We know what television is. We also know what the publicly-funded BBC’s role in television is. Neither was the case in 1945. All that people knew then was that both the BBC and television itself had tremendous power, and that they were going to be important in the decades ahead. So people sat down and said: what is this new medium; what could it be used for; and how do we make sure that whatever happens, it’s used for the benefit of all people?
We should be doing the same for videogames. The BBC should be doing the same for videogames.
I’m in love with the early/post-war period of BBC history. Before World War 2, the British Broadcasting Company had been pairing their now established radio programmes with experiments in the brand new medium of television, transmitting light entertainment for four hours a day from the basement of Alexandra Palace. The broadcasts didn’t reach beyond London, and the number of people who owned television sets was fewer than 15,000, but already there were hints of what the service could become.
When war broke out, those BBC engineers and technicians were, like the rest of the country, called into service. When they returned, after years as radio operators and radar engineers, they walked back into rooms which had been untouched since they left them. Progress made in America and France during the intervening period had only convinced everyone further of the importance of television.
America, of course, embraced commercial television. Britain was different. We had a tradition of broadcasting as a public service: the BBC entertained millions on a daily basis, but also offered a diet of programmes which aimed to educate, to inform through news, and to celebrate culture and the arts. The shared sacrifice of the war had also gone some way towards levelling Britain’s traditional class system, inspiring a notion of “fair shares for all”. Television could be a part of that process, taking audiences from the Proms to the coal mines, with more power than ever to, as short-term BBC Director Maurice Gorham put it, “show the one half how the other half lived.”
A public debate began about how television should do that and, more fundamentally, what television was for. Was it radio but with pictures? Early programmes were often derisively referred to as “radiovision”, and dual broadcast on radio and on television, the latter with added pictures. Was it movies but in your house? Many owners of British picturehouses moved to limit TV’s role, fearing the effect it would have on their business. Only J. Arthur Rank recognised the potential for licensing old films for repeats on television, which would more than make up for the shortfall in revenue from soon redundant newsreels.
There was a lot of fear driving the public debate, from the government, newspapers, the church and the public, because the one thing they could all agree upon was that television was going to be popular and disruptive. Those fears prompted the most pressing question: who should be in charge of operating and regulating television? Before the war, television sets had been so expensive that they were seen as a rich person’s toy, a luxury item. If television was to fulfill its potential then the service needed to be accessible. It also wasn’t assumed that control should be given to the BBC, which already had its hands full with radio.
The government formed the Hankey committee to look at developments in other countries, and to make recommendations about what technology and processes should be used to help spread television as far and wide as possible. (An early proposal, that television broadcasts should be transmitted via planes circling endlessly across the skies of Blighty, was dismissed for being too expensive).
Being a different age, the debate didn’t happen out of sight on internet forums, or even solely among politicians and peers. It was a point of discussion in newspapers, on radio, in books. The result is a flood of speeches and writing which, seventy years later, sound awfully familiar.
In a memorandum from the ‘British Film and Cinema Industries’, written for the Hankey committee, the author noted that “Television is not merely a means of broadcasting; nor is it merely a means of presenting entertainment. It is the newest means of communication invented by man.”
“Radio is the newest art and the newest social phenomenon,” wrote The Economist, in an article criticising television for too closely mimicking its forebears. “Why should [television] become a conservative art while still so young? Why should we believe that, without experience and without experiment… we should have hit, at first go, on the perfect system?”
Addressing the British Council of Churches, George Barnes said he wondered “if those who decry television are simply objecting to change. Of course, television like radio will alter habits and it may alter them in a different way, but it cannot of itself stifle the imagination of a whole people; it cannot in a generation make us all materially minded… Imagination has survived longer persecutions than television is likely to give it.”
The BBC themselves would write about their role, nowhere more directly than in the BBC Year Book in 1946: “Every Zeitgeist takes on a certain narrowness of outlook, which is obvious enough to other generations; and the chaotic present is probably an exceptionally bad time for making formulas.”
“Television? The word is half Latin and half Greek. No good can come of it,” wrote C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, known today as simply The Guardian.
Maybe I’ve gone mad, but I hear in these comments many of the same topics of discussion bouncing around online videogame discourse. Are games a communicative medium, or meant merely for ‘gameplay’? Is their remit narrow, defined solely by what we’ve accomplished in our brief existence thus far? Are games just movies with interactivity? Are games harmful to us, rotting the minds of the youth?
In the preface to the 1979 book, The History Of Broadcasting In the United Kingdom, Vol. IV – Sound And Vision, which is an excellent read and the source of the quotes in this article, historian Asa Briggs writes, “I have tried, while exploring all the available primary sources, to relate the history of broadcasting to the history of British society during the period. The relationship is not one of foreground to background. Broadcasting registered, though incompletely, what was happening, and through its structures and policies–and the conflicts which it engendered–it was also a revealing expression of economic, social and cultural forces. Politics, moreover, can seldom be left out of the story as told in this volume…”.
Are games political, or can we keep politics outside of our writing about games?
If all this seems cordial compared to current online discourse, consider that in 1955, after a protracted, often fierce debate about the need or desire for commercial television in the UK, the historian A.J.P. Taylor wrote an article in the New Statesman retrospectively labelling the period as the “Television Wars”. Fights happen for the soul of every medium.
