This is the question that I rather unexpectedly had answered while channel-hopping through the more obscure reaches of cable TV space. More4, the third spin-off channel from Channel 4 (following FilmFour and E4) is supposed to show more cerebral stuff, but even I was surprised by The Last Word, a chat show hosted by historian David Starkey.
Sadly, he wasn’t interviewing the usual round of chat show suspects – Starkey vs Jordan would be a fantastic watch – but rather discussing news items with a panel. One topic up for discussion was the opening up of another archive of Nazi documents, which Starkey lamented would lead to another glut of WW2 history books and programmes. The panel defended this, trotting out the obvious reason that "there is a lot we today can learn from the evil the Nazis did."
Although Starkey began by mocking the historical importance of Hitler and co. (he seemed to view them, in the grand scheme of things, as a nasty little gang with a thankfully short shelf-life, rather than creators of a period of history deserving of serious analysis), what surprised me was that he broadened his argument to express scepticism at the very notion that we study history in order to learn from it.
It was his view that we learn nothing from history. (I’m paraphrasing here), but he said something like: "I cannot understand this idea that we study history in order to learn from it. For me its pleasures are those of a story, of an investigation, of its characters and drama…"
Now perhaps this is the Devil’s Advocate getting a run-out, a flare of controversy sent spitting out of the TV to catch idle channel-surfers (yours truly etc), but the idea fascinated me. That he didn’t bother taking the moral high ground, or seeking to give a moral justification for what his profession. In so many arguments, when a field of activity comes under attack, its defenders will position it as morally beneficial – this is very much what is happening with video games, which are under considerable pressure from opportunisitic politicians, especially in the US. Defenders of gaming almost always point out its morally and socially enlightening aspects, or how games teach kids to interact with computers, solve problems etc – this is basically the core argument of the successful ‘Everything Bad Is Good For You’ book. However, what Starkey’s willfully abrasive perspective is very good at showing up is that such an approach is almost Victorian in the way it seeks to capture and confer ‘righteousness’ upon an activity in order to legitimise it.
I’ve played video games for most of my life, and they certainly have taught me how to use computers, both at a basic level (loading programmes, troubleshooting etc.), and at a broader level, in terms of feeling comfortable at the keyboard. Games may have made my reflexes better and I’ve seen beautiful scenes and learned things about everything from racing cars to submarines while playing. But that was never the primary reason for hitting the power button and loading the game… I didn’t want to sit down and ‘improve’ myself like some Dickensian self-starter. Then again, neither was I seeking to waste my time in bored, antisocial apathy….
I struggle to put my finger on exactly why I played, this advert for Katamari Damacy (below) is very good at getting to the core feeling: watch it. How on earth can you not want to play the game?!? True, it’s in Japanese, but the basic set-up – man waiting for a meeting, is called into the office, and goes in in a completely bizarre and entertaining manner – shows a brilliant idea in motion that just looks like a lot of fun.