Monthly Archives: December 2009

Games Britannia and the great global gaming myth [UPDATED]

Benjamin Woolley’s BBC4 series Games Britannia has been a tantalising documentary thus far. For a political gamer such as myself, much of the first two episodes have been meat and drink. I have to admit to not knowing that Snakes and Ladders was adapted from an Indian game called Moksha Patamu which was all about karma and enlightenment and many of his insights are truly fascinating. To the surprise of no-one who reads this blog, I was delighted that it went into so much depth about how Monopoly formed from Elizabeth Magie’s Landlord’s Game, itself designed to educate the public about the need for land value taxation.

But after its section on Monopoly, this week’s episode started to lose its momentum. Cluedo rightly got name checked, but it quickly moved onto a narrative that I just don’t think is accurate. That is, that all the British games companies got bought up by Hasbro, the British games industry died a death and that only British games of note since the 1950s are a game called Kensington and the infamous War On Terror.

The most aggregious aspect of this narrative is that it completely ignores Games Workshop, now a publicly listed company and one which owns a shop in every major British city and town (as well as numerous outlets worldwide). Like a lot of gamers of a certain age, GW is something I feel quite ambivalent about as it seems to be more about making money than producing good games. But its empire, while not as vast as Hasbro’s, is undeniable, and now includes a significant number of computer games, novels and licensed boardgames (ironically, the best GW games aren’t actually published by them these days).

Quite why this company has managed to grip the imaginations of so many (mostly) adolescent boys for two generations is surely worthy of exploration. Yet the best Woolley could do was interview co-founder Steve Jackson (presumably we’ll be hearing more from Steve in the third episode which focuses on computer games and he gets to wax lyrical about Lara Croft – d’oh! Got mixed up between Steve and Ian Livingstone there) and show some old footage from a Games Day in 1982. This is a global leader and deserved better treatment, but it seemed to be a victim of a pre-formatted narrative.

The other aspect only touched upon, is the renaissance of boardgames over the past decade. Not in the UK, and not in the US, but in Germany. This gives a lie to the other part of Woolley’s narrative that simply doesn’t add up: games aren’t all US brands marketed around the world in the year 2009. In Germany, games like Settlers of Catan are huge – as big as Scrabble and Monopoly – and home grown. During the height of Lords of the Rings mania in the early noughties, you could find copies of the Lord of the Rings boardgame in every bookshop. Desgined by a German, Reiner Knizia, he is one of the world’s most successful game designers. And he is English by adoptive country. Surely the man deserved some credit. With no disrespect to the War on Terror guys meant at all, he is certainly a more important figure than them.

Reiner Knizia aside, the whole phenomena of why Germany has become such a focus of innovation is surely worth some study, as is their choice of subject matter. Unlike the US and UK tendency towards militaristic games, the Germans focus on concepts such as trade and economic development. And unlike Monopoly, which takes hours to play and leaves people out of the game twiddling their thumbs (if they haven’t already overturned the board in a fit of rage), German games are much more inclusive and concise. If you are going to do a documentary about the faltering fortunes of the British games industry in the 21st century, it seems ludicrous not to contrast it with the very different direction of the industry in our main 21st century adversary.

Germans don’t get completely ignored; the programme includes library footage of the massive Essen Games Fair in 2008 and Woolley does at least mention that a lot of games are designed by Germans these days. But this is a major and misleading gap in the narrative, and a very frustrating one. It is one thing to make a documentary about Britain’s gaming history; another to wallow in Anglo-Savon chauvanism. Will tomorrow’s episode rectify this? If it is to be all about computer games, I somehow doubt it.

UPDATE: Having seen the third and final part of Games Britannia, I stand a tiny bit corrected. This episode opens with the founding of Games Workshop, although it doesn’t explore anything that happened after 1976. It was a fascinating episode, rightly celebrating the UK computer game industry, and well worth watching. I still maintain however that there is an important gap in the narrative.

Team Brown and the spirit of Christmas

Nick Brown’s choice of Christmas card is, I suspect, quite revealing about the mindset of the gang of people that Gordon Brown surrounds himself with. Earlier this year of course there was the whole Red Rag debacle and Labour has been at pains to insist that everything has now changed with the departure of Damian McBride.

