Sunday, 6 December 2009

Let Tiger worry about his Swing, rather than his Swinging

The 'media frenzy' about Tiger Woods' "transgressions" continues, and shows no signs of abating despite his pleas to the contrary. What is odd, however, is the extent of the media vitriol towards a man who had previously maintained a private and (however misplaced this might be) wholesome image - although in this case I think there is an issue of cause-and-effect.

The general tone is unmistakeable - the tabloids can barely disguise their malevolent glee about the matter; they litter their invective with awful puns about golf, e.g. "Tiger scores a Birdie!" and "I bet his wife will be TEEd off". You can imagine employees of The Sun laughing at their 'wit' between bouts of foaming at the mouth at the prospect of tearing a sportsman apart for doing something - well, human.

That is not to say that what Mr Woods did was acceptable. Cheating on your wife with low-rent types and then driving like a madman are, as far as things go, rather unacceptable. And I think Mrs Woods did what many women in similar situations would do - taking a golf club to the SUV, for instance, is almost a cliché in terms of women scorned.

One thing that strikes me as odd - Tiger obviously has a penchant for sleeping with a lot of women in an extra-marital capacity; why did he sign a pre-nuptial agreement? Even Michael Douglas learned that lesson.

Nevertheless, what is clear in this instance is the extent to which the media focus didn't lessen even after, as they say, the jig was up. It is if the media have been keen to find 'dirt' on Woods formerly unblemished character. The fact that he named his yacht Privacy may have raised further tabloid ire, akin to a drop of blood landing in a shark-filled pool. However, I don't believe Woods is guilty of hypocrisy, as such, as his media dealings seemed to have been aimed at making it all about the golf. Now the same newspapers who lavished praise on him for his golfing genuis when he first became famous have turned on him for simply not being newsworthy. Until now.

And make it about the golf, I say, and only the golf. Do not turn a talented man into a national joke or, even worse, tabloid hate figure for a very human weakness. Do not reduce his character to an endless array of bad golfing puns. How can he repair the damage he has caused when the media storm continues, dredging up more floozies eager to make a bit of kiss-and-tell money?

This incident is symptomatic of a wider malaise. Sportsmen are expected to be utterly transparent beings, open in all their dealings. Their sporting achievements are no longer enough - we need to know every detail of their personal lives. If they make a mistake, we condemn them as a whole, yet by rights we should only judge them for their sport skills. When David Beckham had a similar "transgression", he "let us down" - but why? I don't even feel he is responsible to us for his footballing prowess, let alone as some sort of moral guardian. Perhaps I'm being obtuse. Perhaps the Ancient Greeks, too, revelled in gossip and rumour about the participants in the Olympics.

So Woods has let his fans down in a personal capacity, Thierry Henry has done so professionally after handballing in a World Cup play-off... What should we expect next, besides misbehaviour of some sort from Roger Federer? I am, of course, referring to the so-called 'Curse of the Gilette Three'...

We're watching you, Federer.

Lowest Common Denominator Politics

As an alternative to a 'class war' (or perhaps as a consequence of such) both Labour and the Conservatives are firing broadsides at each using a form of populist drivel as their main ammunition. However, the following campaign billboards should be villified as they involve the exploitation of a pair of young, entertaining irish lads.

Besides the fact that both posters are slightly mocking of the twins for no good reason, I find this all rather gauché. Gauché, yet theoretically useful - tapping into the public consciousness to gain votes, a form of meme-warfare. However, I think it is more likely the sign of a political elite that is out of touch with the hoi polloi yet desperate to look appealling. Hence this; lowest-common denominator politics.

Those interested in the X-Factor will be slightly amused but will remain indifferent to the political subtext, and those who are not interested in shows like the X-Factor will be derisive of either party. Both camps, I believe, will ultimately find this is harmful to British politics; nothing is said of policy. It serves only to make politics a sort of childish tit-for-tat squabble rather than the rational debate it should be.

On the other hand, why blame politicians for tapping into the vein of what British people find important? Forget the economy, wars abroad and the EU, what we're really interested in as a nation are the extent to which we think one person seeking fame (but lacking the drive to do the hard work themselves) are better than other, equally vapid examples of the same. Although of course it could be argued that the British public have became politics-weary, it is odd that we seemingly never tire of glorified talent shows.

So, does this bode well for the next General Election? The under-emphasis on policy in campaigns draws parallel with EU elections. European elections are, and always have been, a complete free-for-all; voters take into account all factors from the weather to some obscure historical squabble, indeed taking into account anything except the policies being voted on. British politics is rapidly becoming based on faddy 'spin' or hackneyed class stereotyping.

The two main parties, I believe, are as bad as each other. The only thing that I can say in the Conservatives' defence is that their photoshopping skills are superior. However, from a party that considered it 'hip' to have Mike Read deliver a ten minute-long political rap I'd say it is a slight improvement. However, too much of the 'resurgent conservatism' stems from bandwagoneering - the Conservative poster was 'inspired' by the Labour one, and even David Cameron himself seems like a purpose-built response to Blair, only ten years too late.

As one man aspires to ascend into the void left behind by Blair, another makes it painfully clear that he in no uncertain terms cannot fit the mold. Gordon Browns' attempts to emulate the suave 'premiership' of Blair are akin to watching the chimpanzees in the PG Tips adverts - both are attempting to aspire to something better but are genetically incapable of doing so. The transition from media-savvy Blair to PR disaster Brown was jarring - to see Brown appear on British television and mumble some half-hearted nonsense about Britains Got Talent (after having tried to rub fake tan onto his grey, undead flesh) is horrific.

Whether or not this highlights a dumbing-down in politics, or a dumbing-down of the people, the question remains: what has happened in contemporary politics? Politics should return to an old-fashioned intellectual debate on ideology, policy, implementation etc, rather than using the latest flash-in-the-pan fad to appeal to voters. Otherwise we would really just be as well getting Simon Cowell to choose our next government.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Evils of Separatism

Apparently not.

I would like to highlight that, while I am a Scot, I entertain no particular thoughts of an independant Scotland. I am concerned, however, that Independence for Independence's' sake has become widespread through the machinations of the 'Tartan Tories', otherwise known as the SNP.

I believe that to the layman Independence is attractive, fed by their own sense of patriotism. However, I believe that the reasons for (and against) separatism are not well-publicised and that the SNP are not encouraging a fair and honest discussion.

My main concern is that the Scottish economy is by all accounts in poor shape. For the time being, at least, unity with Britain allows us to 'meet the needs of globalisation' or, less euphemistically, not become a third-world country. The SNP are talking about oil like its going out of fashion (which of course it is). Their reliance on Scotlands' homegrown industries is a blind hope - who can forget the failure of the so-called Silicon Glen, or the decline of the Scottish whisky? The SNP are at odds to assure us that Scotland can survive, fiscally, outside the Union - the recent White Paper on Independence contained no reference to the multi-million pound bailout of HBOS and RBS by the British taxpayer (I wonder what revisionist brush they would paint the Darian disaster with?). In essence it is downright silly for the SNP to be talking Independence during an economic crisis, almost as if Independence is worth Scotland becoming poorer than Poland. But its okay, because we'll have the EU to leech money off, right?

If now is the wrong time to even contemplate independance, then SNP is the wrong party to be the major player behind such a change. In short, they are embarrassing. It embarrasses me that this party sees themselves as the embodiment of Scottish nationalism. They comprise the most old-fashioned, Andy-Stewart-Biscuit-Tin view of Scotland possible. Even words like 'saltire' seem cringe-inducing falling off a SNP politicians' tongue.

To illustrate my point, the SNP recently released this party political broadcast. Watching it, I felt the most acute embarrassment for being Scottish... I don't know if it was the twee music, the man walking out the job center being snubbed, or the central character bellowing 'SCOTLAND!!!' like a five-year-old that'd just watched Braveheart. Then Alex Salmond cuts in with talk of a "fight for Scotland". The entire affair showed a kind of parochialism unbefitting a party that wants to transform Scotland into a successful, progressive country. To an outsider looking in it makes us look like a nation of backwards, shortbread-eating caber-tossers.

The worst thing is, hiding behind this twee, Biscuit-Tin Patriotism is signs that the SNP is very underhanded in their approach to securing Independence. We've seen them discrediting online commentators and journalists with the most vituperative language (the so-called 'cybernats'), attempt to get the voting age lowered to 16 (no doubt so that buckfast-swilling youths can move on from bus stops to committing vandalism on a nigh-on constitutional scale) and, in a frankly bizarre move, treat the Scottish public as if they are too stupid to understand their Independence referendums when the Scottish public shows an apparent lack of support for independance (19% in a recent YouGov poll, which the SNP has tried to discredit even though it relied on such polls during its initial popularity).

The other apparent dark side of the SNP is its inherent Anglophobia. There is no reason, 303 years after unification, we should hate the English. Alex Salmond is fond of political grand-standing with Westminster, and his party seem to love publicity stunts which serve only as two fingers up to the English - for example: supporting the Germans during the World Cup and the ridiculously prolonged celebration of the Battle of Bannockburn. In its own way this tactic seems to be contributing to the pro-Independence cause; English resentment is building to an extent where they are intolerant of the Scottish and, quite frankly, want rid of us.

The willingness to alienate our southern neighbours shows us Salmonds' willingness to say anything and do anything to wrench Scotland out of the UK. He will rely on the most scant and irrelevant arguments - he will say that Scotland was sold out by traitors 303 years ago, he will say that Scotland is an unwilling accomplice in an illegal war. In short, he will dredge up every petty grievance in order to further his cause, yet what he will not do is show the professionalism expected of him. His party is lacking in substance, relying on one common cause to hide a disarray in terms of policy, and holds a vision for the future of Scotland that could have grim consequences for years to come. He claims he will make history - but will history forgive him?

A Few Thoughts on the Modern Warfare 2 Controversy

I would like to offer my tuppence ha'penny over the recent release of the game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and the ensuing furore over its' more controversial elements, particularly the infamous 'No Russian' level. Within hours of release the game was under fire by the Daily Mail, who "protects" us from paedophiles, immigrants and the worst excesses of video-games. The game was even brought up in British Parliamentary debate by Keith Vaz, MP for Leicester.

In it, the player takes the role of an undercover CIA agent who has infiltrated a Russian ultra-nationalist terrorist group. To maintain your 'cover' you are invited to take part in the shooting of hundreds of Russian civilians in an airport. I have actually played this game and would like to state my opinion of the moral crusade against it in the context of actually having played the game.

The offending level and possible fantasy of those who have ever had their flights delayed.

Yes, initially I was appalled - and not at the fact that there were no British Airways staff to pepper liberally with bullets. The whole experience was visceral yet deeply thought-provoking. I crouched beside a virtual civilian who died of their wounds before my very eyes. I felt a cold shiver along my spine at the sheer realism of it, and I admit my finger hovered tremulously over the trigger button as I wondered whether or not I should ease the suffering of the poor soul.

The level was outrageous, but it was meant to be. I felt no ire for the developers, but rather a sense of the human tragedy and the brutality of modern terrorism. It is shocking, granted, but intentionally so in order for the player to feel moral indignation at the actions of the protagonists. To engage with the plot we are allowed a first-hand look into the atrocity. Indeed, the Daily Mail has in the past claimed that games desensitise people to violence, but surely it should be the case that running through a game casually shooting enemies should contain a (albeit artifical) moral imperative to do so?

