Post­cards From The Clip­ping Plane

Con­ve­niently ig­nor­ing the se­ri­ous side of videogame de­vel­op­ment


James Leach reveals his weekly sur­veil­lance mis­sions in Wilt­shire

I’ve just re­alised I carry around a per­ma­nent, if low-level sense of an­noy­ance that games are still not uni­ver­sally per­ceived as part of our cul­ture. Of course, you know that, and are ma­ture enough to not be ir­ri­tated by it, but have you ever con­sid­ered why, af­ter 30 years of as­ton­ish­ing game evo­lu­tion, there is still an over­pow­er­ing them-and-us el­e­ment? I just have, and I reckon it’s partly this: there’s the age thing. Few peo­ple over 55 reg­u­larly play any­thing more than the odd phone app. That’s OK. I don’t read Vic­to­rian fic­tion. But I know some­thing about it in a way that if you don’t play games, you can’t. If some­one calls some­thing Dick­en­sian, I have a great idea of what they mean, even though, pos­si­bly to my shame, I’ve read very lit­tle Dick­ens. But de­scribe some­thing in the real world as

Skyrim- es­que and un­less you know Skyrim well, you haven’t got a clue. I mean, it re­ally is shame­ful not to know some­thing about Dick­ens, so we all sort of do. We’d be looked down on if we didn’t. But no one pities your shock­ingly in­com­plete ed­u­ca­tion if you don’t know Oca­rina Of Time and are there­fore un­able to use it as a fit­ting me­taphor. Yep, games are still just too niche to be part of our shared ex­is­tence, and I think it’d be lovely if, over time, that ceased to be the case.

I re­cently re­ceived an email from a game site, pos­ing some in­ter­view-style ques­tions. They asked me which games had ac­tu­ally taught me some­thing about the world. I was rather down on this idea be­cause I’ve al­ways sub­scribed to the no­tion that if you stay in and play games, you learn pre­cisely noth­ing about life. So I told them to bug­ger off.

But since then I’ve had a change of heart. Games might not be part of the main­stream. They might not be Charles Dick­ens’ Ori­gin Of Species or what­ever, but there is a wealth of wis­dom in them. We can all learn and grow as we play. For ex­am­ple, dur­ing the years we spent de­vel­op­ing Black & White, it’s fair to say that as a com­pany of about 40 em­ploy­ees, we were able to cast aside the nar­row-minded con­cepts of good and evil. In­stead we lived by the code of cause and ef­fect. And re­venge. It was a lib­er­at­ing time, and, thanks to the en­tirely an­ti­so­cial hours we were work­ing, the only peo­ple who truly suf­fered were the Domino’s de­liv­ery guys.

Just play­ing games, as op­posed to writ­ing them, is also a mind-ex­pand­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Civ­i­liza­tion alone has taught me that it’s OK to use nu­clear weaponry on your neigh­bours, at least once, sim­ply to see what would hap­pen. And, stay­ing with the idea of armed con­flict, it was an eye-opener to re­alise that if you fire enough ar­rows at a cas­tle, it will even­tu­ally van­ish into rub­ble. This flash of in­spi­ra­tion ex­plains why Bri­tain, which must have been cov­ered in mil­lions of cas­tles dur­ing the mid­dle ages, now only has a few dozen. Age

Of Em­pires has made me an ex­pert in his­tory, and I’m grate­ful and newly en­light­ened.

Fur­ther­more, I’ve learned every­thing I need to about pro­duc­tiv­ity from the XCOM games. It’s a life-changer when you twig that you should never work hard: save half your en­ergy ev­ery turn, or what I call ev­ery day of your life, in case some alien comes round a cor­ner un­ex­pect­edly. You need the re­serves to re­act and kill them. Ob­vi­ously in the real world there won’t be aliens. I’m re­fer­ring to clients, your col­leagues, and of course the po­lice.

And what about the fog of war? With to­day’s tele­vi­sions and the web, it’s easy to think we know what’s go­ing on in the next set­tle­ment. Do we, though? Or are we sim­ply see­ing a snap­shot in time of what it was like when we were last there? I re­cently went to Warmin­ster and my no­tion of the place is that it’s a quiet Wilt­shire town with a largely empty army bar­racks. That, though, is what it was like at Christ­mas. I now de­vote a day a week to climb­ing a hill nearby and view­ing it through a sniper scope. It’s as­ton­ish­ing how it changes in be­tween th­ese ob­ser­va­tions. Ev­ery time I re­fresh my view this way, there are more ‘char­ity’ shops there, and the army is now build­ing an omi­nous pres­ence. Also, the hill I climb, sniper ri­fle slung on my back, was once filled with dog walk­ers. Now it’s de­serted. I sense a rolling metal storm com­ing my way.

Yes, games can teach us bet­ter ways to be. We should em­brace them and weave them into the souls of the pop­u­la­tion. If you’re still not con­vinced, play GTA all day, then drive your car in the real world. The peo­ple you won’t crash into will also be driv­ing on the right-hand side of the road. Th­ese peo­ple have also been play­ing GTA all day. Stop, drag them from their ve­hi­cles, and make them your friends at gun­point. Only this way will we spread the word, one street at a time.

Civ­i­liza­tion taught me that it’s OK to use nu­clear weaponry on your neigh­bours, sim­ply to see what would hap­pen

James Leach is a BAFTA Award-win­ning free­lance writer whose work fea­tures in games and on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio

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