The following is my favourite quote.
“The BBC must provide for all classes of listener equally,” wrote BBC Director-General William Haley in November 1943.
Videogames are for everybody.
He goes on. “This does not mean it shall remain passive regarding the distribution of those classes. It cannot abandon the educative task it has carried on for twenty-one years to improve cultural and ethical standards.”
I bristle at the archaic use of “classes” – a word which divides even when meaning to unite – but otherwise I can’t help but feel Haley had the right idea 70 years ago.
Today, the BBC can and does still act as a standard-bearer for culture in Britain. It has a tremendous ability to raise the level of debate in the country. Yet largely it’s silent on and removed from what’s quickly becoming our generation’s dominant medium of art, entertainment and communication.
To the BBC’s credit, it has tried and succeeded in the past to work with computers and games. The BBC Micro was a computer created by Acorn for the BBC Computer Literacy Project, and the first computer I saw in school as a kid. There have also been various direct attempts at educational games, though they have mostly been cheap and of little relevance.
But there has been no broader attempt to represent or engage with an audience of gamers, young and old, that now numbers in the tens of millions in the UK. Cyberzone doesn’t count. (Alright, VideoGaiden does count).
This isn’t about compelling the BBC to create explicitly educational games, either. When the BBC set out in the late ’40s to put cameras in front of cultural works, it didn’t aim to use art or music as a trojan horse for talking about socially aware topics. It did so because there was a belief that culture had value in and of itself; that a knowledge of the arts was humanising, that it enriched our lives, that it led to civil discourse and civil people.
Today, videogames only get written about under the business or technology sections of the BBC website. There is no Radio 3 discussion programme dedicated to videogames. When the cultural review programmes that do exist talk about games, they do so without expertise, and always prompted by something like Destiny’s claim of being ‘the most expensive videogame ever made’.
Why does the BBC have no exponent broadcaster for videogames? The organisation is famed for people like Kenneth Clark, David Attenborough or more recently Brian Cox. Smart people dealing with serious subjects, but if Jonathan Meades can write and present a number of series about architecture, exploring everything from caravan parks to golf courses – subjects I don’t mean to denigrate, because I find them fascinating – then surely the world’s fastest growing medium of expression ought to be featured somewhere. A one-off Channel 4 list programme presented by Charlie Brooker is hardly enough.
The result is that public debate about the medium of videogames is often stunted, without a beacon free from commercial interests present to lead by example. The result is that the debate which does happen, happens out of sight and in corners of the internet detached from the society games are an intrinsically linked and beneficial part of.
The BBC is harangued by all sides, of course – by those who say it is anti-competition, that it is biased, that it is doing too much of this and not enough of that. It makes it hard for the aging corporation to enter new industries or maintain old goals. I’m sympathetic. I don’t mean to add to the din.
I’m also aware that we live in an age suspicious of institutions; that the process of producing videogames doesn’t belong to the people in the way that the airwaves do; that the internet belongs to the people in a way the airwaves never can, and that I wouldn’t want to hand it over to a closed group of gatekeepers no matter how well intentioned; that this all sounds rather old-fashioned; that to people who don’t live in the UK, state-funded television probably sounds disastrous; that I am being romantic, and that the end of the BBC’s monopoly over television in 1955 was a good thing.
But consider how much of videogaming is controlled by corporations like Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and Apple. Their influence is far-reaching, and their decisions often show little regard for their audience. That’s dangerous. The PC is a fine and flourishing alternative, but it’s an anarchic ecosystem. There ought to be a third way, an organisation with the influence of a corporation but the interests of the people at heart. That’s what the BBC can represent. That’s what I feel we need in games.
The rest of us are failing too, of course. If the BBC is unable to fulfill its obligation to cater to a new generation of people who crowd around Twitch streams like wireless broadcasts, then the onus of responsibility falls upon those of us on the internet with a platform. All culture is a feedback loop between art and audience, and it’s the job of institutions, of people – critics included – to help build an apparatus that makes that loop fruitful and healthy.
We see ourselves – all gamers – too often as proponents of a medium which is under fire from the mainstream, rather than a part of it. We try to convince the world of our power and relevance, when we should have long ago recognised that the criticism we’re subject to is a tacit recognition of an existing power and relevance. We need to move quickly on to more fundamental questions about what videogames are, how they can help society, how they have helped society, and make that debate as relevant and vital to people everywhere as the debate over the future of television was during the 1940s. If the BBC can’t do it as is, we ought to do it instead.
There are examples of people doing just that, which offer some hope. The British Museum is being re-built in Minecraft. The British Library have employed an interactive fiction writer-in-residence. (Disclaimer: who has written for RPS). The V&A have a game designer in residence and are planning a broad-reaching videogame exhibit.
These things are good. They’re also a drop in the ocean, with nothing like the kind of cultural reach of the BBC.
Was George Barnes right? Could television not “in a generation make us all materially minded…”? Perhaps we were simply more willing and better prepared in 1945 to recognise the power and potential of the newest means of communication, and to make sure it was put to good use.