Divided Mind: The Psychology Debate over Video Game Violence and its effects.

I wrote this for Edwin Evans-Thirlwell over at OXM in 2013 – but the article got lost in the great GamesRadar link destruction of 2014. Anyway, videogame violence is blamed for all of society’s ills – Ed had me look at the science.

The scene, to the average mind, is incongruous. The Supreme Court of America striking down a law backed by onetime action movie thug and then governor of California, Arnold Schwarznegger. Arnold’s people claimed that video games increase aggression, cause neurological damage and more, and were seeking to pass a bill restricting access to them for minors. They pointed to a huge corpus of peer-reviewed scientific evidence backing up this claim. Given the mainstream rhetoric about violent videogames, the pile of evidence and the conservatism of the court, the outcome seemed a foregone conclusion.

Yet the Supreme Court’s decision, by an unusual majority of 7:2, was to reject the bill, on First Amendment grounds – that is, if the bill was passed it would restrict individuals’ freedom of action. Unusually, they went on to comment further that the scientific claims themselves were without merit, so that the bill would likely still have been rejected. The court decision is so clear that it’s worth quoting at length:

“The State’s (California’s) evidence is not compelling. California relies primarily on the research of Dr. Anderson and a few other research psychologists whose studies purport to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children. These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively (which would at least be a beginning). Instead, “[n]early all of the research is based on correlation, not evidence of causation, and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology.” They show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects, such as children’s feeling more aggressive or making louder noises in the few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game.”

The judges went on in a similar vein for many damning pages. As the judgement makes clear, this wasn’t the first time that a court has called into question the quality of psychology research into videogames. Amazingly, no court in the US has upheld a single law that seeks to regulate games on the basis of violence, with many of them being rejected on similar grounds.

So what’s going on with the psychology of video games? Why are these scientists claiming more than they should?And will we ever get to the truth about whether games do make adults and children act more aggressively than they otherwise would?

The divide

The key problem here is that there’s no consensus. There’s even a disagreement over the levels of disagreement. Psychologists like Christopher Ferguson of the University of Texas (see interview boxout) argue that neither the pro- or anti-videogames groups have been good scientists and that the field as a whole needs to be more careful in the strength of the claims it makes. From the viewpoint of an outsider, by making criticisms of the methods employed on both sides, he appears to be taking the middle ground. Yet the anti-videogames lobby lumps Ferguson in with the pro- lobby as an opponent.

The other problem is that, before any proper research was done, there was a consensus. With the advent of Doom and Mortal Kombat in the 1990s, games had taken on a more visually violent aspect. Combine that with a spike in youth violence (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2010) and school shootings (notably at Columbine High School in 1999), and it’s understandable parents looked to the new medium as a cause. The timeline below shows you that the consensus political narrative until 2005 was that violent media damages children and that studies, when they’re done, will show this.

That they haven’t shown it has meant that scientists have had to consistently overstate their results to fit with what they were expected to find. The claims mainly come from a small set of researchers, mainly American, including Dr Anderson. Now it’s not unusual in a scientific field for a single researcher to specialise to the extent of dominating that subject and Anderson has taken that role in the field of research into the effects of videogames. Starting from a background in aggression research, he’s been involved in the publication of over 190 papers (at our count), with a third of those since 2005. He’s been so prolific that when the California court rejected Schwarznegger’s bill (before he appealed to the Supreme Court), the decision noted that “approximately half the evidence was from a single scholar” – Dr Anderson, we presume?

His papers claim, as did many papers produced in that era, that video games cause aggression. Anderson himself has claimed repeatedly in the media, research and courts that they do. Many of his cadre have gone beyond that. Huesmann (2007) claimed that the effects were similar in magnitude to those of smoking and lung cancer. Strasberger (2007) claimed videogames could explain up to 30% of societal violence. In 2009, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in, claiming erroneously that of 3,500 studies done, only 18 had not found effects of media violence. Even the American Psychological Association released a 2005 report explicitly linking video games with increased aggression. (Dr Anderson sat on both the AAP and APA committees that agreed these statements, having reviewed the literature produced mainly by… Dr Anderson.)

Yet this entire corpus, according to repeated court decisions, is erroneous and proved nothing. Listen to the ruling of the US District Court that struck down two Illinois anti-games laws in 2005. “Neither Dr Anderson’s testimony nor his research establish a causal link between violent video game exposure and aggressive thinking and behavior… researchers in this field have not eliminated the most obvious alternative explanation: aggressive individuals may themselves be attracted to violent videogames.” The court was also unconvinced that any demonstrable impact lasted beyond the short term. (Meanwhile the “expert” testimony by a Dr Kronenberger that gaming reduced frontal lobe brain activity was almost laughed out of court.)

To prove that games cause violence, after all, you must first show that exposure to violent media correlates with aggression, then that it correlates with violence and then that there’s a causative link. It’s a hard link to prove. So far the science, as evaluated by the courts and independent observers, has shown that there is at most a mild short-term correlation between gaming and aggression, with Dr Ferguson arguing that even this small correlation is down to statistical anomalies. This effect size is comparable, at Dr Anderson’s own begrudging admission to another court, to other violent media – such as when children watch a Bugs Bunny cartoon or play Sonic the Hedgehog. The sole qualitative difference between games and music, books and films is, after all, its fundamental interactivity; but is that any worse than my imagining a grisly death in a Stephen King book or seeing someone get dissected in a torture-porn film? The statistics don’t seem to show that.

So how did the causationist scientists end up claiming so much more than the evidence suggests? Of course, research into this area is a self-selecting process, so it’s understandable that it may have attracted researchers with preconceived ideas, who then verified each other’s positions. This applies to the other side too; researchers have been attracted to the field because of the overstated positions of the establishment, seeking to right the wrongs they see. And we’re not saying that this was deliberate; it’s more like a science teacher believing in the science he or she is teaching, even when half the class fail an experiment. 

Psychologists, on both sides of the debate have been stating their position with too much certainty, making “spurious comparisons with medical research” as Ferguson puts it, ignoring contradictory evidence, and claiming more than their data does.

The major problem is that few in the field are performing scientific enquiry as it’s meant to be done. Many psychologists seem to start with the assumption that certain things are true, then try to prove it – a circular argument. example. They ignore evidence to the contrary, such as the US department of Health’s 2001 report or the US Secret Service and Department of Education 2002 report, which found no evidence of a link.

They’re also not very good research. Possibly because of the failure of the peer review process, there’s been little push towards standardisation of measurements or methodology. For example, how do you measure aggression? Some studies measure it by acts of violence against inanimate objects (such as the Bobo doll experiments of the 1960s), others by word association games. Obviously, these measures are just not comparable.

Similarly, as the Australian Government’s 201 report points out “researchers have not devoted sufficient attention to the severity of violent content (e.g. cartoonish vs realistic violence) and whether it has differing effects. Some studies appear to show games featuring cartonish violence are just as harmful as games featuring realistic violence. It is not known whether socially acceptable violence (such as in the course of playing sports) has a different effect to antisocial violence.”

Further issues

The funding for the papers arguing that games cause violence is more dubious. At one time Anderson’s funding came from a now-defunct organisation called the National Institute on Media and the Family. The erratic NIMF produced misleading parental advice condemned by both the US National Parent Teacher Association and the national video games rating agency in the USA.

Another organisation that funds this research is The Centre for Successful Parenting. Despite their name, they exclusively fund research into the “effect of media violence on the brain development of children” (taken from their charity mission statement) and mainly the work of a group around Dr Vincent P. Matthews, who produces studies with results that match their agenda. We couldn’t find out much about this organisation because their two websites are full of dead links, missing pages and out-of-context rhetoric, and our emails bounced. The registered address of its website shows up on Google Street View as a boarded-up Indiana building and is also the registered address of many, many other companies. The only data we can find is on a charities site; this says it was set up by a Steve Stoughton, who seems to run a company which specialises or specialised in setting up campaigning websites (including Mediaviolence.org), and that the charity received an income of just under $400,000 in 2011, with $450,000 in assets.

Of course, the majority of research is not funded by organisations like these. Globally, the research is funded mainly by governments and universities, which is why these organisations concern us so. Imagine the outcry if Activision funded research into videogame violence?

Our conclusion

We are not scientists. We’re not equipped to assess all the data that’s out there, nor mediate the conflicting claims of different authors. From the papers we’ve read, particularly from the impartial Australian government meta-review of 2010, there is evidence that video games have short term effects on aggression, though that evidence has been very badly presented, with many methodological flaws. It’s worth noting that while that seems to be common sense, psychology is not about verifying or debunking common sense; common sense is not useful in science because many of the things it tells us are simplifications or plain wrong, such as the sun going around a flat, immobile earth.

And even if violent video games increase aggression, it has to be shown that this happens in more than the short term, in a way that’s of a significant degree, and that isn’t caused by other underlying factors. Indeed, Ferguson’s most recent research paper found that “depression, antisocial personality traits, exposure to family violence and peer influences were the best predictors of aggression-related outcomes”; violent video games didn’t get a look-in.

This field of science is extremely frustrating to research. If violent video games do increase aggression, we would like to know this, so we could act on it. After all, even a small effect can cause problems if you play several hundred hours of a game. Yet the work of scientists like Craig Anderson actually hinders this cause; if he were a more thorough scientist, if his review bodies actually reviewed his papers rather than acting as a claim to greater authority and if he dealt better with the criticisms of his peers, then we would have better data in this area.


A Timeline of Modern Moral Panic

  • 400 BC The father of philosophy himself, Plato criticises theatre and poetry for corrupting the population. (Ironic, as Plato’s idolised mentor Socrates was put to death for corrupting the youth of Athens.)
  • 1954 The US Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Deliquency takes an interest in comic books after moral crusaders blame them for poor grades, deliquency and drug use. Many comic publishers adopt a stringent moral code that drives other companies underground or out of business. Parents groups hold comic book burnings; some cities ban comic books.
  • 1964 A Canadian philosopher called Marshal McLuhan revives the term ‘moral panic’, meaning “intense feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order”, inadvertantly predicting the next fifty years of hyperbole about negative media influence.
  • 1969 A US National Commission on Causes and Prevention of Violence condemns, in mild terms, the rise of violence on television.
  • 1972 A report commissioned by the US Surgeon General’s office explicitly links TV / movie violence and aggressive behaviour.
  • 1980 and 1982. Two suicides of depressed children who happened to play Dungeons & Dragons convince several Christian fundamentalist groups and elements of the media that roleplaying games are satanic and damage children. Later findings show that D&D players are significantly less likely to kill themselves than the national average.
  • 1992 The book “Big World, Small Screen” wins plaudits from the APA for making a clear link between television and addiction / stereotyping.
  • 1999 The Columbine High School massacre is carried out by two children who play violent video games, notably Doom.
  • 1999 David Grossman testifies before Senate Commerce Committee that US Marine Corps uses the game Doom to train marines. His book “On Killing” says games are murder simulators giving children the skill and will to kill.
  • 2001 Indiana Amusement Machine Ordinance seeks to restrict children’s access to games on grounds of obscenity. It’s struck down by United States court of Appeal.
  • 2002 A Canadian scholar named Jonathan Freedman points out that youth violence has been declining as media violence has been increasing. He is mostly ignored by the media.
  • 2003 St Louis County Ordinance 20,193, restricting children’s access to games on grounds of psychological damage, is struck down by United States court of Appeal.
  • 2005 Two 2002 Illinois laws limiting children’s access to violent and sexual video games are struck down.
  • 2005 Family Entertainment Protection Act (FEPA) to “limit the exposure of children to violent video games” and sponsored by Hillary Clinton and Joseph Lieberman doesn’t make its way into law.
  • 2005 An APA resolution explicitly links video games and aggressive behaviour, thoughts, and decreased sociability.
  • 2011 The Supreme Court strikes down the California law, citing the Brothers Grimm, Looney Tunes and The Divine Comedy as other equally violent media, all of which have freedom of speech protection under the First Amendment.
  • 2013 The APA website still carries many articles arguing that all forms of media cause violence, many with Craig Anderson’s name on. The moral panic goes on.


On the couch with Chris Ferguson, Psychology & Communication Professor at The University of Texas.

What’s your background? What’s your interest in this field?

I’m a clinical psychologist and licensed as a psychologist in Texas. I’d actually been interested more in violent behavior in a general sense at the start of my research career. It was when I started to see people making extreme statements about media violence, like that the effects were similar to smoking and lung cancer or that all the debate was over, that my curiosity got piqued. Once I started to look at the data, I was startled by how little the data actually supported the kinds of extreme claims people were making. I knew that something was going wrong.

The field seems completely split. How did these two camps come into existence? What do they respectively have invested that makes them so fervent in their opinions?

Yes, the field is pretty split. I think there is an “opposite and equal reaction” kind of issue. Prior to the Columbine massacre, video game research was pretty calm, and most scholars acknowledged the research was inconsistent. Then after Columbine a group of scholars started to make more and more extreme statements. Eventually that invited a lot of scrutiny about those claims, and ultimately, harsh criticisms. I think some of those scholars stepped so far out onto the plank that it’s just difficult to retreat to more moderate language without losing face. A few have taken funding from anti-media advocacy groups too, but I think the main issue has to do mainly with personal egos, and a rigid ideology that has grown up about media violence generally over the past few decades and then was rigidly applied to video games in the 2000s post-Columbine.

Would it be unfair to paint this as the D&D and video nasties hysteria all over again?

Actually it’s a pretty direct parallel. I use the example of comic books in the 1950s, where psychiatrists and congress together made extreme claims about the “harm” of such media. Ironically, you’re seeing much the same pattern now. It’s not so much that the hypothesis is bad, or that you couldn’t even make an honest argument for negative effects. It’s that so often the arguments are dishonest, simply ignoring evidence against the speaker’s personal views. In one recent analysis of children, we included a list of things to look for when people are “moral panicking”…I’ll include that study, the list comes toward the end of the paper.

Were the repeated rejections by the various US courts of the anti-videogame lobby’s (for want of a clearer name) conclusions expected at the time? How did the lobby handle them? Have they reduced the strength of their claims?

Well I think initially I expected the typical “moral panic” to hold sway, so in a way I was indeed surprised by the savvy of the jurists. Particularly with the Supreme Court, I don’t think anyone knew what they were thinking. Fortunately they were able to see through the nonsense. The “lobby” as you say, hehe, did not handle it well. They have very clearly doubled-down making, if anything, more extreme claims. Before they used to be good, at least, about not extending their research to societal violence. Now they have dropped all such pretenses and have made direct attributions in the press between video game violence and even mass shootings despite no evidence to link the two. Some of them also have begun advocating scientific censorship…that journalists should not speak to scholars who disagree with them. I suppose this is to be expected…it is an ideology under fire, not an objective science.

Craig Anderson, in particular, seems to have produced much of the literature that drove these cases and was rejected by the courts. Can you point to any of his material, or the anti-videogames lobby’s material, that stands up to scrutiny? Is he a controversial figure in psychology?

Well, I don’t want to personalize it too much. No, I can’t point to any of his work though that would or should survive scrutiny. The courts were quite right to reject it. I suppose the whole field is becoming controversial.

The flaws in these papers seem to be mainly in methodology and standardisation. Does that seem fair, or is there more to it than that?

There’s certainly that, also the way video games are matched in experimental conditions. For instance comparing Modern Warfare to Tetris…sure one is violent, the other not, but they differ in multiple other ways. But perhaps more crucially is the language some of the “lobby” have employed…citation bias, ignoring work that differs with their views…as I understand it, that is an ethical violation, but few people have been courageous enough to call them on that. In general the extreme rhetoric they employ is as much a problem as anything else.

Has the pro-videogame lobby been culpable of similar problems? Your paper seemed to focus more on the egregious mistakes of the antis.

I sometimes see people claim, “No studies have ever linked video games with aggression.” That, of course, is not true. Some studies have, but other studies haven’t. It’s really a matter of the bigger picture…the studies are inconsistent, but combined with the societal data showing declines in youth violence, and a lack of a cross-national pattern of video game consumption correlating with societal violence, we can say that the evidence for a link there is pretty weak. But people on both sides have to be careful of avoiding sweeping generalizations. That having been said, I do tend to feel the antis, as you say, largely set this up by making the first set of extreme statements, provoking that “opposite and equal reaction.” In a broad sense, the scientific peer review process failed in this case.

Looking into the funding behind some of the research into this area seems to throw up shell organisations – for example, the Center for Successful Parenting which seems determined to obfuscate its funding and management. Is it normal in the USA for research to be funded this way?

No, not really, certainly not organizations as murky as the CSP. Most scholars actually do research based on local grants from the university and such. Some get large federal grants such as from NIH or NSF, and others from reputable private foundations (Bill and Melinda Gates, Pew Research, etc.) However advocacy groups, just like the industry, have a financial axe to grind, and as I make clear, I find this to be a conflict of interest when scholars take money from these organizations, just like taking money from the video game industry would be a conflict of interest.

A sound pitch: audio puzzler Sentris threatens to unleash your inner musician


This short piece originally appeared on Edge Online, before that site disappeared into the maw of Gamesradar+. If they ever put it back up, I’m happy to take this down – but Sentris is out today, so I thought it would be nice to have this online *somewhere*.

We’re all aware the indie scene is bursting. And the onetime underloved genres – roguelikes, simulations, CCGs – are proliferating well. Filling up quietly and fast is the music genre, with Crypt of the Necrodancer, Audiosurf 2, and Soundodger all hitting recently. But Sentris makes large claims to creativity, on generating music, rather than just playing it. As the developer, Samatha Kalman, describes it, “it allows, and even requires, everybody to make their own song as they play.”

The game consists of a set of concentric circles which are constantly rotating, looping any notes attached to them. The player has to play a rhythm puzzle game with notes of varied lengths from varied instruments being fitted to a core theme. Though the theme is set for each puzzle, the player can provide variety by choosing the instruments, sustain and whether to fill in the gaps in the tune structure.

“It’s a puzzle game about matching colors, yes,” says Kalman “but the puzzle pieces themselves are visual representations of musical structure. The puzzle element is stacking blocks, but each block is a musical note — literally a single building block of a song. The way you build up notes to solve the puzzle means your song unfolds organically, in a way that is truly unique to your play session. I’ve watched dozens of players play the prototype, and I’ve never heard the same song twice.”

“Sentris is a game first, and therefore has to be fun and challenging, even if the sound is muted. The variable musical system is there for players who want to pay attention to it. Part of my plan is to offer a freestyle mode, where the puzzle elements are replaced by an even greater level of musical control on the part of the player. I’m walking on a tight rope between a puzzle game and a musical instrument.”

Kalman’s personal history is interesting – before becoming a self-employed developer, she was the Director of QA at Unity. You’d think there couldn’t be anyone better placed to be making indie games and Kalman loved the place. “I had a really good, long run with Unity. I shipped Unity for iPhone and Unity for Windows which were huge milestones for the company. I made a lot of great friends, and enjoyed the experience of living in Denmark. I worked with a world-class team. The industry needs tools like Unity.”

Despite this background with Unity, Kalman is a self-taught programmer, designer and musician – all within the last few years. “What’s the saying? “There’s no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing”. I’ve learned a lot about creativity in the past few years. The overwhelming lesson I’ve learned is to just keep going. Try to do things that are exciting to you. Try to do things that you don’t know how to do and you will continue to grow and expand. This applies to any creative work, and it’s helped me keep moving forward with Sentris.”

Her touchstones – Rez, FreQuency, Um Jammer Lammy, Gitaroo Man, Soundodger – seem to point to possible directions for future development. But she’s wary of adding additional complexity to the game. “I love the simplicity of the current prototype. Abstract UIs take time for new players to explore and understand, and I’m very pleased by the pick-up-and-playability achieved so far. Going forward I’m exploring additional puzzle and play mechanics that enable even more musical variability in solutions.”

“I want players to be able to make multiple, different songs with every play session. I’m also experimenting with different attributes of the blocks themselves, and how to reinforce the musical relationship between notes & instruments within puzzle mechanics. I want to make sure that it’s fun for new players and for expert players, and that means making it fun to develop the ability to read the puzzle, and making it fun after a player is able to understand how to solve the puzzle at first glance. In short, there’s a lot I want to do to make it even better!”

Now, given the erstwhile hype and the current doldrums of crowdfunding, Kalman’s attempt to turn her admittedly-limited prototype into something more subtle and complex by Kickstarting it deserves to be called brave. But with ten days to go, she seems to be set to achieve her $50,000 goal. It must be a sound pitch.

Sentris is on Kickstarter. We’d moot a late 2014 / early 2015 release on Mac, PC and Linux.

I Asked Atheists How They Find Meaning In A Purposeless Universe

Dan Griliopoulos, games journalist:

“There’s no inherent meaning in life, but that doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless. First off, you’re raised, deliberately or accidentally, with an array of beliefs, values and prejudices by family, school, and society, that mesh or clash with the things you biologically like – that is, nature and nurture shape your preferences. So there’s already things that you value, more get put on you fairly quickly, and you get to spend your life exploring their precedence, their acceptability to society and its laws, and whether you really like them or not.

So, what I’m saying is that value is inherent to us all, which provides a grounding to meaning. I’m not saying that such a meaning is justified, but if you’re smart, lucky and/or ruthless it might be internally coherent by the time you hit adulthood, which is more than most off-the-shelf meaning systems out there (whether that’s philosophies, health systems, or religions). Meaning is a human thing – to go looking for it in the alien, unconscious universe is nonsense on stilts.”

Source: I Asked Atheists How They Find Meaning In A Purposeless Universe

Patrick Smith of Vectorpark on the IT Crowd, toy-boxes and his new game


This short piece originally appeared on Edge Online, before that site disappeared into the maw of Gamesradar+. If they ever put it back up, I’m happy to take this down.

Out there, in the great world of development, there are publisher cities, mainstream towns, indie villages, and hipster hamlets. In the mountains, the few remaining hermit developers craft wonderfully bizarre and aberrant trinkets, until they’re dragged into the mainstream. And Vectorpark is a shining, ragged example of the latter.

We’ve praised the company’s toyboxes – notably Feed The Head and Windosill – in the past. And even if you don’t know them, you might recognise his work from the playful gamelike DVD menus for the IT Crowd. However, despite much critical praise, Vectorpark is notable for never having made the jump to the mainstream. Given that, you might not be surprised to learn that Vector Park has just two employees listed on its website. They are the company President and the mail room clerk – and they’re the same man, Patrick Smith.

And he hasn’t produced a game since 2011’s Acrobots. Not that he’s stopped completely, as he tells us. “I’m hard at work, as we speak, on an interactive Alphabet. With any luck, I’ll be finished early-to-mid next year.” He’s more been focused on activities that seem more important to him, day-to-day. “Coding, doodling, staring at the ceiling. Occasional naps.” We can dig that.

It’s notable that Smith doesn’t seem to care whether he’s making games, installations or websites. “I took some breaks this year to work on some installation projects: one is a set of animated wallpapers for a restaurant in Brooklyn (Dassara), and the other is a collaboration with the illustrator Malika Favre — an interactive projection for a hotel in Amsterdam.”

He also doesn’t seem to care about whether the work is generally well-received. “My stuff is on a slightly unusual wavelength, and not everyone is going to dig that. And that’s okay! Expecting everyone, or even most people, to love what you do is pretty unrealistic. If a thousand people in the world are receptive to my work, that still seems like quite a lot.”

But it’s key to him that he’s into the project. “Mostly, I’m just encouraged if I have a good idea, or a bad idea that I’m excited about.” For example, he found working on the IT Crowd fascinating, but difficult. “I love the show; it’s hilarious. So it’s pretty much the coolest freelance job I could ask for. It was something of a challenge to satisfy both myself and Graham (Linehan, the show’s creator), but he’s a brilliant guy, and the end result was better for it.”

And, mostly, he’s excited about toy boxes as much as games. “Toy-like, because I’m partial to pointless, playful, and hopefully-beautiful trifles. Game-like, because a game provides a structure — a backbone — and gives the user a means of navigating through the experience. I think of puzzles as kinda like speed-bumps, designed to slow you down and make you participate with the environment.”

“But of course, not everything needs to be a game. Sometimes I’ll have the germ of something, that I know I like, but I don’t really know what it IS yet. So I have to step back and let it breathe a bit. It’s a mysterious process. I have things I started years ago that I still haven’t figured out what to do with.”

“I think it’s just my own personal inclination. I’m not terribly interested in puzzles per se, but I enjoy the way a system can evoke a sense of a larger reality. As a user, being invited to interact with that reality can be, in some cases, a fairly magical experience.” Indeed, the games that Smith himself plays fit with the ones he makes; currently, he says that he’s looking forward to Gorogoa, Kachina, and Hohokum. “Maybe I just like weird names?” he asks.

Staying on the outside certainly seems to give Smith a different perspective. “From my point of view, I’m basically doing the same thing I was doing since before Windosill, before Feed the Head, back when I wasn’t even really aware of an indie game scene.”

“It’s kinda like living in the wilderness for years and one day discovering an entire town has sprung up nearby. It’s great to have some neighbors, maybe you even make some friends, but at the end of the day you’re still growing your own food. Not that I have any idea how to grow food.” We can’t have him starving. Somebody, anybody; feed the head.

Why I understand the fears of British jews.


The papers are reporting that Britain is more antisemitic than it’s been for a long time. They’re also reporting that both Jewish celebrities and everyday folk are thinking about leaving Britain. As a Jew, I understand their fear. As a bad, atheist, secular Jew, I understand why they want to move to Israel but think it’s a mad decision.

Few of my British friends seem to be taking it seriously, which increases my empathy. They seem to treat it as just some media personalities and subset of Jews being hysterical, that it couldn’t happen in their Britain. It’s true that the exodus to Israel has been going on since before Israel was founded, and that it’s increased in the last ten years. But there is a real fear, based on real events. And your concept of Britain is irrelevant to the Britain that’s out there.

Now, I grew up with the IRA and have a very limited experience of terrorism. I remember bombings in Manchester when I was a kid. I used to stay a day a week with my dad, who lived in a flat on top of the Arndale centre. We used to get woken up at nights, regularly, to be told we needed to evacuate because of a bomb threat. That stopped when the IRA blew up the city centre, and the Arndale flats with it. My dad was moved out to another flat, because where he used to live looked like the below.

The Manchester Arndale, after the 1996 bombing.

Now, I’m not going to say that the IRA were ‘better’ terrorists than the Al Quaeda and ISIS-inspired jihadists. But the majority of the IRA’s fighters had an aim beyond simple bloodthirstiness – they wanted Northern Ireland to be reunited with the rest of the country. There was an aim beyond their terror, which is why they gave warnings. It might have been confused, but there was a feeling that their destruction was of infrastructure to inconvenience the Brits, terror to change minds, and to target the security forces they felt were colluding in their suppression.

By contrast, the aim with the current brand of Jihadis does just seem to be terror, to kill as many people as possible – and, in particular, to kill Jews on the side. Look at these graphs of antisemitic violence rising worldwide even as violent crime declines generally. Even in supposedly-enlightened Canada antisemitic crimes trebled, with the majority of perpetrators identifying as Muslim.

Targeting an ethnic group for an association with a state or movement is problematic – both in terms of the jihadis targeting Jews over Israel, and Westerners targeting muslims over terrorism. It doesn’t, currently, feel like satisfying the jihadis’ current demands – by pulling out of the Middle East and stopping supporting Israel militarily – will be enough to stop these people but rather that this feels to them like a long-form war between the Islamic states and the West. Which means this is probably going to get worse.

So I get why Jews might be scared. And I think Orthodox Jews or synagogue-going Jews in particular probably feel they’re exposed, because they’re easy to identity, from their garb or on the synagogue steps, whilst the terrorists can blend in to Britain’s wonderful multicultural streets. I can see they might want to move to a country where they’re the majority and the terrorists will stand out. 

And, of course, Jew’s history of persecution is infamous. Jews who stayed around – in Egypt, in Israel under the Seleucids and Romans, in the Rhineland during the First Crusade, in 12th century York, across Europe during the Black Death, in 15th century Spain, in 16th century Portugal, in the 17th century Papal States, in 18th Century Russia, in the 19th century Middle East and Africa, in 1920s Turkey, in 1930s Germany – tended to end up dead. As those polls show, we’re not that far along. The Enlightenment is skin-deep in the areas of the world it touched, and that’s not much of the world. Any Jew who knows his or her history has to agree that, irrespective of how wonderful and tolerant you think the country’s culture appears to be, it’s sane to watch for the same signs again. And to be ready to flee.

Despite that, personally, I don’t think Israel is a particularly great place to move to. The chance of its major cities getting blasted off the face of the Earth is a bit too high for my liking. The state of Israel, partly through the making of despicable right-wing political manipulators like Benjamin Netanyahu, has chosen to be aggressive and nasty to every state next to it for too long, and allowed its population to contravene UN resolutions (especially on settlement building) again and again. America has helped with that, by not tying its military funding of Israel to the country enforcing international law. Now Israel is the bugbear of many states in the world, including almost all its neighbours.

No, if I was a scared jew, I’d move to New York. Tolerant, with totally Jewish neighbourhoods, too far for most Islamic extremists (who, let’s face it, are mostly European or Middle Eastern) to pay for the plane ticket, and the country as a whole has a philosemitic policy, perhaps as a hang-up from the victory in the Second World War (which is nowadays sold as a humanitarian war, even if that was never the intent of the Allies.) If we look at that anti-semitism article again, America is the only place where anti-semitism hasn’t risen.

I’m thankful that, as a secular, atheist Jew, I don’t particularly stand out in public, except when I self-identify in blogs like this. (I’ll admit that I held off posting this for a month, because of fear). For that reason, I’m not thinking of moving yet. But I’ll certainly keep watching.

My FrankenGame of the Year


I liked a lot of games this year, and played far more games than I usually do. Yet, save for review, I didn’t find myself playing a single game a whole lot (blame buying a flat / moving flat / having a baby) and only finished a handful – perhaps only The Banner Saga, Transistor, and Shadows of Mordor. Others I played a whole lot – Dragon Age: Inquisition, Dark Souls II, South Park: The Stick of Truth – but wouldn’t put in a top list. Some were great – Out There, Infested Planet, Abyss Odyssey, Nidhogg, Xenonauts – but I don’t have the urge to put them in.

I’m guessing that’s because none of the games really engaged with me. It’s been a long year. Buying a flat, moving house, having a baby. So it’s likely I’ve forgotten some things I love. Some games I love need more work – Chaos Reborn, Prison Architect, Crypt of the Necrodancer. Others – like the Talos Principle, Elite: Dangerous, Wasteland 2, Jazzpunk, Alien: Isolation, Gorogoa, Quadriga, Bayonetta 2 and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter – I haven’t got around to yet. But, hey, this is the internet; I’ll just edit them in later when I do.

However, I did love the mechanics from a lot of games, so using lightning, corpse parts and the rotting, repugnant remains of an overstretched metaphor, I’m going to stitch together my own monster, my game of the year. These are the bits of the games this year I loved the best.



Brain: 80 Days

The decision matrices for this game are pretty simple – it’s essentially a choose-your-own adventure game with branching pathways. But the writing (by Meg Jaynath) is so perfectly on point that it brings the entire game up to a new level.

The game takes the classic Phileas Fogg story, and gives it a sharp-toothed reinterpretation. You play Passepartout, who explores the limitless world of Victoriana for his master, the indolent Fogg, buying and selling rare items to maintain their funds, bribing their way onto faster transport, and keeping his master buffed and polished. The twist is that the world isn’t the familiar Victorian hegemony, but something more steampunky and much less stable – everywhere you look inventions are ramping up the tools of war.

80 Days is smart, always well-researched and creates a believable world entirely through description and interaction. I’d love to see more games in this setting and more stories by Meg.

Spare Part: Sunless Sea. Not done by any means and the mechanics often get in the way of the story, but similarly great writing.

Spare Part: Blood & Laurels. A procedurally-generated text adventure set in ancient Rome. Lovely; I wish I’d played more of it.


Heart: The Wolf Among Us

I’ve not always got on with Telltale’s series – neither Sam And Max, Back To The Future nor The Walking Dead connected with me the way that they did with everyone else. For me, the clunky interfaces and barely-working systems got in the way.

Yet with The Wolf Among Us I can forgive everything. The game has such as serious sense of style – from the grim smoking wander of Bigby in the title screen to the genuinely-divided path that runs through it. It had its weak moments – that scandalously short second chapter, the whimpering end – but overall it recreated Willingham’s Fables characters with affection and panache.

Spare Part: The Banner Saga. An original setting, a dark twisty story and annoying combat mechanics. And, no, I couldn’t keep poor Egil alive.


Hands: Transistor

Supergiant’s Bastion follow-up was probably underappreciated due to its visual similarity – saturated isometric combat. But the mix-and-match weapon and buffs system. Each of your weapons has two sockets, and there are passive slots too, and any weapon can go into any of those sockets – weapon, socket, or passive – producing a different form. The way that excessive damage knocked your most powerful weapon out of action meant that you were forced to mix up your styles all the time. Smart and well thought-through.

Spare part: Hearthstone. Should I hate you, Blizzard? You so carefully manipulate our emotions and brains, use such generic concepts (and let’s face it, you plagiarised Games Workshop relentlessly for your two biggest games), but put such charm into the design that we forgive you. And then you do something like Hearthstone, bringing CCGs to the masses. It’s not quite pay-to-win but for evenly-matched players, the willingness to buy cards or sink time to get cards can make a difference – that is, you can get better by investment without improving skill.


Danglies: Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor

Disclaimer: I have done PR and consultancy work for Warner Bros. I like SOM and dislike some of Warner’s other games independently of that. But because of that conflict of interest I’m not going to talk too positively about SOM, but just point you at the Nemesis mechanic and invite you to admire the character it brings to this game’s world. I’d say it’s the mechanic that we’ll see most copied in upcoming games.

Spare part: Luftrausers. The part-combination mechanic is perfectly placed in this morsel-sized Vlambeer product, allowing you to create a hundred different plane types, each behaving differently.


Skin: Destiny

It might just be World of Halocraft, but Destiny has a moreish snackiness to it that manages to get you playing for hours on end. Never mind that the AI enemies are artificially tough and that they rely more on disorientation and damage buffs to increase difficulty. Never mind that the PvP is pretty much Killzone’s, but without the balance that implies.

What matters is those vistas. They tell you that the wide-eyed 70s dream of science – the bearded voice of Carl Sagan creating homilies about new worlds – the utopian geothermal tidal energy towers floating in methane gas giant seas drawing power from the tug of ancient dead suns – haven’t gone away and that man can still be naive and hope, outside of NASA’s careful PR outreach programs.

Spare Part: Assassins Creed: Unity. I suspect it’s down to the jadedness of the press with the series’ endless plot and over-familiar mechanics that this game’s artistry has been so underappreciated. Seriously beautiful. I find myself just standing on street corners, watching 18th century France pootle by, from republicans to thieves wandering off with church crosses to ruffians burning books. Though the quoted stat is that it took an artist 5000 hours to recreate Notre Dame perfectly, it’s the iridescent inside of Saint Chapelle that must be seen. (Disclaimer: I have done consultancy work for Ubisoft).


Dress Sense: Roundabout.

The game itself is an utterly throwaway (if tough) action-puzzler but what a strange, effective use of whimsy and ’70s era B-movie the missions are. The combination of great writing, a silly conceit and amateur actors make for something utterly unique. I can’t stand to play much of it, but I wish I could.

Spare Part: Cosmonautica. Funky music, a really lovely side-on ship interface, even in combat, and great design across the board. It’s sad that the trading system is pretty dull, as is the combat and almost everything else – save for the style. Watch Chasing Carrots – when they find a mechanic that works, they’ll make something amazing.

Spare Part: The Sailor’s Dream. Simogo are the most interesting developers out there. Year Walk was clunky and obtuse, but scarily effective and effectively scary. Device 6 nicely sent me round the bend. And The Sailor’s Dream continues their tradition of defying convention, with a game that’s almost entirely atmosphere and timing.


Guts: This War of Mine

Not an original game – the Rebuild series has done almost exactly this before, amongst other zombie sims – but to set this team-survival sim amidst a war was a good touch. The fragility of your team, the randomisation of your neighbourhood and the permadeath combine for grimly-compelling stories.

Spare part: Neo Scavenger. Exactly what I said above, but with the added bonus that it has the most horrifically-realistic combat I’ve experienced in a turn-based game. The way that a fight turns from something like Hugh Grant and Colin Firth’s slapping match in Bridget Jones to one man stomping another unconscious man to death…


The Game That My Monster Would Play: Endless Legend

Amplitude Studios demonstrated with Endless Space that they had style; they took the 4X space game and made a pretty good. But both of their games this year have been stunning reworkings of existing genres, with Dungeon of the Endless making a grim pixel-art tower defense roguelike and Endless Legend easily beating any recent Civilization game for style, panache and even storytelling. The hugely asymmetric factions and faction story quests (even in multiplayer) are an inspiration to me; we’ll surely see them cropping up in every RTS and 4X around.


Why our child won’t have my name.


So, we’re having a child. In less than a month. And it won’t have my name. There are many rational reasons why this is, but the main one, to get out of the way, is that the presumption a child should take the father’s name is nonsense on stilts. Tradition is never a good argument.

On top of that, there’s good feminist reasons for he/she/it (damn the lack of an acceptable gender neutral) to have my partner’s name – to balance out the long history of mankind where children didn’t have women’s names and women were excluded from society, seen just as vectors for men’s seed, treated as chattel and the property of their husbands.

Of course, there’s no reason it should have anything like my name, or even a standard human name. “Conventional names define a person’s past: ancestry, ethnicity, nationality, religion.” FM-2030 said “I am not who I was ten years ago and certainly not who I will be in twenty years.” I’d rather our child escaped the shackles of tradition, though she can opt in later, should she so wish.

Tradition is only local: surnames were mononymous in most areas of the world at one time, then became bynames, to distinguish people. In Prestatyn, where my grandma lived, the surnames were so similar that it was still normal to call people that way – she used to call them Jones the Butcher, Jones the Taxi, and Jones the Baker. Outside of there, I’m sure Jones of Prestatyn wouldn’t be unknown.

Though I was open to the child not having either of our names, we’re sadly not as enlightened as FM-2030. It’s probably going to have a first name that reflects something of its heritage, and it will take its mother’s surname. I was also open to the child being given just a first name, then choosing its own surname at the age of majority; we may just emphasise that it can change its own name whenever it wants.

Practically though, the child is in the medium and long run more likely to grow up with its mother, so it should have her name. There’s a higher chance of me dying and a higher chance of it staying with her if we split up (which we’re not planning to, but it’s wise to be rational). Even for day-to-day aspects, the child is initially dependent on her, so more likely to be travelling with her around the country and world.

There’s also the aesthetic qualities of our actual names. My surname is batshit hard to spell. I’ve gradually got tired of spelling it out and typing it out every day. My partner’s name is as interesting and not an absolute pisser to spell. And it’s much easier to make puns or references with her name – Dain – and the middle names which I’m trying so hard to slip in like Duné or Ironfoot.

The final quality for decision-making is core; respect. The woman carries the baby, and suffers huge pain and terrible damage. All the support I can give is nothing in comparison to what she has to go through so we can have a child.