A Psychogeography Of Games #4: George Buckenham

This is article 4 of 6, adapted from my Psychogeography of Games series for London’s Videobrains. If you enjoy these articles, please consider backing me on Patreon.

I’m soaked before I even get to George’s door. He lives in ‘Globe Town’ – a small part of North East London in the borough of Tower Hamlets. I call him from Globe Street and walk up and down, failing to find the landmarks that he can see in the regimented tower blocks. In the end he points out a woman with a Dunlop branded umbrella and via her I find my way to the buzzer.

The buttons are silver rounded pale yellow, brushed steel braille under my fingertips, I tap in the number of his flat, stop to take photos of the stairwell on my way up. Wrought iron, broken frosted glass, paint peeling.

George Buckenham is a Londoner. He grew up in the suburbs of SW London, a place called ‘New Malden’, and today (in a month’s worth of rain) we have agreed to walk across London, without once using a map, from where he lives now to where he grew up. 14 miles (22km).


(Credit)

We set out through the puddles of rain running off the Brutalist social housing of Tower Hamlets, and George talks to me about his fascination with them:

I think they’re really beautiful. […] Something about repetition but also the details in each person’s flat, the doors are different and the stuff inside each of the houses is different, the building all lit up in different colours.

In post-WWII Great Britain, a surprise landslide elected a progressive left wing government. One of the major things they attempted to tackle was a chronic housing shortage. Much of London had been severely damaged in the war, and there were huge slums across the city. Housing became a key part of the founding of the welfare state. In 1946 Aneurin Bevan, minister for health and housing, spoke in parliament against the way the private market and council housing separate the rich and the poor. He said

You have colonies of low income people, living in houses provided by the local authorities, and you have the higher income groups living in their own colonies. This segregation of the different income groups is a wholly evil thing … a monstrous infliction upon the essential psychological and biological one-ness of the community. (Where Will We Live, James Meek)

London was re-built by Bevan’s government, a new breed of social housing as part of it – in line with the ideals of producing environments both beautiful and functional, desirable places to live for higher income groups, whilst also providing social homes that were more than just sufficient but impressive, attractive, well equipped. As part of this movement, Brutalist architects like Ernö Goldfinger, Denys Lasdun, Peter and Alison Smithson re-shaped post-war Britain with open, egalitarian design in mind.

[Brutalism has an] emphasis on materials, textures and construction as well as functionality and equality. The Brutalist architects challenged traditional notions of what a building should look like, focussing on interior spaces as much as exterior. They also showed the building’s construction, unafraid to make a feature of service towers, plumbing and ventilation ducts in their creations.” (Brutalism: Everything You Want To Know But Were Afraid To Ask)

I had always felt a little dismissive of those buildings, but through George’s eyes I begin to find the exposure of the process – of structures, of the strong angular geometry, unfinished surfaces – politically interesting. By exposing a process, you find a way of allowing people to define their own relationship to it.

Shoreditch. Thunder cracks the sky, swiftly followed by lightning. We give over to the idea that we will not get wetter, squelch on. Easily, more easily than we think, we find ourselves navigating the city. We find that when George’s residential compass fails, my cycling one picks us up.

George’s game design career can seem a little incoherent when laid out on paper: Cubes, where you navigate your way around brightly coloured cubes as they fall towards you; Hell is Other People, an early bullet hell work where you play against the ghosts of every player before you; live-play games like Punch the Custard where the conductive properties of custard complete a circuit to count the number of times you can punch it’s non-Newtonian surface; Fabulous Beasts, a game of 3D-printed abstract animal Jenga, where moves in the physical game constitute moves in a digital one.

What unites them is a deep interest in process, ways of doing things. In this his degree in cognitive science shines through – he’s interested in games as intermediary between human, machine and game designer. His games often develop out of pulling at a thread of human or computer behaviour, and riffing off it.

We ponder a puddle that spans the whole of an underpass. George runs through it claiming that if you run faster than the splashback you’ll stay dry. Unable to conceive of being wetter, I take long strides.

We cross the river at Millennium Bridge. Pose for a photo while I worry people might think we’re tourists. George starts to talk to me about the other reason he makes games; his friends.

There’s a joke, and this is half true, like… you go along to conferences and meet-ups and stuff, and make friends, and [suddenly you have a community that spans half the world].

A part of our landscapes are the people we share them with. Part of what motivates George, and unites him with the aesthetics and visual rhetoric of Brutalism, is not just an interest in process, but architecture and computer games as a place humans meet: from which arises community.

The word ‘community’ is one of those words we use a lot but don’t always stop to think about. Jean Luc Nancy and Maurice Blanchot are two thinkers who tried to strip the word ‘community’ of the idea that it’s a product – a solid whole thing which can be wielded by politicians, that can have ‘community leaders’, that ever stands for a static thing. They describe community as impossible, unknowable, unavowable: a thing we cannot describe. Community, they say is a kind of limit. The bit where I stop, and you begin:

that way of destining ourselves in common that we call a politics, that way of opening community to itself, rather than to a destiny or to a future (Nancy, 1991, pp. 80-1).

They use two intoxicating metaphors to describe what they mean by this – death, and the lovers.

Death: I sit with you as you die. And at the same time I know that I am sharing with you a thing – the one thing that unites us all – I know I cannot travel with you, I reach a limit, it is between us, intimately.

Love: they entwine and interpenetrate who in the blindness of one another’s arms thrust themselves together, who cannot ever be one, but love as a way of never never never being close enough.

A kind of profound active empathy, community is impossible because it can never be completed, a destination never reached (I cannot become you, I cannot travel with you in death). They explain that community is a constant process of recognising the same in the different; a notion of habitation in something (someone) one can never inhabit.

