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Edge Magazine #148 April 2005

Call Social Services

Edge #148, April 2005

Most clichés have a grain of truth to them ('there are plenty more fish in the sea', 'never trust your shoes to a funfair worker', etc), and there's certainly something to the hoary old adage 'radio has the best pictures'. But in an era where technology takes the effort out of everything, it seems we no longer even have to do our own imagining.

Though I never owned a BBC Model B, almost all my poncey, middle-class mates did. I'd seek refuge at their palatial mansions, too traumatised to return to the whorehouse in which I'd been raised. There I would lose myself in Superior Software's Citadel.

I recently revisited Citadel, and I couldn't tell what it was that had originally stuck in my affections. It's an ugly and unremarkable action adventure, but as a child of indeterminate age I was awed by the richness of the world. My memory was of an utterly convincing microcosm of reality squeezed into a brown- and-cream slab of '80s consumer plastic. Yet re-experiencing that microcosm as an adult I realised it was about as convincing a recreation of reality as a photograph of a kitten stapled to a bonsai tree, with a potato stuck on a shaft of bamboo meant to represent the sun. Somehow, Superior Software sold to my youthful self a believable world without elaborate cut-scenes or a single carefully rendered blade of grass.

When I originally played Citadel I didn't see a pink castle made of jagged blocks. I saw a majestic fortress towering above a sea of snarling peaks, its corridors ripe with the stench of trolls. My avatar was no pixellated dwarf, but as real as you or I, weathered by decades of adventuring. I was transported more by subconscious fantasy than the artist's whim. Imagination filled in the blanks. Nowadays, games do all the work for us. Graphics are so ruddy swell that there's little room for user interpretation. Half-Life 2 is such a convincing, benchmark recreation of a realistic environment that there's little left for our brains to do.

The graphics in Half-Life 2, or Splinter Cell, or Call Of Duty are an easier target for criticism than you'd think. They strive for realism, but do a Paula Radcliffe before the finishing line. We notice what's not there because so much of what should be there is. Yet the graphics in Citadel, or Donkey Kong, or Jet Set Willy are so far removed from real life (short of an acid- fuelled stay in a stately home) that they virtually transcend criticism. They're functional, yes, but work as a kind of visual shorthand.

It was only when Star Wars arrived that people started to criticise the wobbly sets in Doctor Who. Prior to that the audience's imaginations could forgive any number of aliens fashioned from offal-stuffed condoms.

At the risk of wafting across like some musty old fart, a large part of what concerns me is that the youth of today (you can practically hear the rattle of my Zimmer frame...) would rather play videogames ahead of traditional games like cops and plumbers, shove-a-turnip or lupus. They are games which not only require a degree of imagination on the part of the child, but social interaction.

I'm not for a minute advocating we ditch the last 20 years of graphical evolution. I'm just concerned that if all kids do is play modern games we'll end up breeding a generation of Paul W Andersons (the W stands for 'What A Lot Of Wubbish Films He's Made'), whose entire creative vocabulary appears to stem from a lifetime playing Mortal Kombat. Would tarnished wunderkind George Lucas have redefined cinema if he'd spent all his formative years achieving high scores on Pong (though current form suggests he spent the last two decades wanking into a pile of money)?

My kids got a lot of games for Christmas last year, and for the first few weeks of 2005 play games was pretty much all they did. It seemed unfair to limit their playing as we normally do - but it was soon apparent that the games marathon started to affect them. Their social skills went to pot and all they talked about was games. And so they were banned from all games for a fortnight. Non-negotiable.

After three days they stopped talking about games altogether. They rediscovered all the other toys they'd got for Christmas and had promptly forgotten about when they unwrapped the Nintendo DS I'd stupidly bought myself (them). The Lego set got built. Robosapien was dragged out. They built cities out of books and boxes, and boats out of duvets and bunk beds. They even - god forbid - played Monopoly. In fact, they enjoyed themselves so much that they had to be reminded when the ban was over.

Though they're back on the games, their playing time is now a fraction of what it was. The astonishing thing is they don't even seem to mind. After all, even sandbox-style games like The Sims 2 can't offer the infinite flexibility of making Green Greedo have dirty bum sex with your sister's Barbie, while Man-At-Arms and Orko use an eyeliner to draw spurting phalluses all over her Dream Kitchen walls.

Um... please don't tell Social Services.

Mr Biffo co-founded Digitiser, Channel 4's Teletext-based videogames section, and now writes mainly for television

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