2007 Awards and reviews

Awards ceremonies for video games are growing in size and status, reflecting the acceptance of video

Video gaming has come a long way. It has been a difficult journey from humble origins, surviving derision, scandal and protest but, after a painful birth and turbulent adolescence, it may finally be attaining something approaching respect from its industrious peers.

Much in the same way that film, and later television, spent years defining themselves and proving their worth before they were critically accepted, video gaming has now become a viable institution that can no longer be ignored or instantly dismissed as a lesser form of entertainment.

Growing stature

Since 2003, BAFTA has acknowledged video games' growing stature, popularity and importance by holding a separate award ceremony for them - the first time another medium has been included since the British Film Academy joined with the Guild of Television Producers and Directors in 1958. Progress indeed - something which has been reiterated this year as, for the first time, video games have their own category at the Children's BAFTAs, 12 years after its inception.

What this signifies, and will no doubt help to propagate, is the changing perception of the gamer. Recognising their presence at the children's awards goes some way towards regarding video games as a positive and beneficial aspect of modern culture. This is opposed to the negative influence they were previously perceived to represent, with the controversy surrounding games such as Grand Theft Auto and the destructive influence it was argued they had on impressionable young minds.

This is thanks in no small part to Nintendo, whose family friendly, inclusive outlook on gaming has deliberately sought to appeal to a broader audience. With the huge success of its handheld DS, and more recent Wii console, Nintendo has redefined the video gaming landscape by offering titles which are both educative and entertaining while boasting innovative controls that make the experience truly intuitive. The Wii has become the fastest-selling console of all time, and accounts for why Wii Sports - its benchmark title - stole the spotlight at the gaming BAFTAs by receiving six awards; for most innovation, best gameplay and best multiplayer as well as being the best sports, casual and simulation title of the year.

Laissez-faire glamour

The awards were hosted by comedian Vic Reeves and were attended by a wide range of industry professionals, along with celebrities from the film, TV and music world. The whole event approached the glitz and glamour of BAFTA's more illustrious film awards, but with a slightly more laissez-faire attitude; a celebration of gaming's achievements to date and a recognition of key figures who have been invaluable in its development. The BAFTA Fellowship, the highest accolade the academy can bestow, was this year awarded to Will Wright, a pioneer of game development for over 20 years, with landmark critical and commercial successes such as Sim City and The Sims to his name. This marks the first instance that anyone within the industry of video gaming has been given the honour, and signifies yet another step forward for the medium.

Golden Joysticks

However, the BAFTAs were not the only video game award show to take place this year, as 2007 also marked the silver jubilee of the Golden Joystick awards. Differing from the BAFTAs in that the awards are voted on by gamers themselves, this year saw the highest-ever number of votes cast, with over three-quarters of a million people selecting their gaming highlights for 2007. Less of a mainstream televised event than the BAFTA ceremony, David Mitchell, star of Channel 4's Peep Show, hosted the proceedings in front of a crowd of industry professionals, keeping the tone light hearted, adult themed and brisk. Mitchell was quick to point out the Joysticks' importance in that they are voted on by "the people that really matter - the gamers themselves", yet the outcome of the awards reflected a similar general consensus to the BAFTAs.

Nintendo's Wii Sports picked up the award for Best Family Game, and Nintendo as a company won for Best Innovation with its Wii console, and took home the coveted Best Publisher award. Microsoft, too, picked up a significant reward with its in-house title Gears of War being voted the Ultimate Game of the Year. Less prosperous was Sony, whose technically superior Playstation 3 console failed to pick up awards for any of its releases, or hardware.

Underachievementby Sony

This underachievement by Sony was evident with the list of BAFTA winners too, with awards for Techical Achievement, Best Score and Artistic Achievement going to God of War 2 and Okami - two Playstation 2 titles - but no awards for the Playstation 3.

Considering the length of development and hype surrounding Sony's new console, relatively poor sales - and now lack of industry recognition - can only be seen as a slight embarrassment, and could further affect the struggling behemoth. Despite its market dominance since the release of the first Playstation in 1994, Sony now finds itself in the unfamiliar position of trailing in Nintendo's wake, with Microsoft also gaining significant ground since the release of the Xbox 360 in 2006.

In the run-up to Christmas, the Wii has sold out across the country and, while Sony and Microsoft may put this down to poor set-up with their suppliers, the unavailability will only increase demand for Nintendo's flagship console as its run-away success continues.

Spike TV awards

One awards show where Nintendo hasn't stolen the centre stage, though, is Spike TV's Video Game Awards. Marking its 5th anniversary, the awards once again took place in Las Vegas on 7 December, billing themselves as "the biggest event in videogames". Spike TV is a division of the MTV network (which might account for the hyperbole) and is available in 96.1 million homes worldwide. The awards are more of a commercial event than either the BAFTAs or the Golden Joysticks, with big name sponsors such as Mountain Dew, Burger King and Nikon among others. Since its inception, Spike TV has made a concerted effort to include programming on video games to create a brand identity in keeping with the similar core target audience of the MTV channels.

The two gaming highlights for this ceremony were Microsoft's Bioshock and Halo 3, with seven nominations apiece, including Game of the Year. Contrary to the results of the BAFTAs and the Golden Joysticks, Wii Sports only received one nomination, for Most Addictive Game.

From over 13 categories, this is incidentally the only award voted for by the public, the awards being determined by the VGA Advisory Council.

Mobile gaming

For this year's Spike TV awards there was also a special set of sub-categories for mobile games, that are exclusive to mobile voting.

The progress of mobile gaming has been a revelation over the past few years, with technology advancing leaps and bounds since Snake represented the pinnacle of mobile gaming only five years ago. Now mobile games have storylines, 3D graphics, downloadable levels and more. In a recent list of top-10 downloaded games on mobile phones, as monitored by Orange, Sonic the Hedgehog came out on top, the same game that was a best seller for Sega's Mega Drive back in 1991. It may have taken 16 years, but the ability to play the full title on your mobile phone as a moderately priced download is quite an achievement.

The possibilities for mobile gaming are potentially limitless because the future of distribution seems more and more likely to be based online. New devices, such as the Nokia N95, can easily connect to the internet and have aspirations to be multimedia centres in their own right, suggesting that there is no reason why movies, music and games cannot become as popular on our mobile phones as they are in our homes.

Consistent innovation

It is an exciting time to be a gamer, with every year bringing with it new technologies and surprises and, as these awards signify, critical and social acceptance as well. Whether Nintendo's latest consoles present an evolution or revolution in gaming, with Microsoft and Sony still providing strong competition, and with mobile gaming advancing at an alarming rate, no other industry currently provides such continual and consistent innovation - long may it last. As Will Wright stated in his acceptance of the BAFTA Fellowship "Year after year games are permeating our culture and I don't think they will be dying off any time soon." Let's hope not.

A full list of all the awards' nominees and winners can be found at:

www.bafta.org

www.goldenjoystick.com

www.spiketv.com

Gaming and me

I got into games when I was about eight, through my older brothers, they had an Amiga. As the technology got bigger I moved along from there.

When I was younger a game I loved to play was Syndicate. This was a group of genetically made agents and you had to track people and assassinate them in a Blade Runner-style world. At the moment I'm a fan of any kind of sports game.

What I want for Christmas...

In my stocking I would like to get Mass Effect. Contrary to my sports taste this is a game with role playing, and you travel the galaxy. It was made by the people who made the Star Wars games a few years ago, Bioware.

Myles Robey

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

Picture: Bridgeman Images
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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

***

The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

***

The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

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