Death By Playstation

marioThere are rumours that Charlie Brooker is to start a games review show. Owen Van Spall imagines the possibilities:

If Gameswipe were to go ahead – and Brooker’s company Zeppotron has yet to confirm any such rumours, plus his You Have Been Watching series is up next – would it follow the established ‘Wipe format with its characteristicly acerbic overview of computer games, and the industry? Games, like TV shows, don’t get released in a vacuum. They have a political and social impact, often unintended, sometimes worrying and often hilarious.

Surely there is as much material to mine here as there is in TV and the news? For example Brooker could survey those games that pushed the taste envelope too far: those seemingly purpose-built to bait the Daily Mail audience, such as the crime-spree simulation Grand Theft Auto, which counts Hilary Clinton among its enemies and whose fourth incarnation’s launch last year was marred by an actual stabbing outside a games shop in south London. Then there’s the free online Super Columbine Massacre RPG, or the controversial Japanese ‘rape simulator’ game, which was pulled by Amazon earlier this year. Imagine the Brooker-esque commentaries that could ensue.

I used to love gaming as a kid and it’s amazing how far the industry has advanced since I started playing Mario on the NES back in the early nineties. I can’t think of a more accelerated technology. It’s as if we had gone from Alexander Bell transmitting the words ‘Come here, Watson,’ to 3G mobiles in less than twenty years. From the very basic Donkey Kong and Space Invaders type arcade games we have great, lavish epics with the production values of James Cameron and the narrative complexity of the Victorian novel.

Even in those stumbling and tentative years I considered video games a valid popular art. Turning on the console brought that familiar creative feeling of stepping into another world. They’re also a perfect diversion for the child. One aspect of childhood and adolescence rarely covered by the nostalgic writers is how boring most of it is. You haven’t yet developed the aesthetic faculties to enjoy high art or long walks. You can’t get into pubs, and if you hang around on street corners there’s a risk of becoming a perpetrator or victim of crime. Even if you’re a popular kid, there are still these long evenings with nothing to do.

Zelda and Mariokart saved my evenings. The hook continued even after I got to university, where we’d have long intense Kart 64 sessions in the hall corridors after the bar had closed. My favourite games were Sim City and Grand Theft Auto – which the Guardian describes, rightly, as satire. Although I got into Vice City I always preferred the Micro Machines-style, bird’s eye and top-down view. I remember beating the floor of my front room and screaming after that fucking Krishna bus blew up just a couple of pixels away from gang HQ.

By then my social life and my passion for reading and writing had consumed my days and nights and I had to put the childish things away. Still, I retain an affection for this low and good art.

There are two basic objections to video gaming:

1) The Daily Mail position: We are all familiar with this – the violent nihilism of computer games is a direct factor in the rise of youth crime. Kids play Manhunt or GTA and then act out the carnage in real life. Plus, gaming keeps children in their homes, getting fatter and unhealthier, when they could be out bob-a-jobbing, playing rugger in two feet of mud, or crossing the Pacific on a sturdy home-made raft with a box of cucumber sandwiches and ginger beer.

2) The Independent position: This is more subtle than the Daily Mail position but has the same roots. Video gaming is a part of the growing virtual world that includes blogging, social networking and Second Life-style interactive games . This virtual world is responsible for the increasing atomisation of our society. Soon all links between people will be severed, and by the year 2109 we will be locked inside metal cubicles, living virtual reality 24/7,  getting our nutrients from drips and wires.

I think there probably is a link between violent video gaming and crime, insofar as there’s a link between violent art and crime. The gaming industry doesn’t run entirely on blood and gore – you’ve also got what my amazing friend Harris calls ‘god games’ like Civilisation and Sim; you’ve got cuddly and engrossing platform stuff like Mario (still around and still a bestseller) and also gentle, complex fantasy quests. Blame GTA for youth crime if you want, but you also have to blame Terminator, Transformers and ultimately Shakespeare and the Marquis de Sade.

Similarly, the criticisms made of virtual worlds in the Independent articles I’ve linked to could also be and have been made about television and the wireless. Nevertheless, most people will never choose virtual over actual reality because technology hasn’t found a way of meeting humanity’s physical needs within the virtual realm – food, drink, shelter, warmth and sex. Maybe future technology will find a way to meet these needs. If and when it does, many people may choose to disappear entirely – and who could blame them?

Video games are trash, but trash can be art, and gaming is good for teaching people about narrative, story values and the consequences of your actions. And sometimes escaping to new realities can be a good thing. Again from the Independent:

And in his 2007 book, Second Lives: A Journey Through Virtual Worlds, Tim Guest hung out with a group of people with disabilities near Boston. They have constructed an avatar called Wilde Cunningham, who is either a male punk or a feisty woman. Online they can walk, dance, sing and fly.

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