Making virtual consumers of us all

Our games are becoming polluted with advertising and the values inherent in them are preaching consu

In his keynote speech at the Virtual Worlds Forum, held in London this October, Lord Puttnam expressed concern at the values espoused by many online virtual worlds aimed at young people, asking: "...are we absolutely sure that this is the very best we can offer young people? ... Do we really want them to think of themselves as not much more than consumers?"

Puttnam's concern stemmed from the number of toy and entertainment firms entering the rapidly-growing market of virtual worlds, with products such as Mattel's BarbieGirls, or Disney's recently-acquired Club Penguin.

Virtual destinations

Puttnam's concern doesn't just apply to the young. Virtual worlds and online games, be they services aimed at young people like Habbo Hotel, virtual worlds such as Second Life or games like World of Warcraft, are becoming more and more popular destinations in which people spend their spare time. It's important to remember that they are "destinations" - the concept of being "in-world" is very different to "being online" for players and users of such services. We are bombarded with enough advertising, online and off every day; why should our leisure spaces be equally polluted? And yet that is the trend that seems to be emerging.

Virtual businesses

Still, Lord Puttnam's fears may not be entirely justified. Young people are surprisingly good at knowing when they are being sold to. There is little to be done if they are happy with being sold to but it's hardly games and virtual worlds that set that ball rolling. And, it's worth remembering that all virtual worlds - however uncontroversial - are businesses: they cost money to make and more money to run. They can recoup that cost through subscriptions, through virtual trade, or by writing it off as an advertising expense, but somewhere, they are going to encourage money to change hands. Online, little is truly free.

Values implicit in games

Doug Thomas, of the University of Southern California, recently expressed similar sentiments to Lord Puttnam in a panel discussion. But while Lord Puttnam's concerns were about virtual worlds being used as marketing tools, Thomas seemed more concerned about the actual content of the games themselves, and the "conflation between consumption and consumerism and citizenship" within them, saying that "...our kids are being taught that to be a good citizen of this world you have got to buy the right stuff."

The point Thomas makes raises an interesting angle: what values are taught by - or are inherent in - the mechanics of these virtual worlds?

World of Warcraft, for instance, tells us that to improve our status, we must "grind" our way up through repetitive tasks. It also tells us that the rewards for such labours are treasure, better equipment, and more beautiful armour. The consumerist culture is at the core of World of Warcraft. There are even sweatshops in China where underpaid workers "farm" in game currency, which is sold for real money over the internet. The exchange rate is currently about eight cents to the virtual gold piece.

And consider Second Life, the poster-child of virtual worlds. It's not a game, but a space that can be whatever the inhabitants want it to be. It gives its inhabitants the abilities to create buildings and objects, and to program those objects with new behaviours. Second Life is a space that encourages creativity first and foremost, and so its economy began as an arts-and-crafts culture: inhabitants buying items each other had made for reasonably low real-world prices.

Lucrative real estate

That culture quickly became trumped by the far more lucrative real-estate market, in which inhabitants bought up areas of land, developed them with impressive buildings and furnishings, and sold them on for profit. A year ago, Second Life's first property millionaire made the cover of Business Week.

The Second Life economy has moved on from real estate, into advertising and marketing. No one quite knows what to do with it but they want to be there; hence firms like American Apparel have established virtual stores to sell virtual t-shirts. As Second Life has become more mainstream, just like the web, television, and radio before it, it has become ever more swamped by advertising and marketing. The slide towards consumerism seems to be one that is hard to escape.

The arguments put forward by Puttnam and Thomas may seem critical, but we should heed them. After all, both are very aware of the many positive aspects of virtual worlds. What they are calling for is greater media literacy about the places we play online. That seems to be a reasonable request, given that the values of any society stem as much from its inhabitants as its rulers.

With greater understanding of the medium, inhabitants will be able to better interpret and shape the values of their online communities. That can only be a good thing.

This game could save your life

Medics are learning to treat blast victims by using video games.

TruSim, the serious games branch of leading game developer Blitz Games has linked with learning solutions design experts VEGA Group plc and several UK universities to devise Triage Trainer, a game which simulates the effects of a city-centre explosion, to help doctors decide how best to treat casualties.

Different casualties are randomly generated each time the game is played; their condition deteriorates during the game in real time with accurate displays of respiration, circulation, skin colour and behaviours, demonstrating the potential of games technology in healthcare training.

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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