A screenshot of the main character of Grant Theft Auto V hiding behind a police car during a shootout. Image: Rockstar
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Cops and robbers: how the police became our new favourite video game villains

The breakdown of trust between the public and the police has been reflected by how comfortable we are killing them in games.

I don’t remember exactly when I realised it. Maybe it was when I was mowing down an army of Swat team officers with a machine gun in Payday 2. Maybe it was when I was clubbing street cops to death with a colossal dildo in Saints Row 3. Maybe it was when I was playing Max Payne 3 as he slaughtered his way through almost the entire São Paulo police force. It could have been when I was watching people shoot down police helicopters in the Battlefield: Hardline promos, or playing any one of the Grand Theft Auto series. The realisation was that that there is something unwholesome about the portrayal of law enforcement officers in games, something unsettling about the glee with which games portray violence against them.

Violence in games has been around almost as long as the games themselves, and shooting police officers as a theme is not especially new. Games like Syndicate, and the first GTA, featured plenty of violence from the protagonists directed against police officers, but back then games were different. The industry was small and the reach was minimal. Games had a rebellious streak to them; they were a little bit edgy, a little bit punk.

Two things have changed since those days: the first is the reach of games, and the second is the quality of presentation. Games are ubiquitous now, and games like the GTA series count as the biggest and most marketable aspects of our media. Games also have a much higher standard of presentation than before - the targets of the violence in games can be recognisably human now, and speak and react in lifelike ways to getting brutalised for the amusement of players. The net result of these changes is that we have a situation where some of the biggest elements of our media are violent games and the targets of that in-game violence are often law enforcement.

This in itself ought to be seen as something to think about. Of course we all know the violence in games isn’t real, and it isn’t going to make people any more violent than they already were, but just because a game isn’t going to make you violent doesn’t mean that presenting law enforcement officers as enemies isn’t notable. Not inherently wrong, but it doesn’t feel like an entirely healthy state of affairs.

The list of people and things that it is acceptable to mercilessly slaughter in video games is not that long. Mostly it consists of Nazis, cultists, criminals, monsters and robots. To get onto that list you have to be seen as less than human, or to have divested yourself of your humanity to the extent that a player can not only stomach violence against you, but enjoy that violence. We can safely say given recent trends in games design that police officers are now on that list too.

Why are so many games portraying police as cannon fodder or villains? Who, if anybody, is to blame? I would contend not the games developers themselves - they serve the market, and if games about shooting cops didn’t sell so well we would not have so many games about shooting cops.

Nor would I blame the media at large. We’re still seeing movies about hero cops, good guys and bad guys, natural justice being served and that old timey morality. The old media has remained loyal to those ideas and you would never see anything like a movie with the profile of a game like GTA V or Saints Row 3 show that same level of disdain for the police.

It seems more plausible that the blame for how police officers are being portrayed lies with the police and law enforcement agencies themselves. The simple fact is since the turn of the century the reputation of police officers, around the world, has been sinking faster than a socially awkward submarine. Plenty of groups have had problems with law enforcement over the years for legitimate reasons - particularly those from ethnic minorities - but in the 21st century mistrust and hostility towards police has become normalised to an extent few could have predicted. In these days of ubiquitous cameras and video uploads to the internet much more of what the police do is open to scrutiny, and it can be shocking. The misconduct of police services from London to Los Angeles is online for everybody to see.

The extent of the mistrust towards the institutions themselves is deeper now than before, too. In the UK we’ve seen killings by police that have caused widespread outrage, most notably those of Jean Charles de Menezes, Ian Tomlinson and Mark Duggan. Innocent people killed, their killers escaping fitting punishment. We’ve seen police being heavy handed against demonstrators and undercover officers infiltrating peaceful and legitimate protest groups with no clear justification. We’ve seen light shone onto the actions of the police during the Hillsborough disaster and the duplicity surrounding that, alongside decades of shady dealings with the tabloids. In short, many of us have learned over the last few years that not only are police forces institutions with profound problems - putting it mildly - but that they have probably always been this bad. We just didn’t know about it. There is not a lot of faith left.

In the UK problems are severe, and the erosion of the relationship between a society and its law enforcement officers is something that harms both parties. It could, though, be much worse. In the USA the police have become militarised, happily acquiring surplus counter-terrorism and military hardware from the government. The use of paramilitary police units, even for mundane tasks such as serving warrants, has skyrocketed in the last couple of decades. All this, backed by a federal government that likes to snoop on people’s communications and put them in jail far more than anywhere else in the world. It really isn’t a surprise that the authorities are becoming seen as acceptable targets for the violence in games under such circumstances.

So what can be done? I would conjecture not very much. It isn’t like the police forces of the world will suddenly have a big meeting and decide that they’ll do their jobs better from now on, just so games developers stop being mean to them. As a society we’re just going to have to get used to the fact that we no longer seem to like the people we hired to enforce our laws, although since the feeling appears to be mutual perhaps this isn’t anything to lose sleep over.

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

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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