke it. You don’t want empathy towards the people you’re blowing up in a video game. So instead to really glory in their annihilation we need more than just being told that they are bad pixels who have it coming, we need to be told that it is fine to enjoy the moment when ‘it’ happens. This is where tone comes into play.

Getting the tone of the game right is vital when you’re encouraging players to commit acts of wanton destruction. Game series like Just Cause or Mercenaries essentially cast you as a terrorist. You are dropped into countries, often fictional though not always, and you are tasked with blowing up infrastructure, killing soldiers, assassinating people, stealing things and toppling the regime. But those series managed to make it work because they kept the tone light. Instead of coming at the audience with pomposity and a firm belief in their own ineffable seriousness, they are both very silly. The full titles for the Mercenaries games spell it out: Playground of Destruction and World In Flames. In these games you can play acts of violence for laughs and it works. In Just Cause 2 your character has a grappling hook which you can attach enemy soldiers to things, all kinds of things. It allows for moments of broad physical comedy in the middle of a ferocious gun battle.

Games with a more serious tone don’t often make playing the part of the mass-murdering guerrilla particularly enjoyable. For example, when you make the life of one person mean something in such a game you can break the games internal logic by killing other people. You start to wonder who else’s life might have value in the world. For example, Watch_Dogs has your character wrapped up in a revenge quest over his dead niece, but in pursuing that revenge he causes absolute havoc across the city. Is it terrorism? Of course it is, he’s chucking explosives around and shooting people. Chicago is like Baghdad with Wi-Fi when he’s around. All that violence makes the initial loss at the start of the story seem insignificant and makes the hero appear self-indulgent and hypocritical.

Ultimately what we can say is that much of the design of games is deliberately manipulative. We are manipulated into thinking that the bad guys are bad, we are manipulated into enjoying fighting against them. We are manipulated into thinking it is perfectly fine to shoot them in the back or blow them up with hidden bombs. Manipulation of this sort isn’t inherently wrong; enjoyment of any creative work will usually demand a certain willingness to go along with what the creator is trying to get you to feel, but if it is done too overtly or if it is misjudged then it can be abrasive and objectionable. The best-designed games will control you without you even knowing that it is your buttons being pushed just as much as the game pad’s.

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

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser