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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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster