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

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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