The battle lines are drawn. The opponents are stripped to the waist. In one corner we have Labour MP and long-term anti-videogame campaigner Keith Vaz, while in the other lurks Labour MP and recent pro-videogame spokesperson Tom Watson.
With the release of Modern Warfare 2 sparking parliamentary debate when Keith Vaz condemned the game as “brutal”, Tom Watson started up a Facebook pressure group called Gamers’ Voice, asking, “Are you sick of UK newspapers and (my fellow) politicians beating up on gaming? So am I.”
While the Facebook group has managed to enlist 14,000 members and counting, Keith Vaz has since hit out at games again, suggesting on a radio debate that video games should carry the sort of warnings found on cigarette packets. “What it should be is the same as cigarettes – it should be splashed across the front: ‘This has the potential to damage your health’ – and that is not happening,” he said.
As Tom Watson has said elsewhere, “Everything that comes out of Parliament in relation to video games is relentlessly negative,” and it’s not hard to see why.
It’s the apparent anarchy in headline-grabbing games that makes most MPs feel on edge. For them, video games are mysterious glorifiers of chaos, full of fighting, shooting, driving fast and social disruption. What MPs want is order – always order – calm and civil obedience. The games that are not glorifiers of chaos – the Braids, Flowers and Pikmins of this world – rarely draw attention to themselves, so politicians have a hopelessly distorted view of what gaming actually represents.
MPs are also out of touch with videogames because they have such a vague comprehension of banal, work-a-day reality. Keith Vaz regularly bangs on about the brutality of games like Modern Warfare 2 because he almost certainly hasn’t experienced the brutality of a soul-destroying nine-to-five job. Get him working in a supermarket or warehouse for a few months, and I guarantee the pleasures offered by the average FPS will take on an entirely different appeal; there’s nothing like blasting away the frustrations of the daily grind with a few dozen well-aimed headshots, after all.
But despite the efforts of Tom Watson, it’s hard to imagine many current front bench MPs even playing a videogame. Their public personas are so shrink-wrapped, so carefully managed, that when a politician does engage in a pastime we mortals enjoy, the result is often bewildering in the extreme. Witness the old news footage of Tony Blair playing the guitar, or heading a football, for example.
Broadly speaking, MPs are so removed from us that even these carefully managed PR stunts come across as more surreal and awkward than they’re surely intended, like spotting your nan dancing in a nightclub cage.
There doubtless exists in the corridors of power certain members who have played a videogame at some point in their lives, however – a furtive little go on a Nintendo Game & Watch behind the school bike sheds perhaps, or a sly game of Donkey Kong at a student party – and if pressed they may even admit to the fact, though, of course, they’d flatly deny that they’d ever enjoyed the experience.
Perhaps MPs would find the videogames easier to champion if their values were reflected in a game of their own; maybe all that’s needed is a government-themed video game to get the politicos on side.
What’s required is a GTA for the governing classes – a Grand Theft Eton, if you will. A new kind of sandbox adventure starring a fresh-faced graduate straight out of Cambridge University, a young firebrand who, beginning as an unpaid intern, steadily works his way up the ranks of power, writing off second homes on expenses, purchasing dog kennels with tax payers’ money, making promises he doesn’t intend to keep in otherwise rousing speeches, kissing babies, waving from air-conditioned coaches and finally attaining the post of Prime Minister.
There could be mini-games: champagne receptions with bankers, dodgy deals with building firms, spin doctoring, croquet, lawn tennis, polo, Pimm’s with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
I’m joking, of course. This concept is hideously reductive and stereotypical, and in no way reflects the real political landscape of hard-working public servants from all walks of life – it’s merely a ‘thought experiment’, as Martin Amis might put it.
At the same time, the negative image of videogames held by certain members of parliament is, in its own way, hideously reductive and stereotypical, and certainly doesn’t reflect videogames as they actually are. Some are, indeed, violent and certainly not for children, but neither are they a fatally addictive vice like cigarettes.
Yesterday, Gamers’ Voice mentioned on Twitter that videogame music composer Tommy Tallarico has predicted that “In the next 10-20 years we’ll have a PM who grew up playing video games.”
Who knows, maybe our future Prime Minister really is sitting in front of a television somewhere, playing his own Grand Theft Eton…
Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.