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The pressure to get more women in videogames is finally paying off

For years, games have desperately needed to get over their addiction to tedious generic white guys as their protagonists for their own sake. Now, it finally seems to be happening.

E3 is a weird event, a mixture of a tradeshow, a party conference and religious cult’s coming together to summon its all-powerful yet perpetually indifferent Super-God. It is also, alas, the physical manifestation of all that is rotten in videogames. The blistering cynicism, the exploitation of nostalgia and the carefully nurtured groupthink designed to add more hype, more hope, to whatever products the big studios are pushing, regardless of whether said new product is anything good, new or of any genuine interest at all. You might almost say I’m not a fan.

But for all that E3 remains important, because E3 is the Fountain of Bullshit deep in the heart of the videogame jungle. It is here that the industry sets out its stall for what it considers important.

As such the signals from this year’s E3 are mixed. The first and most important positive from the show itself is that for a lot of the promotional materials shown for a surprisingly large number of games, the player characters shown were women, either as the sole protagonists or optional protagonists being given top billing at a major event. This nod to the greater inclusion of women in gaming has been a long time coming. Given the time it takes to develop videogames it feels like growing pressure to change gaming from being so overtly hostile to the women it depicts is finally starting to pay off.

This is a very good thing because, even setting aside the important issues of representation and casual sexism, games have desperately needed to get over their addiction to tedious generic white guys as their protagonists for their own sake. For years the medium has had a problem with characters seemingly created by focus groups and marketing departments looking to create heroes who will tick the boxes for optimal sales. You don’t make great art by pandering to marketing demographics and anybody claiming you can’t sell a game with a black protagonist or a bisexual protagonist needs to address their argument to the fifty million plus copies of Grand Theft Auto V that have been sold thus far.

That being said, there really is no valid reason to set aside the issues of representation and casual sexism anyway. Diversifying the characters in video games is a win-win.

The bad of E3 this year has taken a couple of forms. The most depressing on a personal level was seeing Bethesda announce Fallout 4 with an accompanying free to play, in-app purchase funded mobile game. I’ve hugely enjoyed the Fallout games over the years, but seeing the mobile game appear, and seeing it become hugely successful, has filled me with dread. I had hoped, in my naivety, that when EA released a mobile version of Dungeon Keeper that was met with an angry mob, lessons had been learned. I hoped that gamers had learned that embracing such products is helping to dig the graves of the games we love. Alas not. Apparently all it took to sell this where Dungeon Keeper failed was a slightly less cynical monetisation plan.

Meanwhile E3 also saw new kinds of shenanigans employed by Sony in exploiting Kickstarter to get money for the long-awaited Shenmue 3. There is no earthly reason why a corporation as large as Sony needs to use Kickstarter to get extra funds for a game that fans have been waiting years for and there is no need for them to use Kickstarter as a means to gauge interest in the game, they know people are interested or else they wouldn’t be talking about it during their E3 show. What we’re seeing here is Kickstarter being used to generate additional revenue during the development of a game and it is an extremely slimy precedent.

Gaming has always been an industry that pushes the boundaries of both of technology and of its culture. There is little or no sense of tradition in gaming, because it has simply not been around long enough to have one form. One unfortunate consequence of this is that there is no real sense of what is right and fair when it comes to how developers make their money from players. As a result we see an industry that seems more invested in finding new ways to squeeze money out of its customers than it is in making them something worth playing.

The highlight for me this year was the PC gaming show and seeing the sequel to Euro Truck Simulator 2, the self explanatorily titled American Truck Simulator being shown up on the big screen. It is hard to imagine a game being less at home at E3 than a detailed simulation of cargo hauling, but there it was amid the Battlefields, Tomb Raiders and Fallouts, a reminder that despite all efforts to understand games, gamers and gaming, it is all still a bit weird.

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

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Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

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 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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