Charlie Brooker: How Videogames Changed the World

How Videogames Changed the World was a two hour look through the history of computer games, presented by Charlie Brooker. We recorded it from Channel 4 on Saturday and it was very much made to be aired around the release dates of PS4 & Xbox One – and Sony had definitely bought a lot of the advertising spots in the breaks! I’d not actually had high hopes going into watching it – I mean, a mainstream programme about games might miss the mark. But it was clearly not just about games, but also by gamers – all the participants “got it”.

The format was a countdown of 25 significant games – although it was almost treated like it was supposed to be a chart it was really a chronological sequence. Most of the first hour of the show was a nostalgia filled trot through my childhood, and then the second half had a lot of games J or I have bought as adults. Very much the target audience for the programme 🙂 As well as Brooker there were lots of other contributors – some games industry figures (journalists or developers) and some relatively random celebrities (most of whom I didn’t know of). Well, they had a love of games & gaming, so not entirely random, but …

As someone who has spent a lot of her life playing computer games it was nice to find few things I’d quibble at. I think the biggest hole I’d pick in the list is that it’d be nice to’ve had something from the simulation/strategy/god game niche that wasn’t just The Sims. I mean, I can see they wanted to talk about The Sims (and had stuff to say specifically about it), but nothing about Civ or Populous or Sim City and not even name checking those felt like an oversight. In general tho I agreed with their choices – they were good or iconic, or in some cases neither but perfectly illustrated the point being made.

It wasn’t just a history of how games have changed, I thought the programme did a good job of showing how they fitted into the culture around them at the time and of illustrating how they’d affected the world. There are many positive ways that games have changed things – Minecraft was one major example used here, because it’s not just a game it can be used to teach things too. And just in general games are more interactive and less passive than, for instance, TV watching. I did have issues with the dismissal of books as less immersive than games, tho 😉

They also spent a bit of time on most of the big issues around gaming and gaming culture – not just the positive aspects of gaming. Obviously they covered the moral panic over video game violence, and equally obviously as a programme by gamers it was heavily on the side of how foolish this moral panic is. But even so space was given to examples that did cross lines – because the point is not that all games are OK for everyone, it’s that demonising all games because of a few is like saying every film ever made is pornographic because filmed porn exists. Another issue discussed was the way that gaming culture can be seen as a bit of a cesspit. The two strands of that that they discussed were again the obvious ones. The treatment of women gamers and particularly women gaming journalists can be abysmal, and CoD on Xbox Live in particular is notorious for foul mouthed teenagers. This is just a vocal minority, as they said on the programme, but it can seem relentless at times and probably more so from the outside.

The last “game” on the list was Twitter, which I felt was a bit of a cop-out and didn’t (to me) actually illustrate their point very well. The point Brooker & co were trying to make was that with the rise of social media and so on more of our day to day life has been gamified. I think there is a point there, but I’m not sure for most people Twitter is that thing. All the people speaking on the programme were in some ways celebrities – in the sense that people will follow them on Twitter because of what or who they are not because of a personal connection. So they were all discussing how things like follower counts are like game scores, and projecting a persona is like having a game avatar or playing an RPG, and you craft tweets for maximum impact. And, well, I’m not sure normal people do that? Maybe everyone else does, I do barely use Twitter myself, so I could be way off base here. What did strike me is how the public in that game of Twitter are the coupons that prove you’re winning (or not) – we’re like the gold coins that Mario collects. Which didn’t seem to be the point Brooker was making, but it’s an interesting one to me.

A good programme, I thoroughly enjoyed it as a look at a culture that’s one of my own 🙂

Other TV watched this week:

The Science of Doctor Who – a lecture by Brian Cox about the physics of space time, and the Fermi paradox.

Episode 1 of Tudor Monastery Farm – part re-enactment, part documentary about what life would be like living on and running a farm in 1500.

The last episode of David Starkey’s Music and Monarchy – which covered the 19th and 20th Century.

Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Colombia (British Museum Exhibition)

One of the British Museum‘s current exhibitions is Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Colombia which runs until March. We went to see it in the afternoon before the recent British Museum Members’ Open Evening (which I wrote about here and here). The jumping off point for the exhibition is the legend of El Dorado which lured Spanish adventurers into Colombia. The way the legend is most remembered now is as telling of a city paved with gold, but the original Spanish adventurers wrote of a man or king coated in gold. From this starting point the exhibition looked at what role gold played in the civilisations of pre-Hispanic Colombia, and more generally at the rituals of these societies.

There was a certain degree of overlap between the subject of the exhibition and a TV programme we watched earlier this year – the third episode of Lost Kingdoms of South America was about Colombia and the El Dorado myth (post). Not really a surprise as the presenter of that series was Jago Cooper, who is a curator at the British Museum, although not the curator for this exhibition (who is Elisenda Vila Llonch).

The exhibition contained objects from six different cultures from the Colombia region, but I’m afraid I didn’t end up remembering which object was which specific culture. Apart from at the very start the exhibition was focussing on a higher level – the equivalent of discussing early modern Europe as a whole rather than a country in particular. Near the beginning of the exhibition they had a timeline showing the periods that the six cultures had existed – as always I’m startled by how recent they are. In part because J’s interest in ancient Egypt has pushed my concept of “ancient” back a long way, and so anything in the last millenium is “practically modern”. I shouldn’t be surprised tho, these were all cultures in existence when the Spanish came to the Americas, so obviously they must have existed in the late 1500s.

Gold wasn’t valuable in Colombia in the same way that is valuable in our culture – it wasn’t currency instead it had spiritual and symbolic importance, which varied in its details between the cultures. After setting the scene by talking about how the various objects were made the exhibition moved on to talking about how they were used and what their significance was. One culture, the Muisca, had the most obviously different attitude to their gold objects – they weren’t even what we would consider “finished”, i.e. not polished. And then generally the objects were put in significant locations like in caves or lakes. Even as recently as the 20th Century there were Westerners scheming to do things like drain the most significant of the lakes so that all the gold could be retrieved, which is somewhat saddening (it didn’t happen tho).

The other cultures did use their gold objects in ways we’d recognise – as jewellery, as decorative containers etc. One room of the exhibition looked at the jewellery and showed how it was often a status indicator. This room also talked about other status indicators in these societies – like body paint, which can convey messages about who you are in your society and what society you’re from. Another status indicator is representation of people sitting on stools – this always indicates high status.

The jewellery is very elaborate & large, and it often has little moving parts which will move around when the person wearing it moves – and reflect the sun or firelight. This ties in when use of these ornaments in religious rituals, particularly involving lime & coca leaves. The next room of the exhibition talked about these rituals, and displayed some objects associated with them. Taken together lime & coca leaves are hallucinogenic, and the exhibition had several lime containers & dipping sticks – from more basic ones to elaborate and decorative ones. The rituals also involved music, and movement – the way the jewellery the participants were wearing shimmered & jingled would’ve added to the general ambience.

The motifs chosen to decorate the jewellery and other objects also had religious significance. The next room of the exhibition had several pieces that had representations of things from the natural world. Some of these were as straightforward as a necklace made of gold beads shaped to look like jaguar claws – effectively a more high status version of a necklace of jaguar claws. Others were more symbolic – like pectorals shaped like a half-bat half-man figure. Often the belief was that the shaman wearing an item representing a particular creature would take on the essential characteristics of that creature during his hallucinogenic trance – for instance fly across the landscape with the wings of the bird figure he was wearing.

It was an interesting exhibition – but I’m aware I was missing a lot of the nuances because I know so little about the region and the peoples who lived there. If we go to the museum again before the exhibition finishes I think I’ll go through again for a second look 🙂

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 4)


In this chapter Prestwich takes a digression from his chronological trot through the Plantagenet era to look at the situation in Wales during this period. It’s very much Wales from the perspective of its interactions with England, and fits in here because Edward I conquered Wales.

He begins by setting the scene in terms of the political situation in Wales during Henry III & Edward I’s reigns in England. A key difference between the two cultures is that in England inheritance is by primogeniture, but in Wales it is not that clear cut. Which means that when there were multiple heirs (as there were in Gwynedd in 1246, for instance) the territory might be shared out between the heirs, or they might fight amongst themselves for who got the inheritance. Obviously England isn’t immune to civil war or inheritance disputes – but in Wales the tendency is for lands to fragment and be reunited only to fragment again. The early 13th Century had seen Llywelyn ap Iowerth reunite Gwynedd into a strong principality, only for it to fragment again after his heir’s death. His great-grandsons fought amongst themselves, and eventually Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was effectively in charge – with one of his brothers imprisoned, one paid off and one still free and at times plotting against him.

