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