The magic of the mundane: more games should reflect real-life's everyday tasks

"There is more challenge and player investment in the simple act of checking a person’s travel documents in Papers, Please than there is in taking a life in a typical first-person shooter."

Captain a U-Boat they said. It’ll be fun they said. Well, not exactly fun, they elaborated, but it’s a really good game and you’ll probably enjoy it; you like explosions and you’ve always had an inexplicable and intense hatred for merchant shipping.

The year was 2005, the game was Silent Hunter 3, and so help me they were right.

Silent Hunter 3 is a majestic whale of a game; huge, intelligent, soulful and of course based in the sea. The player is cast as the captain of a German U-Boat during WW2 - your job is to patrol the sea and destroy ships belonging to the Allies, while not getting destroyed yourself.

Despite the wartime setting and the fact that you are, ultimately, seeking to blow things up, Silent Hunter 3 is not an action game. You don’t get to be good at Silent Hunter 3 because you can perform a hundred actions per minute, or because you’ve got sharp reflexes, or because you played for the longest time and unlocked the best weapons. No. If you want to be the best at Silent Hunter 3, you need one skill above all others. Trigonometry.

You can master naval tactics. You can be the king of nautical stealth. You can shoot the scrambled eggs off a captain’s epaulets at a thousand yards with the deck gun. But you will never be worth a damn as a Silent Hunter 3 player if you can’t hit things with torpedoes. Hitting a ship with a torpedo isn’t quite rocket science, but it is not far off.

First you need to identify the type of ship from your ship recognition manual, this tells you the height of the ship, knowing the height of the ship you can calculate the distance to the ship, knowing the distance to the ship you can work out the speed and course the direction that the ship is moving. Once you know all that you can predict where the ship is going to be if they maintain speed and course, and once you know that you can fire a torpedo to meet them along the way. Assuming your torpedo doesn’t misfire or the target ship doesn’t spot it and take drastic evasive action, you should score a hit, if you did the maths right.

Few games ever manage to match the tension of Silent Hunter 3. The planning that goes into an attack (at least on realistic settings) gives the moment of impact or evasion a real gravity. The more tons of cargo you sink the better standing you have with the folks at HQ, so even as a simulator there is a very traditional game mechanic built in there. The fact that you could be out on patrol for more than a month with only a dozen or so torpedoes means that each shot counts.

But for all that tension it is well to remember, Silent Hunter 3 is played mostly on the map screen. The moments of the game where you are really tested are rare.

So why is Silent Hunter 3 still relevant today? Simply that it represents even now the pinnacle of a style of game that can only really be described as mundane. There is no twitch to this, no duck and weave; rather it is a contemplative activity, intensely cerebral at times, at times laid back. This is a game where most of your time is a simulation of looking at maps and doing trigonometry in a vintage war machine - on paper it sounds like a combination maths, geography and history GCSE coursework project. It should be boring. It should not be fun. Yet there it is in spite of everything; one of the all-time great games, unapologetically tough, engaging and rewarding, and not showing its age thanks to the Grey Wolves mod.

Silent Hunter 3 is not alone in this sort of design though. Other games such as Euro Truck Simulator 2 and Papers, Please offer gaming experiences that defer fun in the click-click-happiness-happens conventional style in favour of a more staid and thoughtful approach.

You could argue that games like Crusader Kings 2 or Football Manager 2014 are similar but they take a more abstract approach. In games like this you are playing within a system of visible numbers, and whether those numbers relate to the conquest of Europe or the conquest of the Champions League, ultimately they are visible and in play. These games distance you through their interfaces, you don’t see the daggers in the smiles of your courtiers, but you can see when they have -100 affection for you. That is not to say that these games lack drama or moments of payoff, but you play the game from a step outside the action, rather than in the midst of it.

