Can Politicians Take Games Seriously?
On Monday night, I tried my best to look like a respectable member of society and popped along the Houses of Parliament to attend Labour MP Tom Watson's discussion about the place and perception of videogames in UK society. A gathering of politicians, educators, games industry folk and random interested onlookers (hullo!), it was a fascinating few hours. Given the knee-jerk hullabaloo we're so used to from mainstream media coverage of games, it was surprising to the point of surreality to be amidst politicians, hearing discussion of the form on the sort of level we have, say, here. Obviously, games have some distance to go to obtain to achieve full societal acceptance - even though that has clearly little-to-no effect on the ever-escalating success of the bigger titles - but that this kind of discussion is at least happening is a cheering sign.
Lead brains in the discussion were Watson himself (though he was clearly pro-games, he was more an MC than active participant); journalist, author and World of Warcraft gonk Tom Chatfield, one half of the legendary Oliver twins (creators of Dizzy, now running Blitz Games), Philip, and Guardian columnist Sam Leith. While the Tory's Shadow Minister for Culture Ed Vaizey showed up late in proceedings, sadly the debate lacked anyone who seemed especially concerned that there might be negative moral and social implications to gaming. Don't get me wrong - I'm enormously glad to hear politicians being rational and positive about the industry, but given the opportunity of the event, it's a little disappointing that it seemed to be a matter of preaching to the converted.
While it would be beyond joyous to see Kieth Vaz engage in some real debate on the matter, I'm sure he's fully aware that to genuinely discuss rather than simply accuse would only reveal his massive ignorance about that which he so often attacks. The constituents wouldn't like that. But I had hoped we'd at least see some lower-profile but similarly intractable Games Are Killing Our Children types see how their damning opinions held up in the face of a room full of intelligent, clearly non-psychotic adults who play videogames. Never mind: we did at least enjoy some eloquent discussion as to what games are, and what they mean. Even if everyone was on the same side, it was a valuable opportunity to focus their arguments.
Chatfield, author of Fun Inc., kicked off with the addiction issue, immediately making the point that "people talk about addiction rather than compulsion." That's the key fallacy in any argument as to whether games are unhealthy - playing them does not create a chemical dependency. "It's simply wrong to say that games exert power over people. The power comes from the investment people are willing to make in an imagined world." Also referenced was the relationship videogames have to "a very old form of games", and even to the novel - a source of escapism, of being plunged temporarily into an imagined world rather than paying full attention to the outside one, but one that doesn't suffer the abuse games do.
Watson's theory as to why the industry still struggles to achieve societal legitimacy is that "we need a new language so we can win the argument about games." I.e. rather than responding to the regular accusations that games are addictive and incite violence with simple rebuttals, we find ways of explaining what games really are, and why we play them.
One-time Codemasters superstar Philip Oliver's argument for games to looked on more kindly by politicians was a business one, pointing out how much money can be made with the help of games. Apparently a series of small games Blitz created for a Burger King promotion saw the fast food firm's profit rise by some 40% in that quarter. "There's a lot of governments in the world taking this seriously. Currently in the UK, there is no support for the videogames industry." His concern was that American and Japan dominate games, and that Britain should be up there too - the government funding the industry in the way they do the arts.
And not purely for commercial reasons: "what we need is centralised budgets to commission great games that can be used in the classroom." As well as the directly educational potential, he felt pupils were being unfairly and irrationally warned off getting into games development because teachers didn't consider it a proper career. There's a great need for more programmers, he thought, and current curricula aren't serving that well. But home enthusiasm, rather than condemnation, is important too: "Parents should encourage kids to turn their interest in games into a career." While there was some later rebuttal from educationists in the crowd, who felt games were in some cases being cleverly deployed in the classroom, I'm pretty sure Oliver's correct in appealing to politicians in financial terms. Speculation has it that Modern Warfare 2 has been profitable than Avatar; it's openly absurd that gaming is denied the support and funding that film benefits from.
Journalist Sam Leith's opening salvo was against the media. "There is only one story - the violence in videogames. That sort of hysteria has the effect of creating what it deplores - it feeds into the marketing." He felt Modern Warfare 2 wouldn't have been as successful if it was had the papers not picked up on and howled about the controversial, civilian-killing No Russian level. "You can't help but suspect [Infinity Ward] put that in to gain attention." He feels neither the games industry's critics nor the games industry itself are always behaving well, the latter continuing to bark up lowest-common-denominator or controversial trees because it knows it'll win headlines for it: "childishness in direct response to the childishness with which they're understood."
