The Average Gamer

Event Report: What’s The Point of Videogames?

L-R: Lord David Puttnam CBE, Lucy Kellaway, Ian Livingstone OBE

Yesterday evening, a panel of media luminaries, politicians and influential gamers gathered in the BFI Southbank to discuss games. Specifically, “What’s the point of videogames?” I know, I know, it seems about as useful as the old “Are videogames art?” question but actually, some interesting points came out of the debate. The panel was set up by GameCity and chaired by Lord David Puttnam CBE, British film producer and founder of Skillset.

Representing the experienced gamers were:

  • Charlie Higson, comedian and author
  • Ian Livingstone OBE, Life President of Eidos, co-founder and author of Fighting Fantasy, co-founder of Games Workshop
  • Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman
  • Tom Watson, MP for West Bromwich East

And the non-gamers:

  • Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times management columnist
  • Ekow Eshun, broadcaster and former director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts

Perhaps the most interesting points came from self-confessed ‘games naif’, Ekow Eshun. “We’re watching this form become, not just pop culture but one of the defining aspects of our society in economic terms as well.

“That seems terribly powerful and it’s interesting that something can be so mainstream, so powerful in budget terms and yet at the same time, so cult.

“I’m really interested that we’re still in this gestation period where games are inside and outside our society. I think about the cultural implications – not what games are but what happens to everything we see around us. What happens to art, what happens to music, what happens to films? One of the primary pointers of culture right now is gaming.”

Charlie Higson, Ekow Eshun and Helen Lewis

Higson confirmed that games have influenced the way he writes his children’s novels. “I’ve had to take on board that games are incredibly alluring and they can consume your life in a very overpowering way. If you’re going to write a book for kids and say ‘Why would you want to read this book instead of play this game?’ you’ve got to give them a lot of the same thrills and kick that they would get from playing a game. Literature has always had to contend with other forms of popular entertainment.”

Kellaway asked if Higson found that this made the books better or more frustrating to write. “It’s not just about thrills every two seconds. What you’ve got to do is define how your book is different to video games, which is the fact that you can get inside people’s heads and understand characters. You can get involved emotionally in a way that you don’t really in video games. You don’t compete with games by trying to be too much like games.”

Certainly a fair point although I’d argue that some of the best games are the ones that let you be your protagonist, feeling as you would if you were thrust into that situation. Half-Life 2 does a great job of this, as did the vault missions of Fallout 3. More recently, Journey was an incredibly emotional game for me, although yes, very few games use that engagement to make a meaningful comment on society in the way that many novels do. BioShock, perhaps?

Kellaway came into the debate with a firm non-gaming stance. “As far as I’m concerned, videogames have always taken the men in my life away from me. This started when I was a student. I’d go to the pub with someone I fancied and he was much more interested in playing bloody Space Invaders on the machine and now with my sons, I never ever see them because they play video games all the time. What interests me with these things is addiction – the sheer amount of time they use up.” She went on to talk about her experience with Logos Quiz [registration required], a game that she couldn’t tear herself away from for two full days.

Lewis countered, “No one ever said ‘you’re addicted to books’. That’s the thing about games – you can only be addicted to things that are “bad” for you and are not nourishing spiritually.”

Yet most people agree that levelling up World of Warcraft can feel empty while being very compelling. Again speaking about Logos Quiz, Kellaway hit it perfectly. “There’s something so powerful about that next level which you don’t have when you’re reading Little Women.”

Lord Puttnam was also interested in the role of games in society. “Had you posed the question to anyone making movies in the first 20 years of the industry, as to what its final form would be, no one would have guessed it would be a 90 to a 100 minute narrative. I would argue that I don’t think games have yet found their form, their shape. I am somewhat disappointed that we’re still slightly floundering. We should begin to move toward some sort of shape for this art form and to see what role it’s going play societally in the future.

“It’s fun,” Livingstone added. “If you can accept fun as a good thing, why can’t we use board games as a learning tool. Why can’t education be fun? We can learn mathematics, physics, so many things not just through games-based learning but by making games.”

Later on he gave the example of SimCity. “If I was a geography teacher and I said ‘Today we’re going to learn about urban regeneration’ half the class immediately goes to sleep. But let them play SimCity and learn to do town planning and building as a contextual hub, there’s some relevance to them and they’re learning at the same time.”

A question from the floor asked about the nature of gaming as a conflict based medium and whether it alienates people. Lord Puttnam made an excellent point. “I spent my working week in parliament and you get a snapshot of a very, very complicated and somewhat dystopian society. You become very anxious. You begin to look at society as needing to make some really fundamental choices. You look at fragmentation vs cohesion, alienation vs belonging, violent simplistic solutions vs painstaking sustainable solutions. And you have to ask yourself a simple question.

“To what extent are games working towards creating a society that you actually want to live within? Or are games merely offering an escape from a society that you feel innately uncomfortable in? That is the big challenge.”

I’ve described only my personal highlights of the panel here. Plenty more was discussed and the entire event was filmed. At some point soon you may find the video up online at the GameCity website. I’ll be sure to link it if/when it goes live.

Do you think games should be helping to shape a better society? Are books necessarily less attractive than games as media? I’d love to hear your thoughts.