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.