But seriously, what does it say about the psychology of someone who chooses to ridicule a political rival as the subject for his Christmas card? It isn’t even as if the Lib Dems are the big threat to Labour at the moment. Or perhaps Nick Brown has been looking at those opinion polls which have put the Lib Dems within the margin of error from beating Labour and decided that the real game during the general election is ensuring that Labour doesn’t completely disintegrate?

Gordon Brown is in some ways a lot like John Major but there is one very important difference. For Major, the “bastards” were the numerous people in his own team who were constantly plotting behind his back. Brown’s bastards on the other hand were hand picked personally by him to plot on his behalf. I suspect this distinction speaks volumes and explains why it is that while most people remember Major with at least some degree of affection (a man out of his depth doing his best), Brown will simply be remembered as a bad prime minister.

Does Simon Cowell have the political X-Factor?

No, is the basic conclusion of my article on Comment is Free today:

In reality, the X Factor could only dream of having as many voters as we take for granted in UK elections. Ten million votes may sound like a lot, but it is only two-thirds the number of people who voted in the European parliament elections this year and a third the number of people who voted in the 2005 general election. The campaign to get Rage Against the Machine’s Killing In The Name to deny Joe McElderry the Christmas No 1 also suggests that the X Factor can alienate the public as much as any MPs’ expenses scandal.

Read the full article here.

Performance -> Feedback -> Response

Just got back from Robin Ince’s Nine Carols and Lessons for Godless People which you, dear reader, may recall I attended last year as well and I am delighted to be able to report that all three of my suggestions were taken on board and as an overall package it was a massive improvement on an evening which I enjoyed immensely. Now I know what it feels like to use Windows 7!

What did I learn this evening? Well, apparently things really can only get better after D:Ream – Brian Cox’s science bit was easily the most mind-blowing of the evening. I got to experience another aspect of Alan Moore’s genius – in this case as an incredibly funny, thought proviking and self-effacing stand up comic. I learned that Ben Goldacre can speak incredibly fast and still make perfect sense. And I learned that rap is the best medium for explaining how evolution works (although Monty Python managed to make it even simpler).

And then there was Johnny Ball. After the previous evening, where Ball was reportedly booed off stage, there was a bit of a squeaky bum moment in anticipation of his act. I would guess that like around 50% of the audience, Johnny Ball was one of the main reasons why I was there that evening, a childhood hero whose absence on childrens’ television has been sorely missed. And it is a real problem when it emerges that your heroes have feet of clay.

From what I’ve read, Balls’ arguments belittling anthropocentric climate change don’t really add up. Wisely he decided to drop this material this evening. Instead his piece focused on how Newton’s theory of gravity largely built on the work of Gallileo and Kepler and that a genius was only really someone who read more than one book and managed to join the dots. His message for the evening was that in the 21st century we have thousands of people out there doing what was regarded was genius-level work a couple of centuries out there and that we shouldn’t give into despair but instead be inspired by human ingenuity.

This resonated with me, mainly because of the way it so strongly contrasts with the basic message of George Monbiot’s Guardian column earlier this week. Monbiot’s argument could not be more different; as the subeditor writes “survival depends on accepting we live within limits”. Monbiot has a point; we can’t assume we can simply keep digging up more and more oil other natural resources and that somehow something will just come along and make it all right. But in dividing the world up between “expanders and restrainers” (which, ironically, does explain the great True Blood / Twilight controversy; something which I’m sure Monbiot will be delighted to discover), he asserts that for humanity to survive it must essentially give up that which makes us most human; the need to strive. In place of that, we should be content with mere survival.

“The summit’s premise is that the age of heroism is over” he asserts. What? Really? It seems to me that the one thing Copenhagen needs more than anything else is a bit of sentimental, schmaltzy, Hollywood-style heroism. If the world assembled world leaders were prepared to be a bit heroic, they could set in train a process which would avert possible catastrophe. Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of ruling out any meaningful progress before the talks even began, Obama came back from Copenhagen with a wildly ambitious plan that the rest of the world agreed with and made it his mission to get the US to accept it? He might not succeed, but he’d almost certainly carry the debate far further than it has gone in the US thus far.

