Riffing away on Rafa

To my delight, the airwaves are filled with admirers of a certain tennis hero

The Wimbledon coverage (Radio 5 Live, on a loop) continues to perk up your reviewer, particularly with regard to any swooning over Rafael Nadal, for three years round at mine known as Little Bull Rising. "A lot of people fancy Nadal, full stop," said Pat Cash to Clare Balding at the start of the Mallorcan's opener with Germany's Andreas Beck.

"So, how's he looking, Clare?" "He's looking pretty sharp," Clare replied, with the reliable tone of an Old Speckled Hen drinker. "He's unbelievably fit. He's in a piratical outfit and his tanned and muscular arms are revealed by a sleeveless vest. Seeing him in the flesh is some sight." (Hmm, best switch on the telly to check this out, I thought, but keep the commentary going . . .)

"His hair's still wet," Pat noted, fascinated. "He's obviously just stepped out of the shower and then tied that bandanna around it."

"He's kicking his heels behind him," murmured Clare. "He's crouching, he's crouching, he's crouching. He's out there and he's running and hopping from foot to foot and shadow boxing and there's a lot of physical domination going on."

"He's well pumped up!" burst Pat, suddenly reckless. "The world's number two is just dancing around! This is simply great tennis! I mean, what an aggressive way to save break point!" Silence; the sound of a ball whizzing through the space-time continuum and back into the present; the crowd exhales.

"Pat," said Clare, her voice awfully serious. "Andreas Beck. A hundred and twenty-two in the world. Kind of gawky-looking, I'd say. Big strong legs, but - nothing much on top. Unlike Rafa!"

"Yes," confirmed Pat. "Where Nadal is Crouching Tiger, Beck is so Germanic. But then Tony - that's Rafa's uncle - has always said his motto is Stay Humble. And that's one of the many reasons we like Rafa: he is humble."

"He's thumping the ball!" shrieked Clare, wild now. "He's really having a go! He's opening up! He's on a roll!"

Someone in the background made the point that Andy Murray was going to be on later so we must all stay tuned, but there was the overwhelming sense that however much, as a nation, we know we ought to focus on the values we share with the Spotty Jock Shaver, it's impossible to favour him over a man who possesses a bottom like an Edwardian lady's bustle and gets his Rs and Fs mixed up in the word "surface" during post-match interviews ("I be bery happy for a victory on this difficult soofrace").

A couple of days later, I shuffled into the kitchen at night only to find Boris Becker in the corner on 5 Live Extra, riffing away, rapt. "You know, people are always talking about his biceps and his shoulders like it's a kind of pose, but he's just naturally like that. He's always been like that. He's always been big. I saw him when he was just 15 and I'm telling you - he's just strong physically. It's simply the way he is. And he's such a nice guy, you know? He's just started a foundation which focuses on the spread of malaria in developing countries . . ."

Ah Boris, you, too. I flicked off the radio and looked out of the window: the orange city getting its rest. One man, one fortnight, one serious crush.

Pick of the week

Ed Sullivan and the Gateway to America
8 July, 10.30pm, Radio 2
The comedienne Joan Rivers tells the tale of the Fifties US TV superstar Ed Sullivan.

The Essay: Greek and Latin Voices
7-10 July, 11pm, Radio 3
Professor Chris Pelling presents four essays exploring the life and times of Plato.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British childhood

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

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