One of the principle qualities that characterises the great mundane games is that through playing them you are sincerely attempting to do something using a skill set that typically you will never use outside of that particular game or game series, at least not intentionally. Euro Truck Simulator 2 obviously simulates driving, but not only are the vehicles frighteningly ordinary at first glance but the objective is more sensible, smart road driving than Smokey And The Bandit-style speed runs. For much of the time it’s just you rolling your truck down the highways of Europe, plotting your next move, trying not to get crashed into. You’re not trying to shave fractions of seconds off your record lap time at the Nürburgring, this is tortoise and the hare type stuff, and you’re a tortoise who needs to take regular rest stops or he gets a fine.

Papers, Please demands that you get good at checking paperwork. This is as mundane as it gets, but it doesn’t make it easy. Having myself done one of the most soul crushing bureaucratic jobs I can imagine, Papers, Please was immediately familiar, and in some ways quite an unpleasant experience, but an authentic one nonetheless. For all the idiosyncrasies of the art and sound style this is a game that works as a simulator and it has a distinct and quite brutal difficulty curve.

The power of these mundane games is interesting because of where games are going and how they are getting there. The games industry provides many series like Assassin’s CreedCall of Duty and GTA where the act of fighting and killing has become casual. Press a button, take a life. Walk to here, press a button, objective complete. Follow the arrows. Press B to call your mate back at base to drop a perfectly accurate artillery barrage on Johnny Foreigner in his sniper nest. Wait three seconds to heal. Congratulations you saved the universe forever. We got here gradually, games becoming more streamlined, more accessible, forgetting that a game is meant to be mastered, not watched.

There is more challenge and player investment in the simple act of checking a person’s travel documents in Papers, Please than there is in taking a life in a typical first-person shooter. In Silent Hunter 3 you can spend ages simply setting up a shot, let alone taking it. This is the challenge and this is what people play for. This is the reason that the multiplayer elements to so many FPS games are considered to be the main selling point.

By making what should be difficult into a casual, almost throwaway thing, we reach the point where games become shallow; constant action, sameness, noise and explosions, containing neither highs nor lows. Even Call of Duty got it right once. Modern Warfare, the Pripyat level, sneaking through the ruins, all to make one shot.

It is the games that can make maths problems into life or death conundrums, or three point turns into epic sagas, or imbue yes/no decisions at passport control with the tension of a cup final penalty that developers should be learning from. We need developers to find new ways to raise players up and beat them down, not cram more explosions per minute into the next big annual franchise.

An in-game screenshot of Silent Hunter 3. (Image: Ubisoft)

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

Photo: Barry Lewis / Alamy
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Special Brew with George

My time in the gutter taught me how much the homeless deserve our compassion.

George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint across the road from Stockwell Tube station. Sometimes you’ll see other people begging there, but mostly this is George’s pitch. He’s a wizened man with the weathered-walnut complexion of the long-term street sleeper and addict-alcoholic. George is small and very thin and has hardly any teeth; I rather like him.

His backstory will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the homeless: his father a drug addict who died young; his mother an alcoholic who couldn’t cope. George and his sister were in and out of care throughout their early childhood and then vanished into the system.

I haven’t been able to get from George a straight account of the events that precipitated him into a gutter near me, but that is not surprising: alcoholics are usually pretty resentful people, and because they are so ill-used by their malady it is difficult for them to distinguish between the world’s bemerding and the shit they’ve got themselves into. George speaks of a young daughter’s untimely death and an estranged wife. Once he had both a home of his own and a decent trade – plastering – but now he gets plastered to forget about everything he’s lost.

I first began chatting to George in the autumn – chatting to him and giving him a pound or two. He’s good at begging, George: he keeps eye contact and speaks politely while maintaining an unthreatening demeanour. But anyway, I give money to homeless beggars: that’s my thing. I never ended up on the street myself, but 20 years of drug addiction will lead you down some crooked and filthy alleyways of human experience. I’ve begged for money in the street and got high with the homeless enough times not to shy away instinctively from their lowly estate. From time to time I’ll join them on their cardboard palliasses and take a swig of Special Brew.

Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists solely in order to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but I’ve no wish to be so eased: I welcome the burden of my conscience, because it keeps my eyes down on the ground, where they are more likely to spot the Georges of this world, who are as deserving of our compassion as anyone.

I don’t consider giving money to homeless beggars to be an act of charity. I view it more as a redistribution of the tokens required for food, shelter and the warming overcoat of intoxication. I also prefer to give my money directly to people who need it, rather than having this act gussied up as something “fun” for me, or as a means of providing wealthy young people with ­careers in the charitable sector that give them a good conscience. Hence George and his predecessors – because usually, at any given time, I have a redistributive relationship with someone of his ilk.

The Big Issue vendors now wear fluorescent tabards that proclaim “A hand-up not a handout”, and of course I appreciate that many concerned people are working flat out trying to get the homeless off the streets and socially reintegrated; but as the years have passed, and all sorts of welfare provision have been pruned and cut and pruned some more, so the position of the Georges of this world – slumped beneath the vomitous cashpoints like so many personifications of the rising Gini coefficient – has come to seem altogether intractable.

***

As the winter nights drew in, I got to know George better, and as a consequence began giving him more money. After all, it may be easy to leave nameless hordes lying in the streets on frigid nights, but not people you actually know. If he was too obviously on the lash I’d proffer only a fiver or a tenner. Not because I’m judgemental, though – far from it. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a tenner on booze or a bag of smack if you’re on the streets; it’s just that if George is bingeing he starts spinning yarns to hook in more drug money, and nobody likes being taken for a mug. However, if he was staying sober and going to AA meetings I’d dob George £15 for a night in a backpackers’ hostel.

Like many of the homeless, George avoids the free hostels, which can be veritable cesspits of abuse; he thinks he’s better off sleeping out, which may be true some of the time, but not in the cold and wet, because people die out there, they really do. The outreach workers do the rounds of our cities’ parks and wastelands every morning in the winter, shaking the figures bundled up in sleeping bags to check they’re still breathing.

At my instigation George got back in touch with the local authority’s services, because, along with the Big Issue’s hand-up, the only way for a street-sleeping alcoholic to clamber out of the gutter is for him to re-enter the system.

I live only three hundred yards from George’s pitch, and his bash (the rough sleepers’ term for an improvised shelter)is equidistant. On one faintly delirious occasion in December I was standing on the first-floor walkway of the former council block my flat’s in, talking to my Labour councillor about an unrelated local matter, when George crawled out from a concrete cranny off the courtyard below, where he had evidently spent the night. I observed to Councillor Bigham that we really should be doing more for the likes of George, and he agreed.

However, to me, George’s situation had begun to seem not so much a failure in social provision as a cosmic solecism. Since the resurgence of so-called Victorian values under the Thatcher regime, it’s become de rigueur to regard poverty as epithetic rather than environmental. The undeserving poor, it seems, are now all around us, victims of little besides their own bad character. But my feeling is that once a man or a woman is caught in the Kafka-like trap of homelessness, all bets are off: without a house you can’t get a job; without a job you certainly can’t get a house, and actually, it’s pretty bloody hard to get one even if you do have a job; of which more later.

A few days before Christmas George had a fit as a result of alcohol withdrawal and ended up in the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital for three nights. As soon as he was well enough to walk, he was pointed in the direction of the door. Then came some encouraging news: the local authority’s rough sleepers’ team had managed to secure George an inpatient detox. He’d have to wait a few weeks, but this time, after patching him up, they would also secure him some form of temporary accommodation, and then he’d have at least a hand on the ladder back into ordinary society. An ordinary society in which the bailiffs were already waiting for George with a view to collecting £4,000 in unpaid debts – because nowadays, no matter how stony broke someone is, the presumption remains that there’s blood to be squeezed from them.

On the day he went into the rehab facility I breathed a sigh of relief – but that evening I spotted the bowed and Buddhistic figure back under the cashpoint. Within hours of being admitted, George had got into a scrap with another client and been discharged, with the rider that he was not to be admitted to any London detox facility.

The good news is that today George does have another place secured at a facility; but now he’ll be heading to the West Country for a full three months of rehab – if, that is, he can hold out for another three weeks on the streets of Lambeth. This week, with my assistance, he’s gone to visit his sister in Liverpool – another child of the oxymoronic “care system” who, unsurprisingly, seems to have all the same issues as George, with this exception: she is at least housed. Why? Because she has a child, although, if George’s account is to be believed, she has some difficulties in looking after him. I get the impression that drink is often taken.

***

What does the sorry – and, some might say, drab – tale of George tell us? That the housing crisis in Britain is intractable seems a given, so long as planning policy is rigged, in effect, in favour of unscrupulous developers and the bourgeois buy-to-let bandits. The rising tide of neoliberalism in the past quarter-century (which I can’t help visualising as a vomitous tsunami coursing along London’s gutters) has had this psychic sequel: individuals no longer connect their dream of home ownership with anyone else’s.

We Britons are once-and-future Mr Wemmicks, firing our toy guns from our suburban battlements at anyone who dares to do anything in our backyards aimed at improving the commonwealth. Dickens wasn’t just the creator of the nimby avant la lettre; he also understood George’s predicament. In his celebrated long essay Night Walks, he describes a condition he terms “the Dry Rot in men”: a progressive deterioration in capabilities that leads inexorably to “houselessness” or the debtors’ prison. These are the Victorian values that contemporary Britain still vigorously upholds; yet it need not have been this way.

Reading The Autonomous City: a History of Urban Squatting, a new book by Alexander Vasudevan, put me back in touch with my youth during the 1970s and early 1980s, when to go equipped with a crowbar and a screwdriver in order to “open” a squat was regarded as the righteous contemporary equivalent of the Paris Commune or Mao’s Long March. The role of squatting in uniting those intent on pursuing what were then deemed “alternative lifestyles” (being gay, non-white or – gasp! – a feminist) with established working-class agitations for improved housing conditions was due for appraisal; Vasudevan observes that remarkably little has been published on the subject, but he makes good the deficiency with his carefully researched and discursive study.

Squatting has a long history – you could go back as far as Gerrard Winstanley and his 17th-century Diggers – but it is worth remembering that in the London of the mid-1970s there were at least 50,000 squatters and probably a great deal more. The squats could be terrifying and anarchic places; I remember them well. But they were also often havens for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and places where people afflicted with the Dickensian ‘‘Dry Rot’’ could at least find shelter. Moreover, as Vasudevan amply demonstrates, the squats were cynosures for experiments in autonomous living: hence the book’s title.

Squatting provided a buffer zone between the realm of commoditised place and space and utter houselessness, but over the past forty years this has been progressively encroached on, as squatters either made their peace with local authorities and were offered tenancies of one kind or another, or faced, in effect, criminalisation. A series of punitive measures, beginning in the 1970s, culminated in a law being passed in 2012 that for the first time made it an offence to squat in a residential building in the UK.

In This Is London: Life and Death in the World City, published last year, Ben Judah painted a compelling picture of the human crumbs being brushed from the stony skirts of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street: with nowhere to squat any longer and space at a premium as never before, London’s houseless are being driven on to the streets, while migrant workers from eastern Europe “hot-bed” in Zone 5 dosshouses. Meanwhile I sit typing this in my one-bedroom ex-council flat, which I rent for the princely sum of £1,350 per month.

On my return to London from university in 1982, I – a single man, no less – was offered a council flat. Granted, this was on the old Greater London Council “mobility scheme”, which aimed to match not particularly deserving tenants with substandard housing stock, but there it was: an actual flat in a 22-storey, system-built block in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. The rent, as far as I can recall, was about £40 a month.

Now George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint opposite Stockwell Tube, while my Cubitt Town flat is long gone, demolished to make way for the burgeoning Canary Wharf development and the multi­national financial services companies it now houses. Space and place have become so comprehensively monetised in contemporary London that a begging pitch can acquire a rental value.

I have never asked George if he pays for his pitch; I do hope not, because shortly before heading off to Liverpool he told me he had been served with an antisocial behaviour order, banning him from going within 200 metres of the cashpoint. I couldn’t make it up – and I’ve been publishing fiction for nigh on thirty years. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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