Games have the ability to open process to us, invite the player to do, co-create, not just observe a product.

Around about the time we make it to Battersea, George begins to talk about the scene he made for Fernando Ramallo and David Kanaga’s Panoramical, and we return to Brutalism.

I like the optimism of it. I like the sense that it’s like […] they were just building stuff for the public good; they were trying to provide a good thing for people.

George’s Panoramical scene is a love letter to the architecture of North East London seen from the point of view of a train, travelling through abstract, shaded, glitched out space.

It was an opportunity to go, “this train journey, this landscape, is something I really love, […] an opportunity to understand it more deeply by recreating it.

By the time we get to Battersea it has stopped raining. An hour or so later we arrive in New Malden, George’s eyes alight with the people he used to bike, play and walk with.

He describes buying polo mints from a garage with his first girlfriend. He describes the walk to his infant school, the mound of earth worn down by generations of children, he describes his brother buying seven-scoop ice creams from the Italian ice cream man, helping his best friend Soumojit with his paper route.

When George talks about place, he talks about the people he shares it with, the paths between the houses, the routes they took. When George makes games, he is interested in people and process, towards a kind of community, like the Brutalists.

13 Comments

  1. caff says:

    Yay I love this series! RPS needs to get Hannah on the regular “features” list.

    My granddad grew up in a council flat block, and whilst not a huge tower I think I can totally understand that sense of community those blocks provided. I don’t think many digital games have succeeded at capturing that sense of togetherness – boardgames and physical stuff seems so much more apt for friends. But then I don’t play any co-op games because most of my friends are non-digital, so maybe I’m missing a lot. I look at games like Gang Beasts and the forthcoming Tales of the Sword Coast and feel a slight pang of regret that I don’t like to relate my love of PC gaming to people in the real world.

  2. kwyjibo says:

    This is the first of the series I’ve read, because Brutalism. Brutalism is so fucking ugly, it must be by design, it’s architects trolling, two fingers up at the skyline. Which is refreshing compared to most buildings which are just ugly through incompetence.

    Also, there’s no way you walked from Battersea to New Malden in “an hour or so”. And how can you not mention the Korean community in New Malden, it’s the best thing there and no one knows it exists.

    • hannahnicklin says:

      Hello kwyjibo!

      So these are two good points both born out the necessity to focus down so the thing doesn’t end up 10,000 words long! George did talk a lot about the Korean community in New Malden when we got there, but as it became clear George was so interested in process and people in design I wrote about the process of the wall, and arrival was more of a coda, and specifically talked about people he was close with, so that detail was lost.

      Likewise you’re right! We didn’t walk from Battersea to New Malden in an hour! We spent 4 hours from Tower Hamlets to there, and then the reason for the swiftness was cut from this version because I have to get it from from Videobrains text length (circa 4,000 words) to RPS length (1,500) and I didn’t think it was vital info. It’s because the week before I just completed an ironman triathlon and my legs hurt and we were very wet and outside Clapham Junction and so we got a train the last bit of the way. It was unsatisfactory for me to cut that out, but not vital to the main thrust of it, so it got cut. You can see the GPS track of our journey, and read the Videobrains full text if you’re interested on my Patreon! I’ll paste links in a mo when I’m not on mobile.

      Hope those details make you feel better.

      • hannahnicklin says:

        Here’s the Strava link: link to strava.com
        And here’s the excerpt originally which describes having to get on a train! It works more easily at Videobrains because I did a talk for them literally the day after the Ironman and was a complete mess and joked about it, so it’s more of a callback. On it’s own I felt it could be cut because it stood a little weirdly, out of that context, like I was showing off.

        “By the time we get to Battersea it has stopped raining. We sit on a bench outside Clapham junction 15km into our journey and change our socks. I am only a week out of having completed an ironman so we make the strategic decision to catch a train the remaining distance. We arrive in New Malden, George’s eyes alight with the people he used to bike, play and walk with.”

        Lots lots more also got cut, including a whole third thread of story about a protest I attended resisting the last eviction of the Sweets Way Estate. I’ve recorded a version of the talk I gave, which included backing audio from the walk itself, as well a recording I made of a Panoramical playthrough, as you seem to have an eye for detail, you might like that more detailed version. Check that out here: link to patreon.com

    • caff says:

      Wow, your comment made me go and read a bit more about New Malden. A population of over 20k Koreans, 600 of whom are from NK. I never knew that!

    • Jigowatt says:

      It’s quite surreal seeing all this talk about my little hometown on RPS. Everyone should visit New Malden! We have a Pizza Express now!

  3. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    The poor Brutalists, they were so in love with egalitarianism, with simple, unpretentious, working-class concrete, and now they all get painted as cruel icons of faceless, monolithic Government.

    It just baffles me that they let béton brut (“raw concrete”) get translated into English as “brutalist.” How did that ever seem like a good PR move?

  4. Scrobbs says:

    Might want to take the patron link out, judging by the recent total database leak (13.9 GB).

    Check out Troy Hunt’s haveibeenpwned.com to check if your data has been released and take the appropriate steps.

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      A lot of people make their living from Patreon. They’re not going to just stop eating because you think everyone ought to boycott anyone who has ever been hacked.

      • Scrobbs says:

        Give me strength. You misunderstood me completely. The Patreon database has been ripped off totally. All of it and been posted online. Everyone who contributes, everyone who makes their living from it etc. It was more a warning to check what data of yours(or whomever) has been leaked (via haveibeenpwned) and take appropriate measures. Not to boycott it.

        Removing the link was a suggestion until Patreon secure their estate.

        Some people.

  5. apa says:

    I like reading this series every time, mostly because of the writing style. Hannah, your style reminds me very much of William Gibson’s. The words just flow without waiting for the reader.