2007 – a year of promises fulfilled

The major gaming stories of the year

In the short history of video games there have been plenty of landmark years. In 1972 Pong astounded the public, paving the way for a new form of entertainment. A decade later the young industry explosion seemed perilous, following the great video game crash of 1983. Then, in 1994, Sony took the market by storm by launching the PlayStation, and in 2007.

Well, certainly for many, it was a year to remember. It was the year when the gaming industry finally looked set to fulfil its promise, taking its chance to reach into the mainstream and grab the imagination of the public.

A year of numbers

Above all, it was a year of numbers. December saw news of a record-breaking $19bn merger between two of the biggest names in gaming: Blizzard and Activision. Blizzard's biggest game, the online fantasy World of Warcraft, passed the nine million subscribers mark, and the entire games industry was valued at in excess of $30bn.

However, it was Sony that started the number-crunching trend when it finally released its flagship PlayStation 3 console in March. The machine entered the record books by selling 165,000 units in the UK in two days. It breathed life back into the Japanese electronics giant, which had taken a beating the previous Christmas from its rivals.

The PlayStation might have made its mark in the battle for gamers' affections, but the tussle was far from over. After all, Microsoft had an ace up its sleeve: Halo 3.

The latest instalment in the massively popular franchise laid waste to all before it when it hit the shelves in September. On paper, the game seems unremarkable - a standard shooter tied together with a typical alien warfare storyline. But the game's killer combination - fantastic graphics and multiplayer online gaming - has turned Halo into more than just a great title: it is a genuine pop-culture phenomenon.

Sales making history

That status was underscored when it racked up $170m of sales on its first day in the US, making it the highest grossing first day in entertainment history - even outstripping Hollywood blockbusters like Spider-Man and Pirates of the Caribbean.

In Britain, gamers picked up nearly half a million copies in just a few days, handing over more than £20m to Microsoft in the process (this was a welcome fillip for the Seattle corporation, which has seen little profit from its massive investment in gaming).

"It's far too early to say what the financial return will be for our investment," Microsoft's Shane Kim told the BBC at the launch. "But if we can't make a profit in the year Halo 3 comes out, then when will we?"

That optimism was in sharp contrast to another major event of the year - and one that will stick in the minds of many: the banning of Manhunt 2, Rockstar Games' controversial slasher sequel.

When the game came before the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in June, it was refused a certificate and criticised for encouraging "casual sadism". As a result, it became the first game to be banned in Britain for a decade - and, with elements that the censors described as "sadistic, brutal and bleak", the headlines simply wrote themselves.

The controversy was not just in the media, however. Arguments were stirred up inside the industry as well. Some felt that the ban was an inevitable consequence of Rockstar's desire to court controversy as a marketing opportunity (Rob Fahey, columnist with website Gamesindustry.biz, summed it up by saying "Rockstar has crossed the line - and crossed it at a full-tilt run").

Others thought that the gratuitous violence was fair enough, given that it was in a title that was clearly aimed at adults, and plenty of supporters pointed out that some of the most gruesome Hollywood movies have been given certificates.

This plurality of views is likely to be reflected in a forthcoming government review of games and the internet, which became another talking point when it was announced in the autumn. The investigation is set to look at the effects of these new media on children, and will report back next spring. While at first the news was treated with scepticism (after all Tanya Byron, who is leading the investigation, is best known as a TV psychologist) it became clear that she was not merely going to rubberstamp the tabloid line that games are a malicious influence.

"Children seem to know quite a lot more than we think they do, and they know a lot about the technologies that they're using," she told the Observer in an interview. "For different kids, particularly kids with learning difficulties, these technologies have transformed their learning and enthused them to learn." (See page 22 for Tanya Byron's article on the government review.)

The return of Nintendo

While controversy was a persistent theme for the industry, the real story of 2007 was far more wholesome. Nintendo's return to peak form has to be the landmark trend of the past 12 months, not only shaking up the industry but also helping the whole gaming fraternity to break into new territory. Nintendo's decision to take a chance on its own quirky vision of the future - far removed from the high-powered, realistic graphics favoured by its competitors - seemed like it might backfire. But, in fact, it is paying off in spades.

The company's charge to the top of the charts was led by the Wii, released last Christmas and still in huge demand thanks to its innovative controller and unashamed emphasis on fun. The combination of classic franchises such as Mario and family-oriented titles like Wii Sports (which swept the board at this year's awards ceremonies) has proved irresistible with the public.

DS makes further inroads

And while the Wii emerged top dog against the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, the diminutive DS handheld also made further inroads. This son-of-Gameboy is now in the hands of more than four million people around Britain, and thanks to games like Brain Training it has reached to new generations and crossed into the mainstream.

All these factors (the return of Nintendo, Sony's big sell and Microsoft's record-breaking games) not only sum up a massively successful year for the games industry, but could also give an indication of where the future lies.

While there may be a growing divide in the gaming world - between hardcore gamers who relish their powerful technology and those who spend their time playing accessible, casual titles - success in one field no longer precludes it in the other. While in previous years the two worlds were mutually exclusive, both forks are now bigger, better and more popular than ever before. The legacy of 2007 is yet to be determined - but if the past year proves anything, it is that we are no longer playing a zero-sum game.

Bobbie Johnson is technology correspondent for the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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