Games and gamers in the media

Do all gamers play Grand Theft Auto? Are they all geeky and nerdy young men?

More than one- third of the UK population plays computer and video games these days.

Over-45s test their wits playing games such as Brain Training, party-goers love the multi-player karaoke game SingStar, and families crowd around Nintendo Wii consoles to try their hand at sports such as baseball, tennis, golf and boxing.

Therapy for stroke patients

Video games even seem to be going down a storm with pensioners in their eighties and nineties. One Birmingham retirement home hit the headlines this autumn when elderly residents ditched their usual gardening, knitting and bridge sessions in favour of playing video games. In the US, the Nintendo Wii is being used as therapy for people who are recovering from strokes.

However, despite the fact that video games have become a mainstream and highly sociable activity, the media perception of games and gamers has changed little over the years. Video games get blamed for everything from violent crime to couch-potato children, while gamers themselves are usually portrayed as geeky loners, nerdy teenagers or creepy characters who live on the fringes of society and have a predilection for violent games.

Hunched over PlayStation

Take Channel 4's award-winning sitcom Spaced, for instance. Lead character Tim Bisley, played by Simon Pegg, is more geeky than creepy but is obsessed with "shoot-'em-up" video games. He spends hours hunched over his PlayStation, eyes glued to the screen, and describes one game he plays compulsively till dawn as "a subtle blend of lateral thinking and extreme violence."

Gavin Ogden, editor of online gaming publication computerandvideogames.com - a keen gamer himself - reckons portrayals of video games in the media are way behind the times. In his view, today's gamers are far more likely to be playing football games like FIFA 08 than exploring the depths of human depravity in games such as Manhunt.

Everyone in my office plays

"The stereotypical media perception of boys in their bedrooms playing violent video games upsets gamers," says Ogden, whose own current favourite is Super Mario Galaxy. "Everyone in my office plays computer and video games but we are certainly not a bunch of overweight, spotty, single men - which is the way gamers are frequently portrayed.

"There are so many different video games out there now that you can play a game and never see a splatter of blood. The media automatically seem to think that all gamers sit in darkened bedrooms bludgeoning people over the head with a pickaxe.

"Gaming is already bigger than the Hollywood movie industry in terms of how much money it takes. Today's games are created by 200 people and cost millions of dollars to make so I'd like to think the media will eventually start taking gaming more seriously and realise that not every video game is violent. Quite the reverse."

Professor Mark Griffiths, director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, agrees that the media are less interested in the positive aspects of video games, such as improved hand-eye co-ordination and quicker reactions.

Gaming has grown up

"I write equally about the positives and negatives of games but basically my position is that the advantages of video games far outweigh the disadvantages," says Professor Griffiths, who regularly plays video games with his three children. "Gaming has definitely grown up - yet as far as the media is concerned, video-game playing is still the domain of spotty 11 to 16-year-old males.

"I wrote the first-ever academic study of online gaming back in 1993 and, even then, it was quite clear from the data that the vast majority of people playing online games were adults. One in five were women and most people were playing for positive social reasons. Video games aren't all about competition or beating someone to a pulp.

Video gamers are targeted in spy recruitment drive

"UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the surveillance arm of British intelligence, targeted UK video gamers in its recent advertising campaign, with the aim of attracting some new recruits.

The ads, which resembled ordinary advertising bill boards, with the words "Careers in British Intelligence" appeared in scenes in games such as Splinter Cell, Need for Speed Carbon and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, when played on computers and British Microsoft Xbox consoles.

GCHQ wants to attract a larger and more diverse pool of recruits and views the gaming community as computer savvy, technologically able and quick thinking. It says that it hopes to "capture the imagination of people with a particular interest in information technology".

The campaign, which started at the end of October and ran for one month, was delivered by in-game ad agency Massive Inc. Microsoft bought the New York-based Massive last year. The company sells virtual billboard space to advertisers, then distributes the ads within the games themselves, over the internet to PCs and Xbox 360 game consoles.

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

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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