Another important facet of Welsh politics at the time is the Marcher Lords. These are the descendents of Norman nobility who hold lands along the border between England and Wales. I’ve always thought of them as a part of England, but this chapter made it clear that’s far too simple a picture. From the perspective of the English crown the Marcher Lords were their vassals, albeit with greater traditional liberties than other English nobles. From the perspective of the Welsh the Marcher Lords were also seen as part of the English invaders, but nonetheless there was a degree of integration between the Marcher Lords and the Welsh. More in the south than in Gwynedd to the north, but even there Llywelyn ap Iowerth married his daughters into Marcher families. However from the perspective of the Marcher Lords themselves they weren’t as firmly English as all that. Prestwich says that they saw themselves as potentially independent – that at the moment their interests aligned with the English crown (useful backup against the Welsh…) but this wouldn’t necessarily always be the case.

Prestwich says that conquest wouldn’t’ve felt inevitable to the people of the 13th Century. It would’ve seemed more plausible that the Welsh and the Marcher Lords would continue to integrate, and the sense of Wales & the Welsh as a separate entity would attenuate over time. But what actually happened was a growing sense of Welsh nationhood, which lead to a desire for recognition as independent. There were often skirmishes between the Welsh and the Marcher Lords, and whenever the English crown was having difficulties (see the bulk of Henry III’s reign) the Welsh would take advantage of it. So from the English perspective it became ever more important to get the matter of English power over Wales settled.

During Henry III’s reign raids by the Welsh on the Marches were met with shows of power by the English. A substantial English army would move some way into Wales, and a castle would be built (or planned) where they had pushed forward to. These gains stopped well short of full conquest, but they did give the English the upper hand. In 1247 the Welsh princes (including Llywelyn ap Gruffudd) acknowledged Henry III’s dominance, and submitted to the jurisdiction of the English crown. This wasn’t a long lasting situation, though – as Henry’s political difficulties increased the Welsh situation also deteriorated. He had left Edward in charge, but this appears to’ve been a mistake. And Llywelyn ap Gruffudd took full advantage of the civil war that developed after 1258, starting to call himself Prince of Wales in this year. But the English civil war also caused Llywelyn difficulties – the uncertainties of the English political situation meant he couldn’t come to a final settlement with them. A settlement was arrived at in 1267, with Llywelyn acknowledge as Prince of Wales by the English, but owing fealty to Henry III – so pseudo-independent.

After Edward succeeded to the English throne Llywelyn should’ve come to pay homage to him – but he failed to do so. This provided a formal reason for the outbreak of war, but Prestwich says that Llywelyn’s marriage to Simon de Montfort’s daughter was also a factor. The prospect of a Welsh prince who was also a de Montfort was unthinkable to Edward. The first Welsh war of his reign followed the pattern of his father’s campaigns – march an army in as a show of force, build a castle. But Edward miscalculated – the show of force wasn’t impressive enough. And the subsequent political situation was mismanaged, to a degree that united the Welsh, even Llywelyn and his brothers. The rhetoric of the dispute was focussed on the law – the Welsh wanted their own traditional Welsh laws, not the ones harshly imposed by Edward I.

The last conflict started in 1282, kicked off by one of Llywelyn’s brothers. Prestwich suggests that Llywelyn would’ve preferred not to start anything at this point, but the choice he now had was to fight with the English against his brother (unthinkable) or fight alongside his brother. Neither side was interested in compromise. Edward wanted the Welsh to submit to his authority unconditionally, and Llywelyn wanted to be recognised as an independent Prince of Wales. The turning point of the war came in late 1282 when Llywelyn was lured out of Snowdonia, perhaps by false suggestions of an alliance with the Mortimers (or by betrayal by some of his own men). His force met the English in battle at the river Irfon, and Llywelyn was killed. His brother Dafydd, now Prince of Wales as Llyweln had no male children, continued the war but Edward pushed on and it was all over but the mopping up. In June 1283 Dafydd was captured and the conquest was over.

There were still rebellions after this, and in particular the rebellion of 1294-5 required significant effort by the English to put down. But what was notable after this was that not all the Welsh were against the English crown. The country didn’t fully integrate into England, and the Welsh retained their own culture. The law codes of the two countries remained different in some respects, but criminal law was brought into line with England and the shire system of England was extended into Wales.

Prestwich also looks at what happened to the English army during these campaigns. One of the reasons for Edward’s success was that he brought a lot of resources to bear on the problem. He recruited sufficient men – not just via the feudal system, but also paid soldiers. And he provisioned and armed them properly, allowing him to keep the army in the field for longer. But Prestwich is keen not to overstate the innovations that Edward brought to the army – he says that the changes were quantitative rather than qualitative, and there’s no particular indication of novel tactics or organisation. Rather it’s that Edward’s logistics were what made the difference – his army was well fed, and supported, even when deep in Welsh territory.