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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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