Opinion: Playing dumb

Opinion: Playing dumb

One thing nearly everyone agreed on about the British riots of last year, ?from sheen-jowled dead-eyed marionette David Cameron downwards, ?was that they were ‘mindless’. That would ?have come as news to the people carefully targeting branches of Game, while not, as ?far as I know, hurrying to loot shops that ?sold wool or buttons. The riots were perfectly mindful; just in a depressing way. There was nothing countercultural about them; instead, people broke into shops and nicked smartphones. Far from being anticapitalist, ?like the G20 protests of 2009, the riots demonstrated the enduring victory of advertising and consumerism. The desires ?the rioters expressed were just those desires implanted and conditioned by the commercial system. They were on the wrong side of the law, but in their thieving (and subsequent ?eBay fencing), they were acting as good little entrepreneurs should.

To call people ‘mindless’ is to dehumanise them: to turn them into animals – or, of course, zombies. And this is where I believe ?we can wholeheartedly blame videogames ?for the riots. Not in the simplistic way the media toyed with doing, as for instance when the London Evening Standard shrieked: ‘CHILDREN AS YOUNG AS TEN, INSPIRED BY VIDEO GAME, AMONG THE LOOTERS’. A policeman ‘quoted’ by the Daily Mirror, meanwhile, was alleged to have muttered: “When I was young it was all Pac-Man and board games. Now they’re playing Grand Theft Auto and want to live it for themselves.” Ah yes, Grand Theft Auto: a game that no self-respecting teen has likely been playing for years. The possibly made-up policeman, moreover, had obviously not realised that ?Pac-Man is itself an incitement to looting, ?as you race around the maze (of shop ?aisles) eating dots (lifting CDs) while ?avoiding the ghosts (coppers), and then turning the tables by attacking the ghosts (coppers) once you have eaten an energy pill (prepared your Molotov cocktail for throwing).

No, videogames were to blame for the riots in a more subtle and insidious way. Take the case of the 31-year-old schoolteacher who pled guilty ?in Croydon magistrate’s court ?to looting from Richer Sounds. This is a person who is not only supposed to set a ?good example to children, by virtue of being ?a professional adult, but actually educates children himself. What could possibly have been going through his mind when he committed his crime? What could have overridden any innate sense of ethics, or at least reasonable fear that being caught might destroy his life as he knew it? I’ll tell you what he must have been thinking: ‘Oh, the zombie apocalypse has started! Nothing will ever be the same again now. Might as well loot a DVD player so I can lock myself in watching movies until the undead hordes come for me’.

And that is why videogames are to blame. They have conditioned us, over the years, to assume that as soon as anything that looks like it might be a zombie apocalypse kicks off, that is the end of life as we know it, for ever. How many zombie games do you know of that end with the defeat or cure of the shambling rotters and a return to civilised suburban life? But that, in reality, is what happens, even after the worst depredations wrought by history’s worst people. (The handwritten notice on a Manchester shop door, blaming its early closing on ‘the imminent collapse of society’, was a nicely ironic acknowledgment of this.)

Videogames represent many things well (aliens collapsing in showers of gore), and other things hardly at all (the resilience of social systems). This is what games are teaching our kids: that anarchic chaos is never-ending. Amusingly, many of the looters stole videogames that were going to teach them the same thing all over again, if they ?ever got the chance to play them before going to prison.

Writing about the riots quickly became its own kind of massively multiplayer ‘interactive fiction’ event, with journalists swapping nano-ideas on Twitter before proudly linking to their columns in which they vied to blame the ConDem budget cuts, or (in the case of the satirical personage known as ‘Melanie Phillips’) ‘political correctness’, or to denounce the process of blaming anything at all, et cetera. A lot of this was no less ‘mindless’ than its subject allegedly was, but the special mindlessness of the complacent, middle-class media is a thing to be treasured, unlike its supposed counterpart in the hooded ‘underclass’.

The night before composing the analytical shoebomb you are reading, I played Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon, and its allegory of modern social anxieties was disturbingly obvious: the giant insects represented immigrants and looters (‘ravagers’, indeed), while my turrets and lasers were barely disguised water cannon and rubber bullets, of the kind the e-petitioning members? of our population so devoutly wish should be turned on their fellow citizens. Sadly, I was unable to finish the game before deadline, so I am unable to report on whether everything goes back to normal at the end.

Illustration: Martin Davies