As a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, and outspoken critic of tabloid journalism, the Labour MP Tom Watson had a high-profile, last week. Obviously, I was amused by his baiting of James Murdoch, and while he managed to lay a finger on Murdoch’s reputation, sadly he came nowhere nearer to exposing the truth. Yet, while all this high drama was being played out one thing that Tom Watson tweeted on the morning of the Murdoch Committee session caught my attention:
Late, late night playing Portal 2. Early, early morning drafting questions and listening to The Clash on full blast. #brandnewcadillac
Then I looked at his Twitter profile:
Busy dad, disorganised politician, lover of film and video games.
That’s right, a senior politician admitting to be a gamer. Now I have a confession to make, I too am a gamer. I know, I know, it’s hard to say out loud, but it’s true. The question is, why does that feel like a guilty confession? Why should I be surprised that a (now) high-profile politician feels comfortable casually admitting to it? It’s simple really, despite computer games being an established, and growing, part of the entertainment industry it has always had the whiff of childishness about it. I’m a serious writerly type, he’s a serious politician, we shouldn’t be admitting to spending our free time in this way. Computer games have been with us for over a quarter of a century, are enjoyed by millions of people globally, have spawned pop culture icons like Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, and yet I still feel that admitting to being a gamer is somehow at odds with being a grown up. Being a boozer gets you more kudos than playing Portal 2.
In none of my online profiles do I mention that I play computer games, I rarely mention it on Twitter or Facebook, and certainly never on this blog. Yet, games have been an ever-present leisure activity in my life. We had computers at home from as early as I can remember, mainly because my dad was a technology and design teacher. This meant Acorn Electrons with tape drives, playing classics such as Elite, Manic Miner, and Twin Kingdom Valley. We very rarely had the most up-to-date computers (until we got a MegaDrive that is) but that didn’t make a difference, games are games.
It’s fair to say that over the years I have probably spent more time playing computer games than I have playing sport, reading the classics or playing instruments put together. My peak gaming years were in my twenties, employed in a dull job with plenty of leisure time and before I picked up my history books and writing again. In the last 2-3 years it has tailed off, but it’s still there. Now that I have a child I’ve only a few hours leisure time on a good day, but I still fit it in. So it’s fair to say I’m not just a casual gamer, I keep my eye on the industry even if I haven’t got the time, or money, to play the games I’d like.
I think many gamers don’t mention their hobby because of the stigma of being ‘a man child’ (lady gamers are included in this). It’s ok to blather on about football all hours of the day, discuss the merits of real ales in tiresome detail, or even, whisper it, obsess on long dead historical figures. Of course it is; the first makes you a lad, the second a gent, the third an intellectual *ahem*. Obsessing on anything makes you a nerd, but computer games makes you a NERD. So best not to mention it.
Another reason we don’t mention gaming is because it doesn’t occur to us as something significant. I also don’t put on my profile that I watch TV or read fiction, they’re just something I do. It fits into the background of our lives, well, except when a really good game comes along, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Gaming, like television, is down-time, disengage the brain and plug in, or is it?
Dismissing games as just another bit of ‘entertainment’ does them a disservice in my view, and plays into the stereotype of thinking of gaming as wasted time. In fact, gaming is currently going through a new golden age, not only in sales (see MW3) but in technical brilliance, storytelling and artistic merit as well. The recognition of games as an art form, as well as pulp entertainment, can be seen in the decision to show L.A. Noire, the detective ‘sand-box’ game, at the Tribeca Film festival.
Arguments for the positive effects of games have tended to focus the benefits to hand-eye coordination that playing games can bring, but to be honest this feels like a throw back to an older, classic age of shooty/fighty games (Street Fighter II, Xenon) and platformers (Mario, Sonic). Now, immersive, cinematic games such as L.A. Noire, Skyrim and Heavy Rain, have reached a level of sophistication and artistic merit that puts them on a par with movies or TV storytelling, with the added bonus of exercising the mind as well as the thumbs. Unlike a two-hour film, these games can provide countless hours of entertainment. A successful game usually leaves the player to use their own imagination to fill in the gaps, something that all good storytelling does.
The argument for cinematic games is becoming well established, but there are other genres of games that should not be dismissed. As the graphical performance of even standard PCs improves, so more people can enjoy creative, 3D sandbox games. That is, games in which you have complete control over the environment around you, enabling you to design and build your own virtual world. Top of the class in this division is Minecraft, a game that combines creativity and survival in brilliantly realised block world. If you never really grew out of Lego, this is the game for you. The freedom involved in this game has spawned a fascinating sub-genre of entertainment on YouTube, combining gaming, role-playing and humour via online recordings of multiplayer games. A good example being the Yogscast, whose videos are something akin to the silly banter of the Ricky Gervais podcasts and genuine role-playing enthusiasm. An example below (it’s very silly).
Another aspect of modern gaming that has transformed it from the dimly lit teenagers bedroom to the wider world, is that marvel of the modern age, broadband internet. Fast broadband has enabled a boom in online, multiplayer games and with it a social element to gaming that was previously restricted to having a mate round the house with a spare controller. Now, much like social networking, you can connect with friends, relatives or random people all over the world; to kill, race or create with, according to your personal taste. It comes with the same health warnings as other forms of online networking (I’m looking at you twitter), but it just goes to show that the experience of playing computer games is a long way removed from the days of Pacman.
Of course, I’m painting a pretty picture of gaming as a modern pastime, but it has its dark side as well. Gaming can be highly addictive. I shudder when I think of the amount of time that I sunk into the football management simulation series “Football (formerly Championship) Manager”. The patience of my wife as I muttered “yep, I’ll be there in a minute” and then appeared several hours later (but with Leicester City top of the Premiership and in the Champions League Semi-Finals!) is a marvel. This is not exclusive to gaming, people get addicted to anything and everything if they are inclined toward such behaviour. The above is played out in many living rooms across the world with other things substituted, even the noble pursuit of reading, no doubt. But the immersive nature of gaming, the ease in which it provides ‘goals’ and ‘achievements’, does tend to draw people into such behaviour, and I know plenty of successful, intelligent people who at one stage in their life or another have been as helplessly addicted to a game or two as me.
Some games are also irredeemably puerile and offensive, some games plug quite neatly into the unhinged mind of the violent and misogynist, but so do plenty (indeed more) films and plays and Television. Anyone that blames computer games for real life violence is finding easy excuses for societies ills.
There we go, a blog post about my guilty little secret, well one of them. Well done Tom Watson for feeling comfortable as a serious adult in admitting your pleasure in playing computer games (and great choice on Portal 2, excellent game). I expect computer games to become increasingly sophisticated and integrated into popular entertainment in the coming years, and some of us old timers will welcome it with open, albeit RSI ridden, arms.