A videogames critical reader, by Liz Ryerson

All the best reading, digested.

Still not satiated with the amount of games writing that there is out there? Liz Ryerson also responded to my piece on videogames journalism with a reading list. I'm putting it up here for your enjoyment. Thanks Liz:

First and foremost there is writing by insiders in the video game industry that directly criticises its practices as a whole. The classic article "The Scratchware Manifesto", written in 2000 by an anonymous group of game developers, is still very much relevant today, and required reading. Here is the original piece with an introduction by indie game designer/critic Anna Anthrophy.

This is a video lecture from Jonathan Blow (creator of the game Braid), and not writing, but it is very helpful for understanding the thinking and philosophy - the "best practices" that are driving the game industry today:

This earlier lecture by Jon Blow outlines the fundamental conflicts - what is often called "ludo-narrative dissonance", at the heart of storytelling in games:

Also in that vein, Tim Rogers's piece "Who killed videogames?" is a wonderful insider account of what goes on behind closed doors at social gaming companies.



On the other end, this article by David Kanaga (who's done the audio in recent indie games like Dyad and Proteus) takes a more academic tone and asserts that meaning is something which arises from a the interaction of the player and the game, not imposed from above by its creator (as implied by Jonathan Blow):


He also has writing on audio in games on the same blog that is very much worth reading. This short article asserts that the strangeness and feeling of displacement (in horror games, in particular), are what games are uniquely suited towards exploring:


Both of these articles eschew the sort of concrete insider details to talk about how games feel to the player, which I think is an extremely valuable theme to emphasise and I hope to see more of this writing.

Stephen Murphy (of Space Funeral fame) has written a few paragraphs that summarise this idea:



Also in the vein of feeling - continuing on from the "New Games Journalism" trend of pieces that revolve around personal experiences with games. There are several of these kind of articles around (though there's a gap in my knowledge here so please enlighten me), but this recent one by Patricia Hernandez on RPS about how Fallout 2 awakened her to rebellion against the traditional gender roles her parents imposed on her is good:


I also wrote a short, slightly abstract piece for Wolfenstein 3D's 20th anniversary (yes this is the first of several vanity links to my own writing) that talks about the effect that game, and videogames in general, have had on my life, past and present:


And, of course, there's Tim Rogers's fairly well-known old article about Super Mario Bros 3 that is probably the archetype for every one of these articles that have come since:




Another emerging theme of games writing is detailed analysis about the moment-to-moment design of game worlds - or "level design". There isn't a ton of this sort of writing out there, but I think is extremely valuable in understanding the sorts of mechanisms games communicate to the player through their moment-to-moment design. Robert Yang does a good job of outlining what he believes makes good writing on level design here (and includes links to some great articles by Anna Anthropy, an old, detailed piece on Thief 3 by Kierron Gillen, and some things I've written about Wolfenstein 3D level design):


and also has an excellent detailed analysis of one Thief 1 mission here:




From here, there's general writing that looks critically at different aspects of individual games as a whole. The semi-defunct blog MU-Foundation (maintained by J Chastain) has several different articles on specific games that are worth reading, but these two look to artifacts of the past (Maniac Mansion and the Atari ST game Captain Blood) for an alternative to current game design.



Speaking of current game design, this recent article on Modern Warfare 2 reveals the game's ultimate failure to in any way comment on warfare in the way that it purports to do:


I'm sure at least some of your readers have heard of Action Button Dot Net (run by Tim Rogers). I do sense a strong tendency of this site to make interesting little bits and pieces of a particular game look like grand, profound statements, and the articles articles are often rambling as hell. Still, the Action-Button Manifesto contains a ton of valuable insights about a big pile of different games, and has definitely shaped the way I see games as a whole:



Also worthy of mentioning is the (mostly untold) history of different fan modding scenes. Robert Yang's three-part piece "A People's History of the FPS" outlines the history of FPS modding communities and their decline:




Anna Anthropy's book "Rise of the Videogame Zinesters" (link: http://www.amazon.com/Rise-Videogame-Zinesters-Drop-outs-Housewives/dp/1609803728) is a great resource for talk about DIY game communities and how to get started making a game of your own, but her site has a recommended list of mods for the game ZZT that's also worth checking out:


Porpentine (who posts on the website freeindiegam.es and RPS) makes a good case for the accessibility of the program Twine for Interactive Fiction games:



In this last section I'll link to some of my own thoughts on (what I view as) the destructive nature of the culture around videogames. Much shameless plugging lies ahead, so be warned.

Many people have since written manifesto type pieces to emulate the Scratchware Manifesto. I labored a long time over a lengthy, over-italicised one in this vein called "The Language of Videogames" that is more than a bit over-earnest but I still think has a lot of insights on why games occupy the cultural place they do right now:


This review of the recent indie game Hotline Miami is primarily an attack on games critics for unquestionably extolling the virtues of what I call "stupid games", and also the relationship between gamers and violent games:


For examples of what I'm talking about in the article, see Tom Bissell's piece on Spec Ops: The Line


or Brenden Keogh's recent book "Killing Is Harmless", also about Spec Ops: The Line 


Which is excellently reviewed here, by the way.

In my review of Indie Game: The Movie I'm trying to take on what I see as the inherently self-congratulatory nature of much of the so-called "indie scene":


The last article I'll link to is sort of a peculiar, fractured piece that is only partially about games, but makes the (not as often explored) assertion that the endless pursuit of a fantasy of total, perfect immersion within a game ("The Holodeck") is really the pursuit of totalitarianism:


PS. No, really, finally, this essay about Second Life by Jenn Frank: http://infinitelives.net/downloards/all_the_spaces.pdf

Liz Ryerson can be found on Twitter on @ellaguro and her email is liz dot ryerson at gmail. She would love to hear from you, provided you are not a spam bot and you don't send her any rape threats."

Jonathan Blow's Braid.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?