Wednesday, 19 December 2012

War, Games and Wargames

First of all, I love videogames. I'm not some old bastard who thinks children should be sent outside on a sunny day with a stick and a hoop because it was enough for me when I was a kid. It wasn't.

I have been addicted to videogames with varying degrees of obsession since I was old enough to see the screen of the machines on the seaside pier. I'm old enough that when I was young, it was the only place to see them. They were far and away my favourite part of the holiday. I was never the sort to get that excited about hunting crabs in rock pools or riding donkeys or seeing Madame Rosa, such a powerful mistress of her own destiny that she's reduced to telling others about theirs, at a fiver a throw, from the wooden stall between the candy floss and the jellied eels.

No, I just liked the fact that this was something I felt part of. No longer was I limited to shouting at the screen when the hero did something stupid, like in all those films I used to like. Now I was the hero. I had some say in the matter. I felt empowered. I hadn't felt lacking power before: this wasn't some deep psychological need to feel in control of some aspect of my life, even if it was just a tiny block of pixels on a tiny screen. This was about the story. I've always loved stories too. For the first time, I was able to write my own story, on-screen. Maybe it was the story of the ham-fisted redhead who got wiped out by the evil Galaxian empire, but so what? It was my 10p and I'll tell whatever damned story I want. I have choice.

Now, though, I'm not sure the same choices apply. Sure, the games are absolutely fantastic. They really are. High gloss, with Hollywood production values and stories, music and voiceovers by Oscar winners... they can spend years on a title. Tens of millions of dollars. This isn't the industry that gave us Manic Miner anymore, where one teenager (a very manic minor) spent six weeks in his bedroom with his Spectrum and came out with the best selling game for years. This is a very different industry indeed.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist, so I'm going to start this with a big 'what if'. What if you were the government of a militaristic country that had loads of ambitious plans for invading lots of smaller countries, countries that may arguably have been equally militaristic but were way too small to be a conceivable threat? What if you had a lot of high tech military hardware that was the result of having your military spending more than the next 23 countries combined? What if a whole generation of young men were addicted to videogames, often involving war and shooting stuff? And what if the people who made these games wanted you to help them make them more realistic?

Now, let's say you wanted to cut down on training costs for your army. Would you not get your new games developer mates to change a little of the game? Perhaps hammer home the fact that North Korea were the bad guy, or Afghanistan, or whatever else? Would you not use Xbox controllers to control the real aerial drones in Afghanistan, because your recruits already know how to use them? Ensure that as much of the Army, Navy or Air Force training required was done as part of the game? Gun and plane recognition, map reading, spatial awareness, jargon, squad tactics, urban guerilla techniques, familiarity with a country, some local words... these could all be learnt on an Xbox, and the recruit pays for it themselves. It's a win-win.

The Scouts were originally conceived as a way of preparing boys for life in the forces. The Empire required a constant source of new soldiers to put down mutinies from those pesky ungrateful colonial types, who inexplicably resented all these strange white faces that were just trying to civilise them with things like smallpox, opium and Christianity. Preparing Englishmen from childhood to wearing uniform, taking orders, learning a few survival skills and pledging loyalty to God and the Queen was a good way of cutting down the training process.

It just strikes me that we are doing a similar thing with videogames. Or at least we have the potential to. Here is something that kids of an impressionable age will be spending hundreds of hours on. God knows I did. I had to retake my Chemistry 'O' level because of Jet Set Willy, which was much more interesting than the periodic table. That was over 25 years ago now, and I can still remember so much about it. About all those games. Had I spent that period of my life playing games that suggested everyone with a turban was a bad guy who should be shot, who knows what my world view would be like now? As it is, I live in perpetual fear of cleaning up after a party, which is what Jet Set Willy was all about.

If kids of an impressionable age are spending vast amounts of time on something, it's going to leave an impression, possibly one more troubling than getting the theme tune stuck in their head. Some fairly important people are worried about this. The president of Venezuela believed Mercenaries 2, which was set in his country, was so designed to get the American public supporting an invasion because they would be used to thinking of the Venezuelans as the enemy. In fairness, the Americans were greedy, stupid and oil-obsessed in the game and there was no real good or bad guy. Such things do not concern mercenaries. But he saw the potential for the influence to be misused and so do I.

Maybe there should be a 'manipulative political content' rating on games as well as the ones for the violence and swearing. It's far more dangerous because you don't even know it's there.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The Write Job Might Not Be Performing

I had to write an essay at music college on the changes to the music industry. At the time, I dealt mainly with the market for recorded music: how record shops were going to the wall because of format changes, how seeing their distribution medium for music change from atoms to bits had enabled piracy on an industrial scale and how the only future for actual records would be for obsessive audiophiles that either thought the warmth of vinyl was better than the convenience of MP3s or for those who wanted music so obscure it had never been digitised. Maybe there's a version of Basin Street Blues by The Blind Presidents where Sweet Huey Desmond does this wild clarinet solo or something, but it was on an independent label in New Orleans and there were only a few copies. There will always be completists. I've met Dylan fans over the years who have literally thousands of his live recordings, because His Bobness has a habit of rewriting his songs while performing them and it's never the same thing twice.

But even since I was at college (and that was only about five years ago), the industry has changed. I saw an interesting graph recently. It showed that in the 70s, the typical working band would make 90% of its income from sales and 10% from touring. The gigs were basically an advert for the album. Now, those figures are reversed. Bands like The Rolling Stones make far more from ticket sales, T-shirts, etc, than they do from selling CDs. If it's sold as bits, if it can be digitised, it will be on Pirate Bay the day it's released. The main function of the recordings is now to encourage people to come to the gigs, and while there, buy some tat. Perhaps a patch of a mouth with a tongue sticking out that can be sewn onto a backpack or something. A baseball cap. A belt buckle, with some bands. I saw a Family Guy recently where Chris said 'belt buckles are a great way to express opinions'. He may be right.

But I don't think it's right that bands can only be successful if they play live. The Beatles gave it up in 1966 and did all their best work afterwards. Many great albums used studio tricks that could not have been replicated live at the time, and that even now, would usually require a very formalised timing that allows little in the way of improvisation or rediscovery. I've seen Floyd live a dozen times but they are always stadium rock gigs with a cast of thousands and everyone is keeping time to a click track. I've always had a great time, but it would have been nice to see them at Middle Earth in the 60s where everything was made up on the spot and they could just work off of each other. I don't want to see them recreating the album when I see them live: I want to see great artists in the act of creating something. I want to see improvised sections, something new, something other than what I could get from the album. I could have stayed at home and got that. I could have avoided the crowds, the larcenous prices, the rail replacement buses and the frantic rush from Wembley to Paddington late at night, wishing they hadn't left Comfortably Numb for the encore because you couldn't possibly leave without hearing that and now you might have to spend the night on the pavement. To be fair, it would have been worth it too. Great song and awesome live. But I digress.

Having a situation where the role of the album is to advertise the tour is bad for music, because it encourages bands to just do live what they did on the album, which means they will only do on the album what they can do live. And there are many musicians (like me) who hate the performing side but love the writing and recording. What are we to do? There are two types of bands: they do covers or they do originals. If they do covers, they are not going to want to do my songs. And if they do originals, it will be because they want to do their own songs, and mine will just be covers they've not heard of.

And if we're in a situation where writers have to be performers before their work can get out there, what of the people that are sensitive enough to be a great writer but too sensitive to be performer of any kind? There have been enough casualties in the past. Don McLean's 'this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you' could have been written about any number of people in music, people like Syd Barrett and Peter Green, people who were artists in an industry that processed artists. It is hard to deal with for some. I worry about some of the clearly unwell people I have seen on Britain's Got Talent and the like. If they did win, it would kill them. Susan Boyle seems to have come close.

I guess my central point is this: writer and performer are different jobs, and it would be surprising if the best performer was necessarily the best writer. It may well be that the best performers can't write for shit and the best writers sit at home telling nobody about it because they're not the going outdoors and talking to people type. The sort of personality that makes someone a good frontman could limit the sort of songs they are capable of writing. If you want a song about feeling ignored and unloved, say, ask the bassist to write it. :)

Like many things, we can get better results if we play to our strengths. If one country grows shit wheat but good cattle, and another nation the opposite, they can both have shit pies or they can share and both have good pies. But for as long as we have good writers who are bad singers (Bob Dylan, Roger Waters, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, etc) and good singers who are bad writers (way too many to name and I don't listen to the bad writers anyway), music is going to be less than it could be.

I have a theory on songwriting. It's called the Scooby Doo theory. Imagine a line with Daphne at one end and Velma at the other. So it goes from pretty but shallow to plain but interesting, in effect. I think most artists can be plotted along here somewhere. Dylan is all Velma. He's got a voice like sand and glue, as Bowie said, and yet he's an amazing poet and if you've heard decent lyrics since the mid 60s, it was probably because Dylan let people see it was possible. At the other end, say, is Mariah Carey. Lovely clear voice but she is dull as ditchwater and apparently said that when she sees pictures of starving African children she wants to cry, because she could never get that thin.

There are always exceptions of course. John Lennon bends the graph. Paul Simon too, because he can write some amazing lyrics and he has the same sort of choirboy voice as Paul McCartney, although I don't want to hit Paul Simon around the back of the head with a shovel.

Not sure why I'm so pissed off with Paul McCartney at the moment. It's probably just because it's Christmas. That would mean I was simply having a wonderful Christmas time, though. And then maybe I could drown Cliff Richard in an enormous vat of mistletoe and wine. With a couple of dead reindeer floating in it. One has a red nose because I punched it in the face. Noddy Holder would be well advised to steer clear of me too...

And as for Shakin' Bloody Stevens...

Monday, 10 December 2012

(Self) Publish and Be Damned

I got the first paper copy of part of my new novel today. It was very exciting. The novel isn't complete - this was just a tester to make sure there weren't any major problems in the parts I was able to write before's 30% off offer ended and I had to pay more for everything. Incidentally, saying '30% off of everything on the site' is a lie if the postage is at the same larcenous rates it always is, but hey ho. Accept the things you cannot change.

So I've now been re-reading it again, in print this time. I'm not going to lie about it: I'm a very self-indulgent person. I like to luxuriate in whatever I've done because deep down, I probably don't believe I'm capable of it. It comes as a pleasant surprise. Deep down, I might not be Andy the writer. Maybe I'm still Andrew the accountant. But that's a problem for another day.

The problem for today is how long it takes to be self-indulgent as a novelist. You have to read a whole book! It was no problem when I was just doing a poem. Anything longer than three sides of A4 was generally too long to perform: you get timed slots. And songs were generally quite short. My longest was my Christmas song at eleven and a half minutes. You can still get on with stuff if there's a song playing. You just listen out for that bass run or that really cool organ bit that Ray Manzarek wishes he'd thought of. Painters, as they generally do, have it the easiest of all. Just hang it on a wall and glance at it. No-one even knows you're doing it.

As a novelist, though, to get properly self-indulgent, who have to sit down for a good couple of days. You can just zoom in on favourite bits, but then you feel bad that the rest of it isn't your favourite and start asking what's wrong with it. It gets complicated. Doubt sets in.

So now I have about 70% of a book to get self-indulgent about. It has a cool cover though. My friend Helen Cherry took the photo and posted it online. When I saw it, I regretted that I couldn't use it because the book was supposed to be called 'Across the Universe' and be mostly set in space. But when I realised how long it would take to tell the (supposedly preliminary) tale of them battling across a post-nuclear wilderness, she let me use it. She even resized it and made it purple.

And now I've just got to finish the damned thing so I can start being self-indulgent all over again! I know where it's going and it scares me. This will be the longest thing I've written by at least a hundred pages. There are several parallel story threads happening as it builds to the conclusion, several sub-plots. There's lots going on.

Writing is like riding a tiger. The hard part can be knowing how to stop. But I'm having a lovely time, killing people in interesting ways and discovering new and interesting things about America. A couple of weeks back, I had a helicopter following the Colombia River east, towards the Rockies, and when I checked the map, there was a place called The Dalles. I investigated this tiny hamlet and it turned out to have been the site of the first biochemical attack on American soil. And I just checked it out because I liked the name and thought I might be able to get a 'Dallas' pun in there somewhere! Maybe make all the residents be called J.R. or Bobby or Sue Ellen or something. But no, it was the home of a mad cult that gave 700 people salmonella so they could influence a county election and get planning permission to extend their compound. And that was after a prolonged campaign of wiretapping, attempted murder and all sorts.

Funny old world.

Anyway, I'm probably getting self-indulgent about self-indulgence now, so I'm going to go and be self-indulgent about my book instead. I've just got to a good bit :)

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Roll Over, Lazarus

Well, I didn't think I'd be blogging again. I set a blog up ages ago when I was doing a creative writing course. We were encouraged to write every day so I was rambling about all sorts of shit. Facebook back then limited posts to 400 characters or something crazy. It was almost as bad as Twitter. I've never seen the appeal of that. Anything that can be said in 140 characters isn't worth saying.

As soon as I could post essay length things on Facebook, I dropped the blog, apart from the occasional writing competition or something. And it would have stayed that way had I not caught up with Helena, an old school friend. She had told me I should write a blog, I told her that I had, she read it and told me I should write more. So here we are. Why not? I'm always up for rambling about stuff.

And what a world full of stuff we live in! All sorts of things. Things we can touch, things we've done, things we never will, and sometimes, things we write stuff on. I may be writing something on not ending sentences with prepositions at some point. If I do, the last sentence was an example, a taste of things to come.

I'm writing this on my piece of shit laptop. It's probably about four years old, the disk is too full to defrag so it runs like a dead dog trying to swim in molasses, several keys don't work properly because there is so much tobacco and smoking paraphenalia under them and it overheats several times a day.

And while I'm writing this on my laptop, I'm also writing it on my laptop. I'm writing about technology. If all goes according to the plan, by the end of the month or so, I will have written five books on this beast. And yet I care nothing for it at all.

Not a jot. If I have the data, I don't care about anything else. The bits are everything. The atoms merely contain them. It's the ones and zeroes that matter.

Had I typed up the manuscripts for three novels and two poetry collections, I'd probably have them in a fireproof safe, even if I had to make it myself out of used asbestos and Quality Street tins buried in the garden. I would have an emotional connection to the pieces of paper. If I ever became the sort of writer that knew how to sell books, future generations might have bid at auction for the original manuscript.

What can I leave to posterity? A laptop I hopefully won't still have in a couple of years time and an OpenOffice ODT file. Literally the first time I print anything is when I see the first bound proof reading copy, and I've usually been so obsessive about proof reading (as has Gen) that there aren't really any major changes. So I have no atoms to leave, only bits.

It's not just authors that are affected, of course, even if they are the sort of authors who might be celebrated enough to have their manuscripts change hands at auction.

Both my mum and my nan had a stack of love letters, tied up in a ribbon, that my dad and granddad had written to them. I still think it's lovely. There was a lot of time taken to write them. They would have been required to buy stamps and envelopes, to leave the house to post them. There was an investment.

I don't think kids today are really going to have this opportunity. From what I've seen (and I've been father or de facto stepfather to a few of them now), they communicate mainly using texts or Facebook. Facebook isn't so bad, although a little sterile, a little lacking in the personal touch. And it takes ages to look at older messages, especially if you have the sort of relationship where you communicate a lot.

As for texts, though... the teenagers I've seen change their boyfriends and their phones on a constant basis. For them to show their kids and grandkids the sort of messages my mum and nan had, they are not going to need a bit of space in a dressing table. They're going to need a landfill. And chances are, they're not the sort of declarations of undying love that posterity will be kind to. Acronyms and punctuation seem to be the main linguistic tools for communicating emotion.

I'm old enough to have written love letters and optimistic enough to have written love poetry. I think it's nice to craft it, put some time in. The convenience of texting is great for things that needed confirmation, but not discussion. Saying 'fancy a pint at the Glue Pot at 8?' works a lot better than 'what do you want to do tonight?' Short questions and short answers suit the medium better. And things like taking time to woo a lady, even thinking of her as a lady, are so far out of the norm that maybe it's inevitable that the technology can't cope.

Shame though.

But I've not lost hope. I think, like this blog, and like Lazarus, romance could be in for a comeback. I've had my faith in love restored, and I'm one of the most calloused, cynical, grumpy bastards I've ever met. And yet on New Year's Day, Gen and I will have been together a year.

I've had two other phones since we met. I still keep the phone with her first texts on it though. Just in case my grandkids are interested.