The problem is not that world leaders are obsessed with being heroic; anything but. Are we really about to cede heroism to the denialist right? Is the anonymous bureaucrat really going to be our future role model?

Monbiot has set himself an impossible task: he wants to remould humanity in a way that is not only uninspiring but would be both incapable and undeserving of surivival. As misanthropic narratives are concerned, that’s quite an achievement. It is manna from heaven for the denialists who seek to present climate change activists in precisely the light that Monbiot is now basking in.

One way or another, humanity is going to survive the 21st century; of that I’m quite certain. We might do it by having a collective change in consciousness over the next five years and changing our current path of destruction. Alternatively, we might do it in an extremely painful way by witnessing catastrophic climate change, social unrest, entire populations literally walking into less climate ravaged parts of the world (i.e. Europe) and the destruction of 90% of life on earth. To avoid that, we will require ingenuity (Performance -> Feedback -> Response) on a heroic scale. By contrast, the Malthusianism that Monbiot seems dangerously close to here diminishes human endeavour. And once you start down that path, you start valuing human life as extremely cheap.

Johnny Ball is almost certainly wrong about the science behind climate change and George Monbiot is almost certainly right. But when it comes to inspiration and basic humanism, I’d rather have the former batting for my team any day of the week. Let’s not make him our enemy.

Why the Conservatives have been making class an issue

David Cameron and his party have been bending over backwards to tell us how petty and spiteful it is to bring class into politics.

They have a point, up to a point. Certainly the Crewe and Nantwich by-election was a dreadful miscalculation by Labour – who, let us not forget, were treating the constituency as an hereditary seat and the idea of someone with the privileged background of Ed Balls claiming to be some kind of latter-day class warrior is just stupid. But regardless of how weak Labour are on the issue, the fact remains that it is primarily the Conservatives who have been making an issue of class in politics in recent years

Where do I start? Clearly there is that single, emblematic tax cut they want to give to all those who stand to gain from hereditary wealth, and in the last week there has been the eye-watering way in which Zac Goldsmith has sought to belittle his own bit of local difficulty by shrugging off a tax saving of £10,000 as if it essentially the same thing as a tenner he might lose down the back of a sofa. This was a highly charged political statement. What he was saying was: “I’m safe and I feel confident enough that I can rub my wealth in your face. What are you going to do about it?” If that isn’t making class an issue, what is?

A few weeks ago, Cameron made the highly controversial statement that what mattered was not the widening gap between rich and poor but the gap between the poor and the “middle” – if that isn’t a statement charged with class consciousness, what is? Again, the fact that Peter Mandelson has been saying essentially the same thing for the past decade and a half, doesn’t exactly help Labour provide a counterpoint to this.

The fox hunting ban is not something I feel particularly strongly about – I view anyone who takes pleasure out of the killing of a wild animal with contempt but there are good reasons for keeping the rural fox population under control and it is an issue that would be better regulated at a local government level in my view. I also feel that the ban hasn’t really worked and that for a lot of the Labour MPs who pushed it through, it really was a class issue. Rather than responding in kind, the Tories tack is instead to emphasise that this is not a class issue but a civil liberties one, whilst simultaneously announcing an intention to limit the right to protest. It is hard to see how legislating on fox hunting could be a priority for any government over the next decade, yet Cameron is determined to do so whilst simultaneously trying to mask it as some kind of march towards freedom. If they weren’t preoccupied with class, it is hard to see why they would be so determined to scrap the ban or to pretend it is about something it blatantly isn’t.

And then there’s this obsession that the Tories have had over the past decade with the social class of John Prescott and Michael Martin. The latter has been particulary interesting. All the time the Tories have been chuckling about the ineptness of “Gorbals Mick” it has emerged that the real Speaker Martin has been bending over backwards to defend the entrenched privilege of MPs – especially the wealthy ones – to trouser hundreds of thousands of pounds in public money in the form of “expenses.” He’s been their most faithful servant, and yet they have bullied him and hurled the most appalling insults at him. It is hard to look at this and not see a resemblance to arrogant Eton schoolboys behaving not like elected politicians but like people who have been born to rule. The only people who turned the expenses issue into the class issue have, consistently, been the Tories and their supporters.

And now we see Eric Pickles entering into that bear pit which is the Conservative attitude to class. Whatever you might think about Pickles, he is a politician with a track record in his own right. Yet what has happened to Pickles under Cameron? Well, he’s reinvented himself as the Tories’ answer to John Prescott. In doing so, he has adopted an avulcular, parodic working class persona which seems to have been plucked wholesale from the Beano circa 1959. Let’s be under no illusions here – this performance has precisly nothing to do with attracting the working class vote. You won’t see him playing up to the camera and mugging about his “chums” on Question Time or the Today Programme. No, it is about giving the party faithful what they want to hear on his regular emails and “war room briefings” in his role as Party Chairman. As far as they are concerned, the acceptable face of the working class appears in charming Ealing Comedies, not on housing estates. The fact that Pickles feels he has to transform himself into some kind of clown in order to keep the party masses happy speaks volumes about the view of class within the Conservatives. Frankly, I await the day before Pickles starts one of his war room briefings with an establishing shot of him showing his prize pet ferret around CCHQ, with all the bright young things around him cooing and stroking the creature. It is only a matter of time, trust me on this.

In short, the one party still obsessed with class in this country are the Conservatives. Frankly, it would be nice if there were a bit more class consciousness within the other two main parties.

(On a personal note, it isn’t that I don’t want to live in a classless, divided society, I really do. It’s just that it is painfully obvious to me that I don’t live in one and that we need to be talking about this much more.)

Giles Fraser, intolerance and double standards

I wrote this in the hope that the Guardian might be interested in publishing it in their “response” column in the paper – they weren’t. Waste not want not…

Reading Giles Fraser harrumphing about Ariane Sherine and the British Humanist Association’s latest campaign (“Choosing for oneself”, 2 December 2009), it occurred to me that the BHA’s next project should be to launch a range of posters with the slogan “motherhood and apple pie – we love them!” just as an experiment to see quite how much ink Christians would then go on to spill, condemning them for it in no uncertain terms.

For Fraser is not the only Christian to impugn sinister motives behind the “don’t label me” campaign. Writing for the Guardian, the most spiteful insult he could think of was to compare Ms Sherine to Thatcher; the Telegraph’s Ed West has decided that the campaign smacks of Stalinism and a quick Google search will reveal plenty of examples of Reductio ad Hitlerum.

This response represents a bit of a problem for a determinedly non-chippy atheist such as myself. I always used to detest the proselytising habit of some of my fellow non-believers. The BHA newsletter which I was sent a few years ago advertising Christmas cards with the crosses all replaced with a humanist “H” quickly went in the bin. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Dawkins and his religious critics in 1997[1] (long before it was fashionable) in which I took the man to task for suggesting in his Reith lecture that the X-Files’ weekly stream of monsters and the unexplained was akin to racist propaganda.

But something changed. I think it was December 2006 when the newspapers were filled with Archbishops claiming that “aggressive secularists” were trying to ban Christmas in response to a series of tabloid stories making inaccurate allegations about a few councils and a few government ministers’ Christmas cards containing the dread phrase “seasons greetings”. Up until that point I had naively assumed that secularism was something we could all agree on. Perhaps that was true 20 years ago but the rise of evangelism seems to have changed all that.

What I don’t understand is why so many “moderate” believers set the standard of acceptable behaviour more highly for atheists than they do for their fellow religionists. Just as Ariane Sherine’s plea for tolerance has been denounced by Fraser et al as extremism, so the Dean of Southwark compared Dawkins in this paper a few years ago for being “just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube.”

The “don’t label me” campaign is about consciousness raising. It isn’t about saying that parents shouldn’t be allowed to tell their children about what they believe, it is about letting them choose their identity for themselves. Many Christians – including my own parents – already do this. But it is an issue which resonates with many atheists because, sadly, many of them bear the scars of such an upbringing. It is a shame that Giles Fraser treats their plea for tolerance with scorn and not compassion.

[1] BA Hons (Theology and Religious Studies), natch.