Why we shouldn't dismiss non-gamers when they talk about games

We have to get beyond the classic derision of games as a waste of time and start critically examining their role culture.

"I had never read a book in my life. I’d barely even touched a page, except to confiscate my brother’s novels so he would hang out with me. That impenetrable realm where awkward poindexters escaped into ludicrous worlds of printed fantasy, books and I just never got along.

Naturally I was surprised when I was asked to judge a book prize. The judges were assembling a panel of illiterates and I agreed to join them: not because I actually cared about whether books contributed to culture, but because I wanted to reconnect with my family of unashamed bookworms.

The first book I received was Ulysses by James Joyce, an eccentric Irish alcoholic who neglected his wife for six years while writing the novel. After suffering a few pages of this unfathomable word soup, I moved onto to Golding’s Lord of the Flies, an action-adventure about schoolboys. I noted, “Surprisingly enjoyable. Nice adjectives. Like the allegorical dialogue,” but then ran out of things to say. Maybe that’s part of the reason there is so little cultural discussion of books: there simply isn’t much to talk about. Lord of the Flies is clever and snappy, but it’s not exactly Bioshock. It’s not even Call of Duty."

It is ridiculous to criticise video games by comparison to literature, film, music, or interpretative dance. Unfortunately, Lucy Kellaway recently chose to evaluate them through this narrow cultural lens. As a judge for the GameCity prize, she was tasked with playing some of the year’s most critically acclaimed titles including Journey, Fez and Proteus. To be fair, she gives them all a try, concluding: “This experiment has made me realise how bad I am at being bad at things”.

Dara O’Briain once quipped that video games were the only medium that actively withheld its contents from the beholder: you would never have a progress-impeding quiz at the end of a book chapter, or be denied access to the next track of an album until you fully understood the previous music. While I would never mock Kellaway for being bad at games, I question her motivation for taking part in the GameCity judging process. She openly admits she doesn’t care about games’ contribution to culture. Like any other art form, it’s just not fair to approach games with a bad attitude and a mind full of clichés.

Deriding a video game for its primitive narrative misses the point. You wouldn’t read a book and complain about its lack of interactivity or longevity. While some games do have an engrossing story, it’s not an essential prerequisite for greatness. I once wrote a satirical book review in the style of a game article to highlight the facile nature of video game criticism, but there’s another point to be made: we can’t criticise one medium for not living up to the expectations of another. This art gallery is boring; the pictures aren’t animated. This opera is awful; I can’t understand the plot. My girlfriend played Journey (voluntarily, I hasten to add) for the first time last weekend: she’s not a "gamer", and she enjoyed it so much she wants to play it again. The difference here is in the intention, not the emotional reaction.

But what’s most infuriating about Kellaway’s piece is its underlying truth: most video games really don’t have a lot to say. They generally have the lyrical nuance of a Eurodance song, and even a game like Spec Ops: The Line can’t properly critique the horrors of war when the player herself is actively creating those horrors. Kellaway’s favourite game from the selection was Journey, one of my favourites too. But I also love Hotline Miami, an ultra-violent and sadistically challenging title where you dress up in an animal mask and murder gangsters in a hallucinogenic world. I’m not even ashamed - it’s a brilliant game! - but I wouldn’t pretend it had reached a zenith of cultural significance. Video games were born as entertainment, and like cinema they have matured beyond this role, but the existence of the Cannes festival does not preclude the continued success of Hollywood. Games exist on a broad spectrum from the outrageous Borderlands 2 to the deeply personal dys4ia.

It’s sad that the most popular and heavily marketed titles are superficial junk food for the brain, like Call of Duty and FIFA. I loved The Raid, but I wouldn’t watch it with my granny, and likewise her only knowledge of games will be an advertisement awkwardly sandwiched into a break during Coronation Street. She has just broken her hip and a Nintendo DS would stave off the boredom of rehabilitation, but you can’t give a games console to someone who struggles with a television remote. I emphasise with Kellaway’s feelings of having inadequate dexterity: video games are often unashamedly elitist and obtuse, which makes the work of the charity Special Effect for users with disabilities even more praiseworthy.

Like many games, gaming culture itself is often tasteless and offensive. "Booth babes", casual sexism, homophobia, transphobia: you name it and it will be there, unveiled and unpleasant. In many ways 2012 has been a watershed year for gaming discourse where the community has openly challenged its worst elements, but there’s still a mountain of intolerance and cruelty to climb before gaming culture is a place where all feel welcome. Sometimes I feel like I’m defending the indefensible. Yet pointing at Call of Duty and saying “look at how worthless these games are” is like playing the new One Direction single as evidence for the death of music as art. Although maybe that’s true.

As an self-professed adventurer of digital fictions, it hurts to admit that much is rotten about the state of video games. But the way to improve this cannot be to dismiss games as “not all evil”, which suggests that most games are evil as if Satan himself was distributing the software. Is that why you can’t play a game backwards? Even if Kellaway doesn’t care about their place in the cultural conversation, I do, because they are as much a reflection of culture as anything else. GameCity is important: quite frankly, games deserve a better discourse than what is currently on offer. We need more criticism that is intelligent, personally reflective and nuanced; treating games more like experiences and less like gadgets. We need to critically examine the role of games in culture, because we can only demand more from our media when we understand where they fall short. Sure, video games are fun, but they’re serious fun.

Kellaway’s final insult is the classic derision of games as a waste of time: she has no time to play them when “there is life to be lived and books to be read and emails to be written”. But even if you lived in a cave with only books for cultural sustenance, you could never read them all. There will always be a choice of indulgences, and I find that quite thrilling. As a good friend puts it: “time you spend doing something you enjoy is never wasted”. And to be honest, if I miss out on reading a few books because I’m playing Journey, that’s a life well wasted.

Alan Williamson is editor of Split Screen. He tweets as @agbear.

A still from "Journey"
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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt