The GameCity prize for 2013 has gone to SpaceTeam, a smartphone title described by its creators as, "a co-operative shouting game."
It was shortlisted against mainstream hits Fifa 14, The Last of Us and XCOM, as well as indie favourites Faster Than Light and Thomas Was Alone. And a daft and amusing game which involves yelling jargon at other participants in order to save a malfunctioning space ship won out against them all.
This is pretty much why the GameCity prize is important. While other annual video game accolades are handed out by game reviewers or dedicated game players, the GameCity festival decides its prize by calling in a panel of judges from outside the industry – most of whom never play games. They have a totally different slant on the mechanics of fun, and on what games should do.
I know this because I interviewed three of the judges after the extremely heated two-hour discussion that led to the winning decision. The session took place in one of the conference rooms at the Guardian office – a room that has probably seen its fair share of passionately voiced disagreements. And pretty soon into the evening, a gigantic fissure opened up between two sides of the gaming debate. In one corner was teacher and author, Phil Beadle, an expert in reaching out to school kids in working class areas; in the other were prof Uta Frith, a development psychologist at UCL, and Samira Ahmed, a journalist and broadcaster. None of them gamers, really, but the three of them opposed on the value of the medium.
The politics of gaming
Beadle hates games, it's pretty fair to say that. When I ask him why he decided to be on the panel, he squirms in his chair. "I did it as a favour to a mate," he says. "I know Iain Simons' [the GameCity director's] wife. I'm a school teacher by trade; I see how the mismanagement of games by parents has cut a swath through the educational possibilities among working class youths. I have a very visceral reaction to video games and I wanted to examine how much of that was my own bigotry. I have a political perspective, I see video games in the same way as I see football and religion – just a means to keep the working classes stupid and busy doing something of no intellectual value. They have a very corrosive political function."
It's just about the most fundamental rejection of games I have ever encountered in anyone prepared to consider them. Beadle talked about going into schools and seeing boys asleep at their desks; boys who – he said – had been playing games until the early hours of the morning. "I don't think games are intrinsically bad," he concedes at one point. "But in certain communities, the use of them is completely unregulated. The negative impact they have is more to do with laissez faire parenting than it is to do with any intrinsic morality in the games. But anyone outside of the education system is blind to the corrosive effect they are having."
I hadn't expected this. Beadle was the first judge to emerge from the discussion. I wondered what other deeply held belliefs were being voiced in there. I wondered if games were getting a pummeling. But they weren't.
Frith knows about games from her sons. They are grown up now and in serious academic careers, but they once programmed their own projects on an old Acorn Electron. "I was astounded by these games," she says. "They are a real part of our culture. I know nothing about them and that's wrong. I wanted to know what I was missing. I don't think I will become a gamer – with one exception. SpaceTeam was the one game that I could play without any practice, that I could join in with others and have fun with instantly."
On her side, to some extent, was Ahmed, whose key experience with games so far was one time she played Mortal Kombat for 11 hours on a flight from London to LA. "SpaceTeam has something very important," she says. "It has charm." Uta cuts in, "Yes, and I found another game very charming – Thomas Was Alone. It's so sweet, so simple. But with that one, I felt I could never play at any competent level. I couldn't make him jump successfully."
This brings us to a point that keeps coming up in our chat after the judging session: the exclusivity of games; their esoteric nature. Their shared language of input, sign and meaning. And how do you get past that?
Time and meaning
For Ahmed there was another important consideration – she thought a lot about, "the best use of time": did the games offer anything that would seem to her to be "better" than reading a book. "I liked SpaceTeam because it was something people could just do together - to have fun, to unwind," she says. "Like Twister. But less sexual."
I told them both about games like Papers, Please and Gone Home – games that aren't necessarily about fun, but have things to say, that can engage in the same way as literature does. "Games that try to bring in emotional engagement are interesting, because I sometimes wonder, should they bother?" says Ahmed. "In a way, one of the games that did it well without trying too hard was Faster Than Light, which to me, brought out the best aspects of the games I used to play as a child, where you fantasised about a sci-fi programme and you built your own space ship and imagined being in control of that world. And in FTL, you have that sense of being in the ship and taking ethical responsibility for your crew. That's lovely. It's important for young people to develop a sense of control over the world, because so much of their lives is out of control. It didn't pretend to be more than it was; it didn't go out to generate emotional engagement."
The jury didn't like Fifa. Ahmed couldn't see the point of it, couldn't understand why people would want to simulate the sport in such detail, when the real thing is so readily available, either via 24-hour TV coverage or just outside in the street or park. "I'd like to see a swimming game," she says. "It's deceptively simple, but I see the scope in a game that's about managing strokes, the angle, the dynamics, and just going up and down!"
The Last of Us was divisive. "I was quite disappointed by this," says Ahmed. "Ever since Red Dead Redemption, I'd got this sense that there had been this huge advance in the quality of narrative, but actually it's not the case. The characters are formulaic... I suppose the thing about it is, if you love those great seventies distopian sci-fi thrillers, this game puts you in that world. It's like being Charlton Heston in the Omega Man and that's no bad thing. But I would rather watch Charlton Heston." I try to point out that it exhibits a progression in game stories, from basic fairy tales to something that explores parental relationships. But I don't get far.
"What annoyed me is, you start off as a girl exploring a house, and it's brilliant, it's very chilling," says Ahmed. "But then later I'm thinking, why isn't the 14-year-old girl the lead protagonist of this story? Probably for all kinds of boring commercial reasons. No one is making those creative decisions. Look at Buffy, look at The Hunger Games – the interesting thing about the latter is that it's incredibly critical of turning everything into a tournament of death. Katniss has a real investment, she has flashbacks to the horrors of what she has done. Could that work in games? Also I want to see Jane Eyre: the video game."
We talk about the conventions of games, and how they are defined and constrained by them. We compare the arcane language of games to how the conventions of cinema had to emerge over many years – spectators had to learn them gradually on a more or less societal level. But society hasn't yet learned the culture and semiotics of games to the same extent. And actually neither have developers. Everyone is still feeling their way. But I ask Frith, as a neuroscientist, if games have any professional interest to her. "Yes, definitely," she says. "Especially the promise they hold for education. Because clearly they tell us what people will do for a long time, what motivates them. People are now required to live their lives in what is a very complex society – if they can be motivated to learn things in the way that games motivate them, learning of everything may become very easy. That is extremely interesting."
I ask Beadle if he sees any way to harness the love of games that his pupils have shown – after all, he has in the past used football to teach grammar. Can games not be exploited for educational purposes? He sighs deeply. "If you had an educational game that exhibited the amount of creativity and intelligence that you see in The Last of Us, you would probably get buy-in from the kids. But to construct a narrative experience that detailed and engaging is a multimillion dollar operation. The use of games educationally is done on a much more tin pot basis and is done by people who want to make a fast buck, who don't necessarily have the talent. What we get from the ICT lobby within education is badly designed stuff that teaches you nothing. It would be fascinating to have a narrative constructed with that degree of creativity and intelligence for educational purposes. But I guess the dollars wouldn't add up."
Ahmed seems caught in the middle, between Frith's excitement about the potential of games and Beadle's dogged resistance. "If you compare gaming to alcohol, I think perhaps there's a difference between a connoisseur's appreciation of games, like sipping a fine malt, which is essentially what we're doing here, and binge-drinking because you're a teenager in an environment where, if you're not doing it, you feel left out. I don't think we can ignore the fact that it's about time - how much of your day are you spending on games? What else could you be doing?"
Reading vs gaming
I sense in Ahmed a very familiar standpoint – that it would be conclusively better to read a book, any book, than play a game. So I ask her, would you rather a child read a Jackie Collins novel than play, say, Thomas Was Alone? "No!" shouts Frith, immediately. "No, I'd rather they play something like Journey than read something like Jackie Collins," agrees Ahmed. Ah good, I respond, so we're out of this territory where all games are inferior to all literature? "The idea that any book is better than any game is not what we're saying," continues Ahmed. "But on the whole, the concentration required to read a book is important - we underestimate, especially with school-age children, the rapidity at which their attention spans are being altered by television and games. Look, I used to program my own games, you had to when home computers first arrived. We have to understand why things are different for young children."
Frith counters. "But we have to be careful with this assumption about games and attention span," she says. "There is research that indicates attention span actually increases with gaming. And you could actually ask, well, is it a good thing to have a long attention span? Well, it depends on whether you live in a very fast-moving environment, and on whether you have to make lots of quick decisions…" And this is another important point; the whole idea about children no longer memorising facts because they have the internet to hand. Is that bad? Or is it just the human brain adapting to the resources available?
What came out the the judging process, from all the participants I spoke to, was a greater awareness of games, and the variety of experiences they offer. There were concerns about how much young people play them, and there was a sense that games still exclude those who don't know the conventions and traditions of the medium. But there was also an acceptance that these are things we should all understand. Because games aren't going anywhere.
Frith was the most positive advocate, perhaps, and she told me how she had seen games help autistic children – I have seen that myself of course. But she also saw in video games a wider truth, that is often overlooked or casually downplayed. "Human beings play, they have always played," she says. "People worry, is it a waste of time? Or they say it's okay for children but not for adults. Actually though, there are many indications that it is a really wonderful thing to do – especially when we're adults. These video games are new, what do they do for this love of play? There are problems that we need to discuss, but I can see that it is very creative. Not all video games are the same. It was wonderful for me to experience this world."
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image: © Seth Werkheiser