Video Games Aren't Young Any More

It's been 41 years since <em>Pong</em>, and yet we're still at a point where we need an entire web series to explain all the ways games are sexist. Games should know better by now, says Edward Smith.

Video games are a young medium, right? I mean, that's the line we're sticking to. Whenever they're called out for being childish, simplistic or, you know, outright puerile, we, the advocates of video games, can leap to their defence with the insistence that it's only been a few decades and they're still growing up. It's our stonewall argument; it's our insanity plea.

It's also hokum. If we, generously, regard 1972's Pong as the “start” of video games (Willy Higinbotham's oscilloscope breakthrough Tennis for Two came fourteen years earlier, though wasn't launched commercially) then that's forty-one years now. Forty-one years, and where are we? We're at games where you can beat grannies to death with a dildo. We're at games where renaming the NASDAQ the “BAWSAQ” is considered satire. We're at a point where we need an entire web series to explain all the ways games are sexist, and where the presenter of said series will receive a hail of death threats in response. We're at a point where, frankly, I'm embarrassed to tell people I like video games. It's been forty-one years and this is still some of the best we've got.

I'm hesitant to compare video games to films. It's something that happens way too often and is usually done by people who don't understand, or can't be bothered to articulate, the enormous differences between the two mediums. But cinema is an undeniable influence on games. It's the closest cousin. Look at Uncharted.

So I'm going to draw a comparison. Widely considered the first motion-picture is Roundhay Garden Scene, a short from 1888 created by Louis Le Prince. Forty-one years later, cinema had given birth to Intolerance, Battleship Potemkin and The Jazz Singer. It had started with simple, single set-up trick films and evolved dialogue, editing and sound. The cinema had produced films which probed social issues and human emotions, all the while pushing the technical boundaries of what the new medium was capable of.

Video games on the other hand haven't done this. They've pushed the technical, sure – since the seventies, multiplayer, HD graphics and now virtual reality have all blossomed into existence. But as for the emotional, the intelligent, the legitimately worthwhile, they're lacking in good stock.

The youthfulness defence is sounding increasingly hollow; rather than concrete hope, it sounds more like nervous optimism, like we all know things are looking bad and are wishing on a star that in a decade they might have improved. I don't want to sound pessimistic – I make a good living playing and enjoying video games – but as they age, and continually fail to mature, I find myself feeling more like the case for the defence, representing a guilty client.

Other media, namely movies, adapted at a much quicker pace. And while I understand games are a different beast, to which story and emotional resonance don't come inherently, I still feel like it's high time for them to buck up. It's been forty-one years and there is still nothing, certainly not in the mainstream space, that I could present to non-gaming friends without tacking on some caveats.

Even independent games, in which I have a lot of hope, are difficult to justify. Braid's love story or Hotline Miami's violence might seem interesting when compared to the rest of video games, but stacked up against broader literature, they're both nondescript.

And that, I think, is the handle. This is a broad sweep, and there are surely exceptions, but in forty-one years, games have yet to become something you'd could comfortably show to history students – there's nothing in the back catalogue that speaks to the world at large. By 1915, D W Griffith had made The Birth of a Nation, and we can confidently look to that for a study of racial attitudes. Games on the other hand remain niche, inward-looking and ignorant of broader cultural concerns.

Video games are a medium not like any other and they'll continue to develop in ways we can't foresee. But they're old enough to know better. They should have changed more than they have. And continuing to defend them based on youth is to let them off the hook.

Braid's love story seems interesting when compared to the rest of video games, but compared to broader literature, they're both nondescript.

Edward Smith is a writer based in Liverpool. Follow him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.

KEVIN C MOORE
Show Hide image

Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism