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.

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge