Cultural Highlights of 2016

In a year of relentless tragedy and despair, here are a scant few things I enjoyed.

BOOKS

Malcolm LowryUnder The Volcano

This was my third attempt at tackling Lowry’s famously impenetrable novel. The first chapter is particularly gruelling, but after breaking through it for the first time, the dark humour and self-flagellating wisdom which follow make it all worthwhile. For anyone tempted to have a go themselves, I found these notes very helpful in decrypting the dense symbology.

Keith RobertsPavane

The best thing I read all year though, by far, was Pavane. It’s an alternate history novel, in which Elizabeth I was assassinated, the Reformation was quashed, and a triumphant Catholic Church retarded scientific progress. In the 20th century setting of the novel, England has steam-powered road locomotives, a network of giant semaphore towers for cross-country communication, and new stirrings of political and religious revolution.

But the appeal of the ahistorical premise isn’t what makes Pavane such a great book. This year, I also read S. M. Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers, in which a late 19th century meteor shower destroys civilisation in the northern hemisphere, the British elite relocate to India, and by the early 21st century, a steampunk Anglo-Indian empire is in conflict with a devil-worshipping Central Asian Tsardom. This premise is equally interesting. However, Stirling’s novel turned out to be a huge disappointment: a poorly-written mediocrity, no more than a third-rate Raj adventure story with added airships.

Roberts’s, on the other hand, is so beautifully written it’s almost poetry. By the time you’ve read his description of a steam wagon making its way across the Dorset heath on a foggy night, oiled pistons hammering and scalding water dripping from the tank, or of a semaphore tower, its clacking wooden levers, and the blistered hands of its Guild apprentice operator, it’s impossible to believe that such things never even existed.

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Manufactoria: a brain-expanding puzzle game

I finally completed Manufactoria.

Manufactoria is an online puzzle game, which is deceptively simple and surprisingly deep. Your task is to build a factory machine from simple components which takes an object, inspects it and moves it around the factory floor accordingly. In later stages, you get to modify the object as well.

At first you think you’re just moving objects around and printing patterns of coloured dots on them, but later, when you’re thinking of blue dots as 1s and red dots as 0s, and the patterns as binary numbers, you realise that the system is Turing complete and the game’s progressively harder puzzles are teaching you how to build a binary adding machine. It’s a beautiful, powerful way to demonstrate the principles behind mechanical/electronic computation.

While some games, like Angry Birds and Candy Crush, are meant to numb your brain with repetitive tasks, the best ones expand your brain with new skills and knowledge: Manufactoria is in the latter class.

Play the game online here: Manufactoria at PleasingFungus Games

Anita Sarkeesian and video game misogyny

Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist writer and critic, and creator of the video blog Feminist Frequency. Her videos have included the series Tropes vs. Women, and since 2012, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. In response to this latter series in particular, she has been the target of a campaign of misogynist abuse and harassment, including death threats, hacking attempts, release of personal information, and the disruption of speaking events by bomb threats.

I decided to watch some of the videos to see what all the fuss was about. I started with Damsel in Distress from the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series (parts 1, 2 and 3 here). In this episode, Sarkeesian describes the history of the “damsel in distress” trope in video games, from Donkey Kong to the present day, examines the more violent and disturbing variations of it which have become common in recent years, and considers examples of games which lampshade or subvert the trope.

Anita Sarkeesian presents “Ms Male Character” in the series Tropes vs Women in Video Games

Sarkeesian’s arguments are intelligent, solid and well-researched, her presentation is slick and engaging, and she comes across as sincere and passionate (though in a restrained and cogent way). The videos are both entertaining and though-provoking. In short, they’re excellent. If you’re the sort of person who can get lost in TV Tropes for hours (unsurprising revelation: I am), you’ll thoroughly enjoy them.

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Board games for life skills: the bad and the good

The following letter appeared in The Times on Saturday.

“Sir, I am saddened to hear a leading educationalist encourage computer games as a form of learning (“Angry Birds teaches pupils life skills, says schools chief”, May 6). I agree with everything Angela McFarlane says about games, but the same is true of Snakes and Ladders, Cluedo and Monopoly – with the advantage that the life skills are not a superficial coating on an aggressive, conflict-led platform and the interaction is social and face to face.

“Nor is there a marketing strategy to get our children addicted by rewarding them with a dopamine fix every six seconds (usually when they destroy something). This erodes their attention span and their ability to persevere and to learn the value of delayed gratification. Professor McFarlane says she became hooked, ironically, on a game called Lemmings. This is what marketers employ psychologists to do – to get our children hooked. I do not want our 6-year-old to be encouraged to use computer games to develop his life skills.

“Violence and death are trivialised in so many games and we may well ask whether acquiring superficial life skills justifies anaesthetising our children to death.

“I would encourage your readers to sit down with their teenage offspring and watch Beeban Kidron’s film In Real Life to get a more balanced view of the insidious nature of these seemingly innocent “games”.

“CAROLINE SILVER
London SW6″

While I don’t necessarily disagree with Caroline Silver’s cynicism about the addictive design mechanisms of computer games, and her scepticism about their educational value, and I enthusiastically second her championing of board games as an alternative, I do find it surprising that she chose to recommend Snakes and Ladders, Cluedo and Monopoly as her examples. As a self-admitted board game nerd, this suggests to me that Ms Silver doesn’t know much about board games.

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The Glass Bead Game

In case anyone was wondering why I list the books, films and music (or recently, podcasts) that I’m interested in at the moment down the right hand side of this blog, it’s not to show off my excellent taste or anything like that. It’s to encourage anyone who’s also interested in any of those things to discuss them with me. So far, this has happened precisely zero times. But I live in hope.

You may have noticed that The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse was my current read for quite a long time, recently. I’ve finally finished it, so now I’m going to post some thoughts on it.

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Lego for girls: postscript

Last year, I wrote an article Lego for girls about a 1981 Lego advert, and the stark difference it showed between the company’s marketing strategy and gendering of its products, then and now.

(Apparently another blogger call “HuffPost” just got round to doing this last month as well, but we can’t all be on the cutting edge in this fast-paced new media landscape.)

Another blog called Women You Should Know just posted a follow-up article by Lori Day who, it turned out, was a friend of a friend of the girl from the original advert.

That much-blogged and shared 1981 Lego advert

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