Is all the time in front of that screen time wasted? Photo: Getty
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I’ve probably played over 10,000 hours of video games. I could be a concert pianist by now

Escaping into video games is something that people have been doing since video games were first invented. But is it time wasted, or valuable escapism?

Video games have great power, but it can be difficult to see from the perspective of a player. I didn’t see it myself until I saw what happened to my nephew, then three years old, when he was plonked down in front of my computer to play Minecraft. One second he’s an energetic babbling scamp, and the next he’s sat stock still in the chair, eyes locked on the screen, completely engaged with what is going on to the exclusion of everything else. The worrying realisation loomed that he could cheerfully stay sat forever in front of that computer playing games, circumstances permitting. Just as I could.

Escaping into video games is something that people have been doing since video games were first invented. Even the blockiest, bloopiest attempts at making digital entertainment could hook players. When you’re properly absorbed into a game it’s much like being completely engaged with any other activity, whether it’s reading a book, playing a musical instrument or performing open heart surgery. The difference between a game and almost any other activity is that for many games the duration is potentially infinite, the connection can last hundreds, even thousands of hours. Almost no other recreational activity can sustain that kind of attention. Traditional media cannot provide the amount of hours of entertainment that games can, exercise and sports are limited by physical exhaustion and most other hobbies or activities would be impractical if pursued to the same extent. Even if one game gets dull there’s usually another and from simplistic mobile phone and web browser games to sprawling sandbox games and MMOs there is always something else around the corner for the determined games fan, and some of us are very determined indeed.

It has been said that you can become a concert pianist with 10,000 hours of practice. Personally, according to Steam which since 2009 has been tracking how much I play games on my PC, I’ve clocked in the ballpark of 6,000 hours on various games since 2009, just on that platform. Factor in the preceding 25 or so years playing games on top of that and I’m starting to think maybe somebody should book me in to Carnegie Hall so culture vultures can watch me play Dwarf Fortress in C minor.

Carnegie Hall won’t be calling. The simple fact is that though I’ve tried, and largely succeeded, to cram quality game playing time into every corner of my waking life (plus a mission in Kerbal Space Program during a particularly vivid and memorable dream) I’m not an outlier. There are men and women whose dedication to playing video games is almost beyond belief. Players who measure the time committed to single games, usually multiplayer games, in the thousands of hours, and are happy to do it.

Sometimes I wonder if I spent my time with games well. If there wasn’t something else I could have been doing. Maybe if I’d spent fifty less hours playing and fifty more hours at the gym I’d be in better shape. Maybe if I’d skipped a given game entirely 200 hours or so might have been diverted to something more traditionally productive, learning like a foreign language or training a swan to bite the Queen. It is easy to juggle hypotheticals when the time spent is all laid out before us. Ultimately I don’t regret any of it.

The idea that people are just pouring their lives into an insatiable digital abyss could be seen as a waste, because for all intents and purposes, it is a waste. Our greatest accomplishments in the field of gaming are just a hard disk failure or cloud save snafu away from obliteration. It could be argued that the last two decades or so through which the video game has risen to prominence have created a boondoggle of incalculable proportions. Millions of hours across the world going into this sinkhole - had gamers only looked outwards, we might wonder, could they have not achieved something great? Could we not have all done something useful?

Well, no. To view time in games in the above terms, as time lost, is to miss the point of playing the game in the first place. For me playing a game is to recharge, to escape from reality that is, let’s face it, not nearly as enticing as we were brought up to think it’d be.

We live in a world of suffering and injustice and it isn’t getting better. In general there’s climate change and wealth disparity, and on a personal level (spoiler alert) we’re all going to die eventually. Life, even in comparatively comfortable surroundings, is difficult and painful and it never ends well. The decades marked by the growth of video games have coincided with the collapse of traditional ideas of job security, with the near complete breakdown of trust in our political class and with the rise of a surveillance culture so comprehensive and intrusive that the Stasi would be telling us to steady on. We enjoy communications technology that prior generations could only have dreamed of and what have we found out? That people all over the world are getting just as screwed as we are or worse, and there’s no vote we can cast or placard we can march under that will help them. Video games are the most effective means of temporary escapism that humankind has ever developed that didn’t involve a syringe and we need them now more than ever.

