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Word Games: Sorry

Nick Clegg was so, so sorry, but what does that actually mean?

The word that launched a thousand televised speeches. A doleful mash-up passes in front of my eyes: Bill Clinton, Nick Clegg, Andrew Mitchell, Nick Clegg. The apology has become an obsession for politicians who think that to say sorry is so powerful that they avoid it when the matter in question is war (Tony Blair); and yet at the same time so meaningless that you can say it and press on regardless, because it won’t change a thing (Clegg’s sorry film). Does any other word have such powerless potency? To utter it is a news event, a spectacle. But what’s the point?

You remember what it was like: you’re five, you’ve snatched your friend’s toy out of their hands and they’re bawling. The mothers crowd – “Tell Snotface you’re sorry!” – and then you’re crying too, wriggling with shame and stubborn pride until the word is wrested out of your blubbering mouth. Then, miraculously, all is forgiven; after a moment of anguish, you’re free once again to commit petty toy theft. You’ll even, in time, turn the word into a playground parody of itself, ripped from meaning and value, transformed into a taunt: sorr-eeee.

The word comes from the old English, sarig (“distressed or full of sorrow”), which in turn comes from sairaz, meaning mental or physical or pain (a cousin of sar, or sore). The concept of someone being in a “sorry” state, wretched and worthless, is from the 13th century but the word’s use in apology only began in the early 19th century. This tells you something: in the literal sense, to be sorry is to describe an inner pain (amply etched on Nick Clegg’s pillowy face); it’s an internal state, not an external act. When you say sorry, you convince yourself that you’re doing something for someone else but you’re just describing your own misery, offering it up in sacrifice. To apologise is so often a self-serving act: a transparent bid for redemption. It’s all about you.

When Clegg explained why he’d made the video, he said, in that matter-of-fact, I’m-a-grown-up-politician way he’s fond of, that when he makes a mistake he believes in “holding his hands up”, coming clean and saying sorry. But it begs the question, as do many apologies: why the hell did you do it in the first place?

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

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