28 Dates Later by Willard Foxton: Part Twenty-Six, The Video Gamer and the Zombies

In which Willard goes on a date that involves hiding in a barn from some zombies.

So, after 25 Dates, I was starting to get exhausted. That's part of why the blog has been moving forward with all the alacrity you'd normally expect from a Mississippi sheriff's department investigating the murder of a young black man.

The other reason was that the end was looming, and I was still single. While at this point I'd met at least two women I'd thought about ending the blog for, it hadn't panned out. I was starting to dread writing some kind of nonsense about "every woman being date number 28" or something equally trite to round this damn thing off happily. No, the "every woman is date number 28" thing would never work. I mean some of you are married or lesbians or part of the whole QUILTBAG or whatever.

Anyway, feeling exhausted and burned out by the relentless grind of the dating (well over 50 dates at this point) and the blog, I decided to take a bit of a break, take stock and indulge in some of my hobbies - you know, the ones that don't involve receiving sex injuries while searching for Ms Right. I luxuriated in a couple of weekends without dates, where I could just slob around in my dressing gown, playing computer games, watching box-sets of TV I've missed, and at no point having to make small talk while drinking an overpriced gin and tonic. No, I was at home, so I could make myself a cheap gin and tonic, while kicking myself about forgetting to buy ice.

I always feel a bit guilty about drinking at home alone, and I especially feel guilty about playing co-operative computer games drunk. I've written before about how playing particular games is a bit like being in a bad relationship, and we all know how fast that can go downhill when you add booze. In between playing games, I was still logging on to dating sites, trying to find a particular kind of lady.

I was determined to get at least one date off of a site that catered to people who like playing computer games. It's always been a bit of a dream of mine to date a woman who I can play games with. I've got a couple of friends who met and married through playing World of Warcraft together (you know who you are, Alice and Phil). Once you've been to a wedding in Stormwind Cathedral, I suppose it leaves a mark. 

Stormwind Cathedral. Nice venue, but the catering charges are extortionate.

They have a lovely daughter called Caelia now, and I suspect if she ever has to ask her parents how they met, "raiding the Troll city of Zul Gurub to slay the Snake headed blood god Hakkar" is a pretty amusing, if non-standard answer.

As I've got closer to the end of the blog, I've realised that I may never get a date off sites I'd quite like to do, like arranged marriage website Shaadi.com (although a successful date on that could complicate the blog as I've already done Ashley Madison), circus performer and clown dating site, Boo Hiccup (no sexy trapeze artist for Willard, it seems)  or that one where your Jewish mum creates your dating profile and talks to other Jewish mums about how great you are. I'd even suborned a New York Jewish comedian friend to pose as my mother, but alas, no takers.

You'd think finding a gamer girl would be easy, given that something like 48 per cent of the gaming market is ladies these days, but actually, not that easy at all. I suspect it's because while tons of women play and enjoy games, very few self-identify as the kind of person who wants to go on a gaming dating site. I suspect it's because most people imagine a gaming dating site will be not unlike this Tim and Eric bit:

Ahem. I could probably find a lovely woman who could tell a Space Marine from a Colonial Marine on something like Ok Cupid or My Single Friend, but the point was to get 28 dates from 28 dating sites, so I persevered.

There's quite a variety of gaming dating sites out there, and in my brief dating hiatus, I've tried most of them. It's not the most promising of fields. In digging around, I managed to find, Date A Gamer - a website which prompted Harry Langston of Vice to say of it:

Gamers – no matter how integrated into mainstream culture gaming is becoming – are still thought of as lonely, weird, socially awkward individuals who struggle with the opposite sex. Not all gamers fit within those stereotypes, just like not all footballers are racists who sleep with their teammates' wives, but, as with that particular example, there are always some who snuggle up comfortably within the cliche. 

Date a Gamer seemed dead, at least in London;  the adult hookup version, ShagAGamer.com seemed to have quite a lot of escorts, not a lot of real women looking for dates.

Another, GamerDater, had one of the ugliest websites I've ever seen, and I struggled to find a date from it, or even get a response to a message. I choose to believe that's because it's a mostly console dating site, and I'm much more of a PC gamer. Ahem. Yep, that's the story I'm sticking to.  Quite a few others - including Warcraft specific site World of Datecraft, and bizarre "pay girls to play games with you" site Gamecrush seem to have gone bankrupt.

The best one I found was LFG dating - LFG being gaming slang for "Looking for Group". It's a small American site, but at least it seems to have real people on it. It's pretty basic, although slightly tweaked for a gaming audiences. For example, amongst your preferences for going out, there are boxes to check for "LAN parties" (where a bunch of people get together in a house and link their PCs together, a very 1990s phenomenon) and  "LARPing it" (dressing up like a goblin and being hit with big rubber swords).