If you can wake up in the morning, look at the news, check your Twitter, know that your entire existence is fleeting and just deal with that, all day long, until you turn in at night ready to do it all the next day, more power to you. Me? I’m going to need to spend a chunk of that time pretending to be a magic Viking or something or else my head is going to explode, and if the millions of people spending millions of hours doing likewise are any indication I’m not the only one.

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

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How the charts were won

For decades, white male critics have championed white male rock. Can a new school of writing re-evaluate the history of pop music?

Since the early 1970s and the first Best Albums Ever lists, most histories of popular music have followed the same course. A steady ascension via Elvis Presley reaches the birth of rock with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, followed by a gradual decline, briefly interrupted by punk. For 40-odd years after that, white male music writers posited the superiority of white, male, writerly music and took it as read that pop or dance music “didn’t count”. Then, finally, a few began to rebel until, in 2013, Bob Stanley’s invigorating Yeah Yeah Yeah went for a full rewriting of the annals, declaring outright its intention “to argue that the separation of rock and pop is false, and that disco and large swaths of black and electronic music have been virtually ignored by traditional pop histories”. Others have joined in, embracing the relativism born of popular music’s long assimilation into the mainstream and the end of the old mods v Teds or punk v disco tribalism. Most of these writers have been British, but now it seems the Americans are on board.

Love for Sale is of this new school, though its author, David Hajdu, is a professor of journalism at Columbia University in New York and a former writer for the conservative US rock magazine Rolling Stone. His take begins by dividing the music into eras, either by technology (sheet music to digital) or movements (jazz to hip-hop), into which he folds his own experience: small-town childhood obsession, entry into punk music’s orbit in 1970s Manhattan, becoming a professional critic, watching his children develop their own tastes. He is pacy, conversational and unshowily perceptive, and his greatest virtue is his ability to see the wood for the trees. There’s something David Attenborough-like about the way he carries the reader along: for instance, tracing the journey of the song “Whispering” from composition in 1920, through instrumentals, crooners, country and bebop, to George Harrison’s rendition on an out-take from “Let It Be”.

Hajdu also has a good thesis or two, one of which he calls “the trope of the jungle”, running from the decor of the jazz-era nightspot the Cotton Club through the rock’n’roll breakout movie Blackboard Jungle and on to Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” and hip-hop’s African motifs. Listeners’ desire for the “primitive and savage”, he says, connects Duke Ellington to punk and rap. It’s certainly bold. From this, he extrapolates a social purpose for popular music: as “the sound of teen kinship” and “a for-profit laboratory of both social and aesthetic experimentation”, lightening the load along the way with the insights and discoveries vital to any history. Who knew that the “S curl” plastered to Bill Haley’s forehead was an effort to increase his resemblance to Superman? Who else has fully considered music video’s effect on live shows, with performers “costumed, choreographed and lit for the benefit of video cameras” fed to those giant screens?

Much of the rock snobbery of past histories has resided in an obsession with authenticity, but Hajdu echoes Hugh Barker’s and Yuval Taylor’s groundbreaking Faking It (2007) in dealing with commercialism head on. The US music trade magazine Billboard, he points out, began as a mouthpiece of the outdoor advertising industry; he claims that country music was invented by Tin Pan Alley to capitalise on the popularity of another fabrication, the cowboy – and reminds us that even folk’s bastions of purity, the Carter Family, were “unapologetic professionals”. He also pays proper respect to the influence of musical theatre, both through the theatricality of Ziggy Stardust and in the enduring concept of the Great American Songbook, evident in the huge success of Adele.

