In “Destiny”, it is possible to spend hours just shooting things that come out of a cave.
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At what point does a video game become a grindingly menial job?

When the balance of challenge and reward in a game gets out of sync, players can end up doing length, tedious tasks in exchange for a “win”. Do we even know what fun is anymore?

Stage hypnotists can get people to dance around like a chicken on stage and people are impressed. They applaud and admire the skill it must take to get somebody to do something like that, something that seems so ridiculous and out of character for a mature adult. Simple tricks of the mind used to get people to behave absurdly for the sake of entertainment. When it is done one person at a time it looks funny, but to get legions of people to act bizarrely, in the name of, well let’s just call it fun, that is some feat. A feat I am somewhat familiar with.

I nearly went to see a stage hypnotist when I was at university, but I skipped it. My housemate had promised to show me where the rare items would spawn on the Ultima Online server when it restarted at 5am, so I’d have to be awake and alert at the very crack of dawn to pick up what, if memory serves, was a tiny pixelated fruit bowl. He did this a lot, he thought it was a good idea, and to a point so did I, but it bewildered me then, and it does still. How did this constitute fun?

Games usually make sense in the way that they challenge and reward us. Chess, for example, makes sense. There is an abstract sense to chess, some unintuitive conditions. Such as why is checkmate the object of the game rather than just taking all the opponents pieces? But the motivation is never in doubt, there is the opponent, these are the rules, beat them.

Video games on the other hand have a tendency to be even more esoteric in the ways that they challenge and reward players. This ought to be a concern to players because challenge and reward are of critical importance and how they are employed can make or break the design of a game. As players we should have at least as close an eye on these as we have for higher profile design elements like story or characters.

One example of reward systems going awry which has garnered some attention lately is an area in much-hyped festival of average that is Destiny. In one particular area you walk up to a cave, you shoot the things that come out of the cave and you get disproportionate rewards for doing so. It is important here that we differentiate that there are rewards in the game in the form of items and money, but there is also a reward in the sense that the game provides a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

It is the latter kind of reward, the sort of spiritual payoff, that as players we ought to be wary of because this can be used to manipulate us. That feeling of satisfaction, the momentary buzz of finding something good, or beating a particular challenge, that can hook us. For example it is no coincidence for example that experience points, levels, unlocks and persistent characters have become so commonplace in competitive games. Players who might never enjoy topping the scoreboard in games like Call of Duty or Battlefield can still earn points, unlock things and reach a higher rank. It should be fun to play a game win or lose, but these kinds of mechanics add a sort of artificial sense of value to proceedings.

The problem here is that when you start dishing out warm fuzzy feels to players just for turning up you make the experience bland. When defeat ceases to exist, painful victory loses some of its value too and you end up with games that are more about time spent than challenges bested and more about levelling up your character than improving as a player.

Returning to Destiny, far be it from me to accuse folks of playing a game wrong. If people enjoy standing in one place firing at harmless targets they can fill their super special pre-order bonus boots. However it bodes badly for everybody that this sort of thing can be looked at by a game developer and considered a successful bit of design, especially in such a high profile game. What does it say about players, as an audience, when you can park them in front of a cave and they’ll stand there for hours firing at anything in front of them? What does it say for expectations in game design in this spectacularly hyped new generation?

We have grown to accept the concept of grinding in games. The expression has come to mean to partake in the unchallenging, repetitive completion of given tasks and many games, particularly MMORPG style ones like World of Warcraft, are built on it. But moving past that to what is known as farming, we enter territory where the game ceases to be a game, it becomes busywork.

That said you can have fun with this kind of game play. You can get comfy with a game and just tend to it- lavishing time and care on it like a houseplant or one of those intricate train sets that legend has it existed in the attics of pre-digital era nerds. Not every game has to challenge and sometimes we want a game to just sit there like a tribble while we divert our attention to other things. But you’d imagine a game like Destiny would not be aspiring to exist in this category.

The ability to get a few people to act like chickens on stage is all fun and games, but getting thousands of players to act like battery hens, sat in their couches, their characters nested in front of a cave entrance, is kind of sad. We ought to be expecting better.

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

BBC
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit