Frozen Screen: Why Are Progressives So Reluctant to Engage With Gaming?

by Simon Saunders

24 March 2017

There is a quite astonishing linguistic, cultural and technological divide in how different sections of British society consume culture in modern-day Britain, and it started with the release of the Commodore 64 in 1982.

For adults of the time the C64, a genuine personal computer, was intensely exciting technology — the first bit of kit that could be afforded by a broad swathe of the population, the first time people could begin to code their own programmes, the opening of the door to everything we know today as modern technology.

At the time I was one year old, and I am, as near as it gets, among the oldest of those who grew up with home computers and games as an unquestioned, normal part of life — I don’t remember a time without them. An early, vivid memory is of playing Lunar Lander aged five and furiously shouting as my 25-odd pixel ‘spaceship’ crashed yet again.

In a society where, as with film, our biggest games are all variations on a franchise number, I learned what an ICBM was from playing Civilization, problem-solving skills from Lemmings, old sci-fi tropes from UFO: Enemy Unknown. From day one, my chubby kiddie digits were learning the language of games, in a different way from earlier generations who had to go out and find an arcade as teenagers, and wait their turn on a hulking machine taller than they were.

A little under 30 years later, I watched Charlie Brooker trying to explain to Jon Snow, then aged 66 and possibly the best-known name in British newscasting, how to make Hulk Smash in a kiddie’s game — and utterly failing.

The scene is like pulling teeth. As a gamer, it’s one of the most cringey pieces of live telly you can watch. But it’s also one of the most instructive examples of the generational division in gaming you are likely to find. Brooker would have been 18 when the first home systems came out, quick to embrace the new fad as a young adult. Snow was 46, already mid-career. Brooker himself is now 46 – Snow, 69 – but they live in different realities.

Snow does not play vidya. He doesn’t understand it, he doesn’t really want to. It’s written all over him. “This is violent,” he says as a lego character acts out cartoonised scenes from PG-13 movie The Avengers, wilfully refusing to abandon his vision of gaming as a vicious exercise in turning young minds into dissolute puddings bent only on Make Social Destroy.

Brooker, like a scientist trying to explain climate change to a US senator, stifles his screams of frustration and keeps trying on different explanations in the hope that one will stick. But it’s clear this is a losing exercise and by the end all that’s achieved is a cultural detente, with Snow tacitly accepting there might be interesting games out there, but clearly not at all enthused about playing them.

I’m juxtaposing these three experiences – mine, Brooker’s and Snow’s – to illustrate a point about the grinding crush of generational time against the entry of gaming into mainstream discourse, how it’s warping and undermining our engagement with one of the most powerful cultural forces in today’s world.

Brooker’s late-teen exploration underlies the enthusiasm of an early adopter, evangelical and self-conscious. He sits just on the edge of a chasm of non-understanding with Snow, a kid who could work the VCR but was barely acceptably nerdy. And I have the acceptance of the lifelong, only directly relating to Snow’s discomfort through the similar bafflement of my parents.

This year, gaming will be the single largest element in what capitalists love to call the ‘creative industries’ worldwide. Already the particularly popular game League of Legends has a monthly player base of 67m people. In less than four months last year it garnered a bigger audience than Gone With The Wind. Every 15 days more people play LoL than watched England beat West Germany in 1966. In 2015, research from the Interactive Software Federation of Europe estimated a total British gaming audience across all platforms of 18.8m people.

But that astonishing level of popular interest is highly concentrated. In the 11 to 14 year old bracket, a full 77% of all schoolkids play computer games, compared to 56% who play football, and demographically play continues for the majority until they reach their mid-30s, dropping as people get partners and homes and career pressures to around 36% of the public. After the age of 45 however the numbers suddenly drop off a cliff, with only 20% of people gaming and a steep decline into old age. And that 45+ cohort makes up 49.4% of the population of Britain. It disproportionately controls all major traditional media sources, most of the national assets, parliament, capital investment, and even tech and gaming companies themselves through major investment firms.

The thick layer of distrust Jon Snow exhibits is magnified through such lenses into a sense of general illegitimacy which afflicts all understanding of gaming culture and the people who play, both for them and the young. For Snow, there is no understanding of the differences between the ultra-violence of Doom, the municipal simulations of Cities: Skylines, the puzzle solving of Portal, or the deep strategy and story-generation of Crusader Kings. The draw of massively-multiplayer communities in Eve Online is as alien as indie outriders such as Dwarf Fortress, all mashed together into an incomprehensible mass known as Video Games.

This simplistic vision and tacit rejection of gaming as a cultural phenomenon infects the way the younger generation thinks about gaming as well, elevating more traditional pastimes such as sports, movies and music to adulthood with extensive general media coverage but leaving gaming to produce its own, no more than an oversized hobby. And so whenever programmes on gaming are produced for the likes of the BBC, a linking thread of introductory rhetoric declares it ‘legitimate’ before, during and after – a clunky plea for attention and validation from the cultural nouveau riche.

But such timid cries and thinly-veiled contemptuous rejections obscure reality, persuading my generation that gaming is not really IRL, not really to be taken seriously, to be critiqued or pressured or treated with the rigour allotted to Hollywood’s offerings, to sport or pop. And it has been a failing on our part, for the left which has grown up with games as part and parcel of our lives. Our own contribution to media has fallen into the trap of finding importance where we are told it lies, rather than where it is. The far right has been more enthusiastic, and frequently far more successful, in colonising the forums of this vast virtual realm.

But there is no need for this to be so. The left has always built games and realms, from the trenchant social critique of Monopoly to Alice Decker-Ho and Guy Debord’s Game of War. At its best, the left critiques what is in society – our lived realities and unrealities. And video gaming is, for millions, both.


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