His efforts to distance himself from the established view may even go a little too far. He takes aim at 1970s writers and “their mission to elevate rock and perhaps, in the process, themselves”, before turning the gun on “music critics like me”. Really, his only fault seems to be that he hasn’t come to terms with his enduring passion for the music of his teens.

Marc Myers, by contrast, declares on page one of Anatomy of a Song that “at its heart, this book is a love story”, though mercifully it’s more level-headed and substantial than that suggests. Based on a column he began for the Wall Street Journal in 2011, it takes 45 songs, from Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” in 1952 to REM’s “Losing My Religion” in 1991 (25 years being the time needed to assess “iconic” status), puts each in context and then interviews its makers to form a history in snapshots. Stuart Maconie did something similar for British tastes with The People’s Songs, and in both books the chief value is in the focus being placed on song rather than singer.

Much of the music Myers writes about comes from pop, soul, or that strange place where Tin Pan Alley hack-songwriting crossed over with rock’n’roll – the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”, Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds” – which rock history can’t usually compute and so pretends didn’t exist. Here, facing off against the compact power of the Four Tops’ unashamedly populist “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, the rare rock figures who appear, such as Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page talking about leaving behind singles to “develop our songs emotionally”, just sound silly.

It isn’t quite a history, though. Myers wants to cover the “larger story of the music’s development”, so he uses each track to represent a stage or turning point; but you are always conscious that he is limited by whom he can interview. That said, the random element throws up interesting angles. He prefaces a Loretta Lynn tune, “Fist City”, with a summary of the evolution of country and western up to the rise of the tough female singer-songwriter, while the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day” inspires an essay on gospel’s infiltration, from Bridge Over Troubled Water to Godspell.

Another side effect is a reminder that popular music is always everything happening at once. That Loretta Lynn song, for example, was competing for attention in 1968 not only with Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” but also with the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” and Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride”. It’s the same impression given, rather less gracefully, by Ed Ward’s History of Rock’n’Roll, Volume 1, a comparatively traditional tome that trots along year by year. Ward, another Rolling Stone veteran, makes a strong start on 19th-century string bands and the arrival of the medicine shows and ragtime, but as the record industry picks up the pace so does he, relaying with tireless and eventually tiring enthusiasm the hits and misses of each month. Though he sets out in his introduction (worryingly titled “How to Use This Book”) his intention to steer away from “the Great Performer approach”, the barrage is so unrelenting that all that remains in the mind after 400 pages are his diversions from this rule, primarily into the story of Elvis or the Beatles.

If Ward has a theme, it’s the crossover of black and white music. Elijah Wald’s excellent How the Beatles Destroyed Rock’n’Roll did this in 2009 with more verve, but the subject does at least inspire Ward to step out of almanac mode into opinion. Hank Williams’s significance, he argues, came from having “internalised the blues”, allowing him to “change the rules” of country; Ray Charles “dropped a bombshell on the American popular music world” with his Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music album; and long before either, those string bands sounded much the same whether the musicians were black or white.

Many shifts in popular music he attributes to technology – the move into recording; to singles and then albums; the conversion to digital. It’s a view shared by David Hajdu, who attributes the appearance of more “ruminative” songs in the 1960s (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”) to the arrival of the transistor radio, which moved teenagers out of the family space and increased music’s role as a “symbol of the cult of teen alienation”. This is now a preoccupation of music writing, highlighted in Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever: the Story of Recorded Music (2009), but also in journalism. While it’s significant that, say, both Phil Spector and Motown’s Berry Gordy designed their productions to work on tinny radios, it is hard not to wonder if this retroactive emphasis is down to music writers’ current preoccupation with downloads and streaming and their knock-on effects.

While that obsession may well pass, what will surely be more lasting – and what binds all of these books – is nostalgia. Popular music is still thriving and even developing in 2016, but it is no longer at the centre of the culture, here or in America, even for young people. Unlike those Best Album Ever lists, compiled with the triumphalism of the now, these three books are written with that most valuable critical advantage: hindsight.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge