Stupidity’s Unpopular Cousin: Intellectualism in the UK

“to be an intellectual is to be someone motivated by ideas. That doesn’t mean that you’re simply interested in ideas, or that you enjoy the abstract reasoning associated with chewing through logical problems. It means that you’re someone who thinks about ideas and then changes their life on the basis of those ideas.”

This was written in 2014. I didn’t post it because it didn’t seem culturally relevant. It does now.

Because I’m arrogant, I self-define as an intellectual. It surprises me how highly-ranked it is in my self-image, probably below ‘Jewish’ and ‘tired’, and above ‘shy’ and ‘Mancunian’. But it’s a word that’s not clearly defined and which means different things to many different people. Look, I asked twitter what they thought it meant.

That’s a huge range of definitions. For me, in contrast, to be an intellectual is to be someone motivated by ideas. That doesn’t mean that you’re simply interested in ideas, or that you enjoy the abstract reasoning associated with chewing through logical problems. It means that you’re someone who thinks about ideas and then changes their life on the basis of those ideas. To me, to understand a flaw in your moral reasoning and to correct it then requires a concomitant adaptation in your behaviour. For example, to recognise that your concept of utilitarianism is out of whack with anti-vegetarianism, and to change your beliefs and your behaviour. To me, that’s intellectualism.

But, as that last tweet from Mark Johnson hinted at, many more of the replies I got were negative about the word – indeed, many saw it as pejorative. Here’s a selection.


https://twitter.com/Grabcocque/statuses/481462368531398656
https://twitter.com/Grabcocque/statuses/481463246999023616

So it’s posited as arrogance, out-of-touch, ivory tower behaviour; someone who might know lots of things, but nothing practical. Two jokes from RPS writers reflect that – another example of humour reflecting our prejudices very neatly. Jim’s in particular is an astounding summary of what I perceive to be the predominant British feeling about intellectuals (though, as an action-intellectual himself, I doubt he believes it.)

Wherever they’ve gone, what’s clear is that intellectuals in the UK are not well-regarded and mostly not visible. I first noticed it in secondary school as self-awareness slowly dawned. Myself, I liked getting answers right and gathering more knowledge. Yet some of my peers seemed to decide that standing out was bad, and that being smart was standing out. As we grew, it became uncool to try hard. Uncool to know the answers. I clearly remember my English teacher shaking his head at me when I was the only person to put my hand up for an answer and asking “why do you always have to be different, Dan?”

Of course, that’s different from anti-intellectualism – that’s anti-smart as a sub-set of anti-different. But it certainly feels linked. And this negativity certainly reflects a divergence of the English intellectual from the French public intellectual, where Sartre, Camus, De Beauvoir and their kin were fêted, and public intellectualism is still active. As Daniel Little has said of America, “the depth and pervasiveness of the presence of deeply thoughtful scholars and writers on French radio and television” is not visible here. We have a scraping of aged public intellectuals, mostly on Radio 4 – but there aren’t new ones coming through. Our popular culture shies away from thought.

It’s possible that this a bleed-over from the more practical American culture. Richard Hofstadter won the Pulitzer for Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1963, which I’ve yet to read, so I’ll quote from Christopher Hefele’s succinct Amazon review:

“Unfortunately, America’s practical culture has never embraced intellectuals. The intellectuals’ education and expertise are viewed as a form of power or privilege. Intellectuals are seen as a small arrogant elite who are pretentious, conceited, snobbish. Geniuses’ are described as eccentric, and their talents dismissed as mere cleverness. Their cultured view is seen as impractical, and their sophistication as ineffectual. Their emphasis on knowledge and education is viewed as subversive, and it threatens to produce social decadence.”

There’s another possible cause for the decline in the UK, pointed out by Kim Blake, which is demographic. The aristocratic / bourgeois generation of 19th century intellectuals, who didn’t have to work but merely thought, vanished with the leisured aristocrats – Tony Benn (AKA Anthony Wedgewood Benn, Viscount Stansgate) may have been the last of those. Similarly, Kim implied that many of the autodidact generation which formed twentieth century British’s public intellectual cadre came from a narrow background.

It is notable that these people have vanished. Perhaps with the slow death of social mobility and the running down of Victorian infrastructure, the reading rooms and small public libraries where they studied vanished. Perhaps the Methodist work ethic that drove many of them has also vanished. Either way, two sources of British Intellectuals vanished. Yet many people still feel like the capability to be an intellectual is out of reach, is something for another class.

To self-define as intellectual in the UK, then, is to define yourself as arrogant, out-of-touch and ultimately useless to a large subset of the population. Thankfully, intellectuals, by my definition, won’t really mind about that. They’re more concerned with being true to their own ideas and being morally right.

Ostrava: In the Shadow of History – Geographical

On the edge of Ostrava there’s a sharp-sided hill. If you stood on it, you’d have a view over the old city, and you’d marvel at the number of smokestacks you saw. They’re all shapes and sizes and surround the old town centre like widely-spaced fence posts. If it was wintertime, you’d also marvel at how the hill you’re standing on is free of snow, while all around is white satin. Putting your hand on the ground, you’d find it oddly warm.

Like the old buildings and the smokestacks, this hill – called Ema – is a symbol of Ostrava’s inescapable past. It’s formed of the waste from the ironworks in the town’s centre. The last slag was dumped on Ema in 1993 and despite that 22-year gap, it’s still hot. Beneath the streets of Ostrava lies a massive anthracite deposit that made the area the ideal location for iron smelting, and which had been exploited for more than 200 years.

Source: Ostrava: In the Shadow of History – Geographical

Democracy: Experiments with Manifestos.

What happens when no-one wins an election? All of the manifestos carefully crafted for the 2010 election by our political overlords were, more than usually, a complete waste of time. But us lovers of alternate histories couldn’t help but wonder how they would have ruled if they’d actually won, outright, and what the outcomes of those bizarre manifestos might have been?

This was a piece that I originally wrote for PC Gamer, back around the time of the 2010 elections. But they never ran it, so I got their permission to put it up here.

What happens when no-one wins an election? All of the manifestos carefully crafted for the 2010 election by our political overlords were, more than usually, a complete waste of time. But us lovers of alternate histories couldn’t help but wonder how they would have ruled if they’d actually won, outright, and what the outcomes of those bizarre manifestos might have been?

Only PC games can answer this question. Cliff  Harris’s Democracy games are amongst the most bizarre simulations created, being as much a visualisation of the politic and economic topology of various countries as a game. You play the role of a newly elected party leader, trying to get re-elected as many times as possible, whilst trying to retain as many principles as possible.

It’s not easy. In the Democracy games, almost every policy and economic decision affects other policies, the voting intentions of the population, and various key statistics about that population – many of which also affect each other. So putting a tax on petrol annoys motorists and pleases environmentalists, while reducing GDP and car usage. A reduction in GDP annoys capitalists, and reduced car usage improves air quality – which itself pleases environmentalists, and affects serious issues like pollution and asthma epidemic. Your aim is to cobble together a support base from a variety of factions, at just the right time to get re-elected.

The interface that presents all this is infotastic. The entire game is menus: striped tubes connecting linked issues, policies and factions, with the speed, direction and colour of the stripes indicating the amount and influence of the effects of each issue / policy / faction. You can remove and add policies at will, though Democracy 2 puts limits on your actions, depending on the loyalty, popularity and experience of your cabinet members, much like in reality.

So what would happen if we used these games to do what the political parties couldn’t, and carried out their election manifestos? With Democracy 2 as our laboratory and Great Britain as our petri dish, would we forge a utopian, economic powerhouse with Lib Dem ideals, or craft a new, compassionate society with the policies of the Conservatives? Would the Monster Raving Loony Party lead us to a new renaissance? Would environmental terrorists blow us up? Let’s find out.

How I Did It

  • Using my copies of the manifestos (yes, I bought them all), I’ve tried to determine the actual pledges that the parties had. I’ve matched these up to the extra policies you can implement in game and inputted them as the in-game start conditions for each party. For example, the Lib-Dems pledged to cut the size of the Department of Health by half (which I interpreted, perhaps erroneously, as the whole of the NHS), so I’ve simply slashed funding to the state heath service as one of their first moves (http://tinyurl.com/libdemmani); meanwhile, UKIP claimed they’d spend an extra 40% on Defense, cumulatively every year, so I tried to replicate that throughtout the sim.
  • For scientific rigour, I’ve run the simulations in Democracy 1, then attempted to duplicate the results in Democracy 2 to see how the extra features react. Of course, with assassinations, booms and busts, it was hard to keep the games parallel, but I did my best. When I wrote this, Democracy 3 wasn’t out yet.
  • Every party had the same background situation; terrifying economic volatility, a huge public debt, low interest rates, and relatively cynical voters; any policies we instituted are as near as we could get to the real party’s policies in that situation.
  • Democracy 2’s simulation is more complex, but doesn’t feature the UK. I’ve used a mod that adds it to the game, available from here.
  • (I’ve also tried to replicate each of the then party leader’s speaking / writing style as much as possible – so GB is all passive and far too many clauses, NC is vapid and sincere, DC is… Tony Blair.)
What happens when the wheels fall off the economic cycle...
What happens when the wheels fall off the economic cycle…

Labour Wins: The Eternal Empire of Godron Broon.

Gordon writes: “Och? We won? I have to run this place for another 5 years? Mandy told me that if I insulted the voters and did my best Vincent Price smile, there was no chance I’d have to serve another term, I’d get to have a holiday, and then the complete cock-up of the economy would be the Tories’ fault. Right, right. What did we promise? Hmm. Looks like we said we’d throw money at everything, whilst also cutting costs. How the bloody hell did I work that one out? Oh; eyebrows Darling did the maths.

The Pledge – A Fairer Society: As Labour pledged, I make tax fairer – dropping VAT and pushing up income tax, so the upper and middle class pay more – and funnelling the profits into supporting business and a high tech, green economy. When you cut taxes in Democracy tax evasion drops, so the Keynesians out there will be happy to know I’m actually collecting nearly as much tax as before. Transport, from new motorways and airports, to electric cars and trains, gets buried under cash, which is a huge stimulus to the economy. I also fulfil my commitment to deal with terrorism by giving GCHQ and MI5 enough money to monitor everyone in the country through spy satellites. Their first finding is that religious types don’t like the money I poured into hi-tech (Stem cell research), and are plotting against us. Let them, I think. It’s just as I’m signing a bill into law upping the minimum wage that the first bomb hits. It kills off Miliband Senior, which is no great loss. Onward!

Cabinet In The Woods: The debt is going down, but the liberals are getting antsy, pointing to my television-monitoring, the soaring homelessness and my rejection of freedom of information, to say that the comrades and I have been building a police state. Everyone else is getting antsy about the soaring crime rate and the disease epidemic – I even have to conduct a show trial for Miliburn, as he was threatening to “spend more time with his family.” Mandy is erasing him from the official photographs as I type. The next assassination attempt does for Blunkett, though thankfully his dog Sadie has survived him and will thrive in her new role as Home Secretary, where she will oversee the expansion of the DNA database. At this point, Archbishop Rowan Williams excommunicates me, and the polls have us on just 11%, with only a year left before the election. There’s no way I can pull this off again… Is there?

Great Browntain: Ten years pass, and Great Browntain goes from strength to strength; a technocratic, authoritarian, egalitarian utopia. The few Labour party MPs not killed during the multi-faith terror campaign have sadly moved onto more fulfilling roles in the Falkland gulags, so are spared the sorrow of seeing our beloved leader shot down at the 12th attempt by extreme Anglicans. It is with great humility that I, Comrade Mandelson, have agreed to step into his brogues, proudly dragging this country forward into a bright, red future.

Always with the religious extremists...
Always with the religious extremists…

Lib-Dem Victory: The Rise and Fall of Nicholas Clegg

Nick writes: “How the hell did the Lib-dems end up in charge? That’s a very good question, Tim, and a good question is a question worth answering. Answer it I will. Our goal is to answer that question, not in the old discredited way that the other two parties would have, but a new way. For a new question. A hopeful way for the 21st century. So thank you for that question – Tim. Vince has just passed me a note saying “answer the damn question, you crawly windbag”, which is a vital point, and a point we can trust…”

The Pledge – Education: As the Lib-Dems pledged, I immediately slash 50% of the NHS and defence budgets (I presume cancelling the Trident replacement and the new Eurofighters), and use it to raise public sector pay, increase state pensions, reform the schools, and provide student grants for all. I fiddle with the tax system, reducing VAT and moving the bills onto the wealthy, polluters, motorists and airlines; the excess subsidises the rail networks, rural communities and small businesses. Then we sit back, and wait for all of these changes to trickle through.

It’s My Party, They’ll Cry If I Want Them To: With all this intervention, it turns out that the liberal-democrats themselves are a bit pissed off, so I get Nicky to lay into the Monarchy and chop back the security services; now the liberals are happy, but the patriots are pissed off, and get more pissed off as the defence cuts kick in. The NHS cuts are literally killing us (through an asthma epidemic) as well as destroying us electorally, but it stabilises quickly as we use our massive surplus to pay off our international debts, then cut income TAX, VAT and corporation tax. A despairing gang of generals attempt to mount a coup, but are shot down at Downing Street; all’s going well, the UK’s well on the way to a technological utopia, and the Lib-Dems are proving that they’re not just a one issue party.

 “Vince here. While that supercilious meat-puppet swanned about saving the world, it was the job of twinkletoes here to keep the UK economy on the straight and narrow; it turns out the generals were just one prong of the attack though, as Nicky was assassinated by a lone patriotic gunman, just before the election. Without a leader, even one as flaccid as him, we couldn’t compete, so I start talks about coalition… with Labour.”

I disagree with Nick.
I disagree with Nick.

Tory Victory: Cameron and on and on.

Call-me-Dave writes: “No, I need the spotlight to bring out the blue in my eyes. Well, can’t you photoshop it in afterwards? And could you airbrush out the frown lines? Great, great. Oh, hi! Yes, we always knew we were going to win an absolute majority. With policies like ours, how could we not? I mean, basically, the plan was to keep our heads down and wait for Gordon to cock it up. Job done, Bullingdon boys in Number 10. Oh. The economy’s screwed.”

The Pledge: Tories are traditionally great believers in fulfilling their pledges, except when no-one’s watching, but sadly everyone is. So we spend the first month dealing with the deficit; that is, cutting taxes on the rich and corporations. Mad Cow disease re-appears, and wipes out our support amongst farmers. I freeze public sector spending and state pensions, and transfer the funds to the NHS. Then I cut corporation tax, and replace it with pro-environmental taxes, to get this country working on a, y’know, progressive footing. We push down the huge defense bill (which, with a spy scandal, has the patriots up in arms, but I back the monarch and they love me again), and transfer the funds to subsidies for the railways, green local transport and SMEs (small businesses). Then we limit unskilled workers entering the country. We cancel the Heathrow expansion, as our GDPs booming (mainly due to the longest boom in global economics ever) so we’re running a tremendous surplus with low unemployment.

A Well-Hung Parliament: The trade unionists are whingeing now, the liberals are enraged and I’m condemned by the pope; cynically, we drop middle class income tax in the budget, and promise to cut it more for the next election. A military whistleblower knocks down our right-wing ratings again, and running up to the election the polls are nightmarishly close – we win by a tiny majority again, and the party’s grumbling. Again, the economy is doing great guns, but our poll ratings are held down by dreadful events – more foot and mouth, another spy scandal, sweatshops caused by our cancelling the minimum wage. We last the next four years without changing much, and win the next election by a huge margin.

It seriously looks like we’re going to win the next election standing on our heads – but we forgot the pledges we made in our manifesto and are kicked out. Well, that was a good stint. I’ve become the longest serving Conservative PM since Robert Jenkinson in the 18th Century, and we only got kicked out because I’d made the country too perfect, thanks to an endless global boom, and couldn’t match the election promises I’d had to make. Looks like you can take the silver spoon out of the boy, but you can’t take the boy out of the… the… Coulson! I need an analogy!

This is what happens if you lie to the electorate.
This is what happens if you lie to the electorate.

Smaller parties:

BNP: Our first step; the death penalty for drug dealers and terrorists. It’s in the manifesto, don’t act surprised. Then national service, stronger prisons and police, and strong education and health systems. Then a prison island in the south pacific for the paedophiles and rapists. Then voluntary local currencies and tax cuts. Then… bugger. We’ve been bombed, by everyone except the conservatives. Should’ve kept one or two spies, perhaps, rather than throwing all that money at the army. Um… and that deficit? Ouch. At least we’ve got the homeless off the streets and into uniforms. Um… except I got hounded from office for being so in-debt. Funny, I was sure I’d be assassinated; turns out it’s really hard to turn liberals militant.

UKIP: As an elderly arm of the Tory party, UKIP has lots of spending commitments, particularly for pensioners. Their tactic, from their manifesto, seems to be to solve lots of problems through spending huge amounts of money – such as a 40% increase in the already-huge military budget, £30 billion on flood defences, more spending on cutting foreign ties… unsurprisingly, I find it utterly impossible to balance the books according to their manifesto and get hounded from office by my own party.

Green: The Greens, of all the parties, took the most care at the last election to completely cost their policies, which makes running the country as them surprisingly easy. As the only remaining national party of the left, they obviously slash defence and use it to pay for a huge variety of environmental and union-friendly proposals. Sadly, in our run-through, despite their clever costing and variety of progressive incentives, they lost the right wing entirely early on (with Patriotic plots galore), saw internet-based crime go through the roof due to their support for tech, and were wiped out by a horrendous global recession – as Cliffski always says “events, dear boy, events.” Before they could be kicked out by the electorate, Prime Minister Caroline Lucas was executed by a Patriot death squad that penetrated Parliament itself. Y’ouch.

Monster Raving Loony: The party now run by the late Screaming Lord Sutch’s cat promised many things, most of which are hard to implement in a simulation. Changing the ‘X’ you write to vote to a tick, because “X is as good as writing ‘monumental cock-up’” isn’t in the options. As are dedicated pogo-stick lanes on the motorways and allowing Hovercrafts to go anywhere they like because they’re inflatable, so “being hit by one is less painful” than a car.

As the manifesto seems to have been written by a five-year old with ADD, and most of their policies are anarchistic, anti-authoritarian jokes, I just remove all the funding I can, to end up with the sort of small government that backwater survivalists in Montana dream of. This results in inner-city riots, attacks by every sort of pressure group, drug addiction, gridlock, an antisocial behaviour epidemic, armed robberies and, weirdly, huge support from the trade unions. They must like a joke, then. Meanwhile, an enviro-mentalist group called The Green Brigades is sending me death threats and bombing our cities, while celebrities keep endorsing me. I have to fire half my cabinet before they can quit, but it doesn’t stop the Green meanies blowing up the undefended Downing Street and me with it.

The BNP's policies just don't work.
The BNP’s policies just don’t work.
Cliff Harris
Cliff Harris

Interview with the developer, Cliff Harris (conducted early 2011). 

How did you go about building Democracy & Democracy 2?

The original game was based upon a sudden epiphany when reading a book about robot chimpanzees, when I realised that a neural network could be used to represent the interconnectedness of the political and economic system, not just robot chimps. Once I had that idea in my head I had to code it. The original game was a bit basic in terms of presentation, and I thought that it had a really good base, so I did a sequel that basically expanded on it and made it more palatable in terms of shininess.

Do you have any background in psephology, economics or politics?

I thought psephology was the study of meringues, so definitely not, but in my defence I did study a degree in economics at the London school of economics, plus won my school award for being best in economics. So I guess I have some background there.

Are there inherent biases in the game? Liberals don’t seem to go militant so often…

This is by design, in that liberals do not have a terrorist group, in the same way commuters don’t. I might be showing my Englishness there, but a lot of the social groups in the game have no conflict state beyond ‘aggressive tutting’. I guess the worse case is that they don’t join your party and will not campaign for you in the election.

Have you ever been a member of a banned… I mean, a political party?

I have, and I am a member of one now, but I don’t publicly say who, because I think regardless of the answer people will think it’s skewed the simulation design, and hopefully it hasn’t. My own politics have varied dramatically over the last twenty years anyway.

Do you think politicians should play the game? What might they learn from it? Are there any problems that could have been averted through using Democracy? 

They should definitely play it. I offered it to politicians for free once. it’s literally insane they don’t. It is a great tool to practice managing a large scale complex political economy. You wouldn’t be happy for your brain surgeon to learn on the job, but our Prime Ministers do exactly that. What Democracy teaches you is to consider the long term implications of short term policy changes, and to consider knock on effects. I would like to think that a lot of practice with the game might have actually taught people prudence, rather than just how to say the word, for example.

 If you were making the games today, what would you put in?

The game really lacks an accurate model of the private sector for stuff we have nationalised in the UK. It’s the biggest flaw. I’d definitely put that in, plus some better modelling of house prices. Also, the game doesn’t have a ‘choose your child’s school’ policy, and that has such incredible ramifications for society, it should have been in there.

 Are there any politicians Democracy can’t account for?

I think libertarians may be critical that the ‘crowding out’ of the private sector by the public sector isn’t modelled enough for them to pursue a libertarian agenda accurately, so possibly the game can’t model them well.

 Any chance of Democracy 3? Or a Democracy “educational edition?”

I am busy making things explode for my next game, but I have pencilled in a return to this genre after that. I have lots of ideas on how to improve it.

Is there any way to win at Democracy?

No, you can only lose power, although you could argue that winning all of the achievements in a single game is a victory of sorts (in democracy 2)

I seem to get assassinated a lot by Patriots. Is that a design decision?

You should be more proud of your country, son.

Democracy2 GENERAL

Execution Summary – Bomb or Boot?

When and how our glorious leaders were carried from office.

  • Brown – 14 years, bomb.
  • Cameron – 15 years, boot
  • Clegg – 4.5 years, bomb
  • BNP  – 3.5 years, boot
  • UKIP – 3 years boot
  • Green – 4.5 years bomb
  • Loony – 3 years bomb

Interview – Asi Burak – Games For Change

Asi Burak

For a quick piece I wrote for the Guardian, about developing games in the developing world, I talked to Asi Burak, co-President of GamesForChange.

What is Games for Change?

Firstly, to define our unique role and mission: Games for Change (G4C) is not a game studio.  In some exceptional cases, like the Half the Sky games, we can go on and executive produce a project.  And in other cases, we serve as strategic advisors.  However, think of us more as the Sundance of gaming for good – the convener, facilitator, and catalyst.

What do you hope to achieve with the development games you support?

I like to cite social entrepreneur Dr. Paul Polak, who once said that the majority of the world’s designers focus on solutions for 10% of the world’s population.  The other 90% (more than 6 billion people) live on less than $10 a day.

At the same time, in many developing countries, the local education and health systems fail to equip youth with the most basic skills and knowledge.  I believe that gaming technology could bridge some of these gaps.

We have increasing evidence that well-designed digital games could drive meaningful impact; from raising awareness to building basic skills to promoting sustainable personal development that lasts beyond episodic play (‘behavior change’).   These are not simple projects, and they depend on a complex set of partnerships, but when they work – they can be very effective.

How do your games differ when targeting the global North and the developing world?

When designing games for audiences in developing countries you face a new set of challenges.  Limited access to technology is prevalent, especially in non-urban and remote areas, where your solutions are needed the most.  Or consider language: limited to no reading skills and numerous dialects across a single region or country.  Gaming ability itself could be low due to limited exposure to digital games, so when you design a game you might be introducing the gaming medium as a whole.

If you are headquartered in the West, you need to solve communication challenges, bridge cultural sensitivities and differences and build marketing and distribution capacity in an uncharted market.  In most cases, you could only do that with strong partners on the ground that are deeply involved in the development, production and outreach – from local NGO’s to local developers to game publishers and mobile operators.

How do you decide what technology to build your games on? Do you have to use different tech for development games in different regions? How do you promote the games for those regions?

You must rely on deep market research that is intertwined with your definitions for the project; mainly who is the audience, what is the context of play and what are the concrete impact objectives (or ‘theory of change’).

We have a robust methodology to define those constraints – think about it as a funnel.  From a “blue sky” of multiple platforms, technologies and solutions you get to focus on the most dominant and accessible gaming platform for your particular project.

As an example, for the Half the Sky games we published in India and Kenya (in partnership with Mudlark and E-Line Media), we chose Java based mobile phones.  Those feature phones are pretty basic, they don’t have touch screens and they have limited memory.  The games we developed had to be under 200 kilobytes(!) which is the equivalent of a word document you would attach to an email.  But this was the technology of choice for the people we wanted to reach with millions of devices out there and an emerging market of games and players.

Since we chose these mobile phones, we had to figure out what are the best channels to get the games out there.  We usually consider both consumer-facing channels, such as mobile operators and app stores, vs. context related distribution: how to embed the games in relevant and existing efforts with local NGO’s, schools or other community programs.

9minutesbanner1
Nine Minutes.

What constitutes a success for a development game? How much does one of your games typically cost to make?

A solid example is one of the Half the Sky games I mentioned above.  The game is called “9 Minutes” (pictured above), and it is aimed at pregnant women and their spouses.  Or women and girls that consider becoming pregnant.  The fun and action-packed experience simulates the full 9 month cycle with all the do’s and dont’s that are most critical for a successful and healthy delivery.

The USAID funded evaluation in India shows measurable positive shifts in knowledge, attitudes, and behavioral intentions toward promoted safe pregnancy and delivery actions following exposure to the game. 608 women and 308 men participated in the study.  When participants were asked to name beneficial pregnancy activities, significant increases were made from pre- to post-test intervention.

Interview: Gareth Garratt, disability campaigner.

To the tune of: Various Artists – A Visit To A Sad Planet

Gareth, gaming

Gareth Garratt is curled up in his wheelchair, his body secured in a bucket seat while his hands clutch at the side of a desktop. His chin is pressed down onto a Toshiba mouse and he’s using that to control a virtual Marty McFly, clambering around the back of a police van. Gareth’s chin is the only part of his body that seems to have fine motor control, due to the cerebral palsy he was born with.

Gareth sprang to prominence earlier in the week after a frustrated series of posts on the Overclockers UK forum, as he struggled with EA’s Dead Space 2; through this, he’s managed to raise the profile of disabled gamers and persuade EA to patch in support to Dead Space 2. We’ve come to his family home in Leicester, UK to talk to him about the campaign, the difficulties he has with gaming, and the wide variety of support he’s received. Due to his palsy it’s very hard for Gareth to talk, so his answers are short and sometimes his mother and full-time carer, Jacqueline Garratt, has to interpret for me.

Read the rest of interview on PCGamer.com

What EDMs say about MPs’ attitudes to games.

A couple of paragraphs I worked up for PC Gamer, for a forthcoming article, but I didn’t end up using.

To the tune of: Tenacious D – The Government Totally Sucks

Prior to the 2010 election, all three national parties had pledged to give UK games developers tax breaks; despite being something the Tories and Liberals agreed upon, it was one of the first things to be scrapped. There has been only one debate focussed on video games since the new coalition came to power, and that was to cancel the tax breaks for UK-based game developers. Though all the parties were highly positive about the UK games industry, economically, the coalition couldn’t justify a new subsidy whilst slashing the budget (and it’s likely Labour knew that the succeeding government couldn’t when it committed itself to credits just prior to the election.)

The reasoning behind the tax-breaks was to counterbalance the incentives other English-language countries have; Ireland’s very low corporation tax, for example, or Canada’s huge tax credits (where companies can get 40% of their employee’s salaries back) and high salaries are a brain drain, meaning many UK developers go abroad to work. Canada isn’t just luring developers with lumps of cash. The usual obstacles of cognitive dissonance, that governments would rely upon for keeping skilled workers in the country, just aren’t there for many developers, especially graduates and Indie developers; staying near family, familiarity with how things work, useful networks; they matter, but not as much as ‘making it’. Moreover, for quality of life Canada’s always listed in the top ten countries All things being equal, Canada would be a great place to move to for a developer; as it is, they’d be stupid not to be looking for jobs there.

Gaming MPs

As any good economist can tell you the easiest way to counteract a tariff or a subsidy, is to set one up yourself – and taxing foreign-made games would be far too contentious, so it has to be a subsidy – which, because of world trade law, is easiest disguised as a tax-credit. As Eidos’ Ian Livingstone pointed out at the GamersVoice meeting, without such a credit, British game development has fallen from 3rd in the world to 6th. So why did they scrap them? The coalition minister David Gauke has said there is no evidence of market failure, that tax relief artificially distorts markets, and that under EU regulations such tax breaks would be illegal state aid – all good arguments if true, and all equally applicable to the UK film industry which receives £110m a year in subsidies.

I agree there hasn’t been market failure – but having a working market never used to stop politicians intervening (look at the endless subsidies to the rail companies), so why not games? Meanwhile Canadian tax relief is already distorting the market – so much so that France is already subsidising its industry, meaning the UK is unlikely to get prosecuted by the EU if it brings it in. So what’s the real reason?

Partially, it’s likely to be down to limited legislative time and cost; but it’s low on these agendas because MPs simply don’t understand the importance of the industry, and have a negative impression of it. As Keith Vaz’s ignorant statements about games violence have shown, most MPs are technologically and socially out of touch, and happy just to play to prejudices to make headlines. As the Coalition Minister Ed Vaizey said in June 2010, “for most of the last 13 years, the only time the Labour party ever talked about video games was when the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) condemned them for all sorts of misdemeanours.”

The reason Keith Vaz is a such a target for our ire, is that the man often seems maliciously ignorant and has misled his fellow members. After the dreadful anecdotal nonsense of the BBC’s Panorama ‘investigation’ into video games, an Early Day Motion (pretty much an open letter from MPs) sponsored by Vaz amongst others, attracted 15 MPs signatures “That this House notes with concern the findings from BBC’s Panorama investigation that video games have addictive properties”, despite the programme proving no such thing. In fact, there are many such motions from Vaz, nearly all of them involving sensationality and anti-games. Having gone through all the video game related EDMs, I can reveal he did one for the Malmo shootings, which he blamed on Counter-Strike (10 signatures), one about games being violent (26 signatures), one about Rapelay (42), Madworld (26), Modern Warfare 2 (13) and many, many more. He’s a one-man smear campaign.

Vaz, just so you know who we’re dealing with, has been investigated several times over corruption (the Hindujas), has served a rare suspension from Parliament for misleading the police, and is a proponent of provably ineffective homeopathy; yet his loyalty to the government was rewarded with a prestigious committee chairmanship and his appointment as a privy councillor. So it goes. However, there are other MPs on-side; if you live in either Dundee or Nottingham, your MPs are mostly games-friendly. There were friendly EDMs from both Ed Vaizey and Tom Watson, which attracted 30 or so signatures each. That said, there are still around 600 MPs who haven’t committed themselves one way or another – they’re the ones we need to capture, and persuade.

On CyberWar

To the Tune of: Jeff Wayne;Richard Burton;Justin Hayward – The Eve Of The War

This is the longer draft of a short piece I did for the just-released Delayed Gratification. Before the Wikileaks stuff happened incidentally, so I was prescient about 4Chan.

Undersea Cable

Missile weapons, phalanxes, military organisation, artillery, ironclads, dreadnoughts, machine guns, submarines, and finally nuclear weapons. These are all shifts of technology that led to shifts in international power, making the ultimate weapons of their time obsolete. Rifled guns eradicated knights, ironclads wiped out galleons, like lightning against tin hats.

Cyberwarfare is the latest technological shift. Simply put, it’s an aggressive action using computer technology. It’s mostly a threat to networked devices, so an obvious defense would seem to be to not connect your machines to the Internet, especially not important ones. Yet, the two biggest infections of recent years (this year’s Stuxnet attack on Iran and 2008’s total infection of the US Central Command) were both started by USB sticks. Moreover, as we’ll see, aside from isolating your computers, the physical infrastructure of the Internet is itself vulnerable to everything from fires to enthusiastic hoeing.

The UK government thinks Cyber attacks are such a huge threat that, even in the midst of the biggest public service retrenchment since Henry VIII burnt half his cabinet, they’ve just allocated an extra £650 million to defending against it, and rated it as a Tier 1 threat – that means we should be more scared of it than nuclear, chemical, biological or radiological attacks. Meanwhile, the US government has admitted that hackers steal enough data from US agencies, businesses and universities to fill the library of congress many times over.

The varieties of cyberwarfare range from the brute force, such as the ‘DDOS’ (distributed denial of service) employed by Russian bot-nets and angry forum users, to national networks such as the Chinese Titan Rain hacking system or Russian Moonlight Maze, to the highly targeted Stuxnet (the culprit of which is unlikely to be known until we accidentally hack whoever it was back). You can see from this that normal governmental cyberwarfare is not qualitatively different from normal hacking and virus-creation – Stuxnet is only thought to be governmental because of the use of rare, valuable vulnerabilities.

Stanislav Petrov

Who are the great powers in the world of cyberwarfare? An anonymous industry expert we contacted pointed to “nation states, organised criminal organisations and (defensively) some large organisations (especially in financial services)” as the major actors. Unlike economics, where a company or country can use a small number of experts to dominate a market, or a small lobbying firm to distort a market, what’s required to be a major power is large numbers of committed technical experts. So cyberwarfare gives disproportionate power to mass movements that include technical types, for example cyber vigilantes like Wikileaks or the huge, juvenile anarchist community 4chan.

Despite its apparent technological expertise, most of the United States’ technology production and know-how was long ago outsourced to the Far East; so compared to its dominance in almost every other field (it spends 45% of the world’s total military spending), it has been relatively weak in Cyberwarfare. So how do they plan to defend against it? Former US Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff suggested in October that Cyberwarfare is best opposed by open protocols, similar to but not quite at the level of mutually-assured destruction (MAD); “…it’s important to define when and how it might be appropriate to respond,” explained Chertoff. “Everyone needs to understand the rules of the game.”

Sadly, as our expert points out, it’s very easy to establish protocols, but there are three major problems. Firstly, this is such a mutable field, that these protocols would either have to be really wide-ranging, or very vague to deal with the rate of technological change. Secondly, there are so many ongoing attacks (with more than 100 foreign intelligence agencies trying to hack into US military digital networks, and over 1000 attacks a month) that determining which ones justify a response isn’t clear. “Any attack needs to cause (or be about to cause) real world damage.” If that could be established a response would then follow existing international treaties.

Sadly, the third problem is the biggest. “The fundamental difficulty at the moment in establishing a cyber response doctrine is the difficulty of definitive attribution of any cyber attack (including intelligence gathering operations).” says our source. “At a very recent conference I attended there was strand of thought developing that attribution might always be largely impossible without fundamental changes to the structure to the Internet, with detailed monitoring of any cross-border traffic.” Without such a change, no government can attack on good faith – data is faked so easily, that “Any web-based attack can be launched from computers all over the world.” Still, Chertoff talked of attacking anyway to remove the node the attack was coming through – even if that node was blameless.

Sub-saharan Undersea Cables in 2012

Even if all that’s solved, you have to rely on the protocols being carried out – as the case of Stanislav Petrov shows. He was a Russian bunker commander in 1983 when his (broken) systems told him that nuclear war had broken out; he thankfully, refused to launch his missiles, against the doctrine of MAD, but undermining the whole point of the protocol. A protocol that’s not carried out is worthless – and neither men nor machines can be relied upon.

So what defenses do we have? Well, less advanced nations have a slight advantage. As William Lynn, US Undersecretary of Defense, pointed out recently, dispersed, complicated and messy systems, like the US power grid, are protected by their complexity and lack of connection. Conversely, anything with remote, internet-based design built-in is really asking for trouble. However, as our expert says “If you know a previously undiscovered vulnerability and/or you can socially engineer a victim into clicking on a link or opening an email then you will always get in.” Undiscovered vulnerabilities are rare in the wild – that was, until Stuxnet used four of them.

That said, computing is still entirely a physical medium – the Internet has not evanesced or apotheosized to exist entirely in the air (yet). “It’s safe to assume that security of the physical infrastructure is a key part of any cyber warfare planning.” says our expert. Key elements of the net exist in the unlikeliest locations; favourite locations for server farms (the great data stores of the internet) are deep, unused mines, and other cold, dry areas. Meanwhile, much of the world’s data is carried through thin undersea cables that are vulnerable to boats anchors and cluster as they come ashore in very few locations – New York, Cornwall, Rio, Singapore, and Mumbai (see image, right.) An still-unexplained accident in 2008 meant that 80 million people across India and the Middle East lost connection.

That’s not the whole story. As Lynn points out, the substrate of the Internet can be compromised too – “The risk of compromise in the manufacturing process is very real and is perhaps the least understood cyber threat.” Back doors and kill switches can be built into software and hardware, not being activated until necessary. If all else fails, seven people worldwide (including one from Bath, Somerset) have been entrusted with keys that reset the internet – assuming that at least five of them can make it to Texas to do it!