Still, he felt gamers aren't seeing violence, as such, when they play violent games. "Johnathon Wendell [Fatality] played Quake with all the blood and guts turned off, because it ran faster that way. What was going through his head when he played was not what people thought." This was a recurrent theme throughout the discussion - the idea that an onlooker's perception of gamers' behaviour (i.e. that they're either murderous or completely tuned out from reality) is a far cry from the constant, amazing cyclone of imagination and narrativisation of the on-screen image that's really occurring in their brains.
He also brought up the argument that "you could play GTA 4 for hundreds of hours without running anyone over", but I always feel that's a counter-productive line to take, and really is gamers/game-makers lying to themselves. We do buy GTA because the virtual, compartmentalised transgression is thrilling, not because we want to go for a leisurely drive - there's really no point in pretending otherwise. It's much more important to correct the perception that all we're doing in something like that is repeatedly and mechanically running over or shooting people: that it's a complex array of prescribed narrative, player-created on-the-fly narrative and tests of skill. We don't need to say it's something it's not - but we do need to say what it is beyond the obvious virtual sociopathy element. We need to explain why we play, not simply say that we have the right to play. He went into this to some extent with the idea of WoW being a cathedral: "it's architectural, a space to tell a story in."This is why the idea that a game is like a film is incorrect: it's the creation of an adventure, not simply the consumption of an image.
Still, he rightly pointed out that those outside the industry tend to perceive games wrongly - lumping everything together, instead of seeing the huge differences between genres. "WoW has nothing to do with Wii Tennis, Halo has nothing to do with Spore." But, to many outsiders and critics, a game is a game is a game. Now's the time, he felt, for the industry and gamers to refine their defence against their accusers, moving on from the outspoken outrage and flamboyancy of the last couple of decades. We've fought loudly for attention, for the right to exist, and now we've got it - because games really have moved into the mainstream now - we need to do it artfully.
Next was a round of enlightening audience comments, which included the MP for Rochdale revealing he once developed a game called Their Finest Hour, and stating that while it was important to reinforce the idea that games are trivial pursuits, responding to "all games are not okay" with "all games are okay" is over-simplifying the matter. I agree, frankly - we need to specifically hold up and explain what's good in gaming rather than simply refute all attacks. Until we make it absolutely clear that we don't accept all games ourselves, that the genuinely reprehensible stuff is not something we want or approve of, anti-gaming lobbyists will still be able to hold up horrific stuff like Rapelay and claim it's representative of the entire industry.
Shadow Culture minister Ed Vaizey then offered a welcome but rather generalised thumbs-up for gaming from the Conservatives. "I find it bizarre that we have a film council but we don't have a videogames council." He admitted that games weren't being taken seriously by politicians, but "After the next election, regardless of the outcome, I think we'll see that change very quickly." It's refreshing to hear a right-wing minister be relatively down with games, but there was a sense that he'd be similarly positive about pretty much any industry. Here and now, with an election (and election funding) looming, is not the time for a big party to be rocking any boats they don't need to. Perhaps I'm being cynical, but it did seem a bit "I heartily endorse this service and/or product" rather than specifically addressing any of the issues.
A few more audience comments, before ELSPA's Michael Rawlinson tackled the thorny issue of game ratings: the room's general sentiment is that the BBFC, the current game certification body in the UK, isn't terribly well-suited to the task, being traditionally a film-certifying body rather than a games one. Power in this regard should be restored to the game-specific body PEGI. But, returning to a theme Sam Leith had brought up earlier, he thinks gamers and the games industry need to adjust their arguments. "It's about having the confidence that games are part of our cultural world. We need to stop being hurt little gamers and just be normal people who are confident in what we do."
An affirming discussion, then, but again - it'd be fantastic to see what happens were such folk able to put their arguments directly to the people who decry gaming at large as bad news. Hopefully, the right honorable Tom Watson will be able to arrange follow-up debates in which that happens. It's great that this is happening in the seat of British politics - it's real progress.
Dave Tosser says: As our chosen leaders and genetic superiors with only our best interests at heart, it's important that politicians tell us whether or not we should play videogames. That way, we can be absolutely sure no-one is murdering anyone as a result of playing Bejewelled, or maiming children after playing Nintendogs. I for one would trust the opinion of any politician, even if it completely differed from what the last politician had told me. I do like custard.