Having found a site that was at least alive, I commenced looking for my gaming lady. There was one problem - LFG doesn't have many Brits. Still, think back to the story of Phil and Alice, when they "met", he was in Aberdeen, and she was in Southampton. For this date, maybe it didn't matter where the lady was, at least in the first instance. Also, I'm a sucker for an American accent. So, a bit more looking, and I eventually struck up a conversation with a lovely Yankee lady.

I explained the whole blog thing, she was charmed, and thought it sounded like fun to go on a literally online date, where we'd play a game together, chat online, and see where that took us.

For the date, she decided the most fun would be for us to spend an evening being chased around Chernarus, a zombie filled Eastern European shithole, the setting of rather good indie computer game Day Z. Or, as she'd have it, Day-Zee. The basic concept of this game is you rock up in a zombie filled wasteland with nothing but the shirt on your back and a gun that's so worthless it might as well be a kazoo, and then just do whatever you want, until you get eaten by Zombies or murdered by another player who wants to steal your boots. It's terribly, terribly realistic - you can freeze to death if you don't find a coat, break your bones, all that sort of thing.

Or "whatever we wanted" would be to go on a date as survivors of the Zombie Apocalypse. Romantic, eh? So, we logged on at 8pm one Saturday evening, and started chatting while we tried to navigate our way to each other. I'll be totally honest, while I'd played DayZ before, she was much better than I was. By the time I actually got to the Orthodox Church we'd picked as a meeting point, I'd almost died about three times. I felt this was the online gaming date equivalent of turning up late with a huge egg stain on your tie. Still, we'd been chatting the whole time, and getting to know one another.

She was a single mum in Chicago, running a little cafe she'd bought with the cash she'd saved up in the military. We talked about a bunch of current affairs stuff - she was fascinated to meet a real-live journalist (Well, "meet", anyway). We talked about the USA, the Middle East, geopolitics and so on. She proclaimed it to be "pretty refreshing" to find someone she could talk to about politics without getting them getting bored.

We decided to push out into the world, try to find some decent guns and canned food. One of the nice things about DayZed (definitely, definitely Zed) is it's very persistent, so we knew we could log in at the same time and play together again. It *was* great fun, walking around an abandoned town at night, scavenging for firearms, trying to avoid zombies, all while getting to know one another. it did feel vaguely like we were the protagonists of a zombie movie - exactly the kind of fun fantasy experience gaming is meant to deliver.

We talked about her military career, her ex-husband, what it's like to be a woman in a male dominated environment. She told me a few chilling stories of the kind of sexist abuse she gets as a female gamer - the kind of thing you can find here at Fat, Ugly or Slutty, a website that exposes the sort of everyday abuse women get for beating people in computer games. Maybe it's not so surprising that the "date a gamer" websites are so dead.

Indeed, as we started to investigate an abandoned farm, we came across one of the internet's archetypal douchebags, the thirteen year old boy in a high place with a sniper rifle. Fortunately, he was a bloody terrible shot, but the problem with the loud noises of a rifle is it brought an army of zombies down on us. Taking shelter in a barn, we realised if we went out outside, sooner or later he'd get us. Equally, if we stayed on the ground, we'd get eaten. She was a much better shot than I was - so, proper gent that I am, I gave her the last of our bullets for our Lee-Enfield rifle, and decided that I'd run out across the open ground, luring all the zombies over to our teenage tormentor. Hopefully, he'd see me coming, pop his head out, and she could waste him.

"She said "Ok, decent plan, how will you deal with all the zombies then?" I said, "Well, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it". I knew I was going to die. She knew I was going to die. But we did it anyway. I ran out, and against my own expectations, managed to get into the building with the sniper - while still pursued by a flesh eating moshpit. I dashed up the stairs, and had the satisfaction of surprising our sniper chum by getting behind him with a double-barrelled farmer's shotgun. I, of course, missed completely, despite being at point blank range and he chased me up on to the roof, where my date wasted him with a single shot to the head. It was a genuinely brilliant moment - we hooted and whooped and laughed.

I picked up his massive tricked out sniper rifle from his cooling corpse, which turned out to have precisely zero bullets in it - which sort of explained why he hadn't killed me. Shit. This left me trapped in a building full of zombies, with no way out. Except jumping off the roof. Pumped up with thinking I was an action hero, I did exactly that, and broke both my legs. By this point, we were both crying with laughter at my spectacular ineptitude. She came over to me, and got the sniper rifle from me as I bled out, so at least I didn't die for nothing.

It was a great date - probably one of the best I've done, if I'm honest. The lady confirmed if it had been a real date, "I'd have kissed you at the end of the evening for sure. Even if you can't shoot for shit".

Anyway, only two left to do! Hoping to get the penultimate piece and the last ever date up next week...

A still from DayZ.

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.