Mr Vaz stated;
"I am absolutely shocked by the level of violence in this game and am particularly concerned about how realistic the game itself looks".
It is unreasonable for Mr Vaz to complain about the realism of the game as we have reached the point, technologically, where games can give almost cinematic visuals. Gamers, for a £50 price tag, will demand the hardware to be utilised to its' fullest extent. Vaz' comments are out of touch and suggest that we should be sticking to Tetris instead of allowing video games to evolve as a medium. As for violence, I believe the violence in the game is tied inexorably with the intent of portraying war (albeit in a five-minutes-into-the-future setting) as true to the real experience as possible (as praised by professional soldier-turned-silohuette, Andy McNab). British Servicemen are at this moment out there participating in conflict, and for an MP to say that our perception of war should be sanitised is dangerously stupid.

Or perhaps Keith Vaz, who seems to be no fan of games in general, is our generations' equivalent of Victorian early cinema-goers who fled screenings of Edwin Porters' 'The Great Train Robbery' shrieking for fear that they may be harmed?

Previous entries in the Call of Duty series have elicited no controversy in the British Isles. The various prequels allowed players to storm the beaches of Normandy, assault the Reichstag and generally liberate France many times over. There were no complaints about gunning down hundreds of German soldiers (to my mind in the most recent entry players were given the chance to participate in war crimes against German POWs), as seemingly this is seen as acceptable. Why, then, are games set on the front line in the War on Terror vilified? The evolution of war itself is mirrored by the gameplay of CoD:MW2 - we are involved in assymetric conflicts where, sadly, civilians are increasingly the targets of political groups and subterfuge is necessary to weed out what is perceived to be the 'enemy'.

The thread that seems to underline the rants of the anti-video games stance is that there is a general lack of understanding of video games. The South Australian Attorney General Michael Atkinson commented that the game "allows players to be virtual terrorists and gain points by massacring civilians". Besides missing the point entirely, his use of archaic video game slang (the player does not gain 'points', as such) suggests he is talking on a subject about which he has very little knowledge. These critics, I suspect, have not actually played the game in detail (watching the 'massacre' alone places it out of context) and are in no place to attack the game on merit.

Indeed, there is no reward for participation in the massacre; the player characters' cover is 'blown' at the end of the level and he is killed and left for dead, the political effects of which feed the games convulated and involving plot. At no point did I feel rewarded for this; however I did unlock an achievement for taking out three Russian riot police with a single grenade. I think this was more an unfortunate coincidence rather than the intent of the developer.

The Mail also describes the level as 'cynical, tasteless nastiness' and that the massacre is included in a 'tedious bid for controversy'. The jury is out on whether Infinity Ward included this content in order to use the ensuing media storm to generate sales, or if they merely wanted to push the boundaries of video game story-telling. Personally, I think elements of both are applicable - after all, in the first game an atomic bomb was exploded in one level, killing the player character.

I am glad that at least one MP, Labours' Tom Watson, had the sense to gallop to the defence of the game. He argued that the content of video games are no 'worse than in many films and books', and that the House should be in support of the lucrative video games industry rather than 'collaborate with the Daily Mail to create moral panic over the use of video games'. Hitting the nail remarkably well on the head, he highlighted the video games industry as an increasingly profitable business, not as some underground and possibly perverse hobby of anoraks and ne'rdowells. To attempt to create a public backlash against an increasingly meanstream medium during a period of economic downturn seems irresponsible.

Perhaps Mr Vaz is eager to find some evil to focus upon, in an age where expenses scandals have rocked public trust in politicians. Would you believe in the politics of a man who deems silk John Lewis cushions a "reasonable expense"?

Silk cushions: a more worthwhile use of your (taxpayers) money than video games, apparently.

In the end, I think the fires of this controversy have been stoked by a misapprehension of video games in general as the retreat of the facile, the awkward and the potentially sociopathic, and the game itself as anything other than an involved, complex and realistic take on modern warfare. In response to claims that the game glorifies war, I believe strongly otherwise. American foreign policy is (subtly) criticised, pithy quotes about the follies of war by the likes of Goethe and Benjamin Franklin replace standard 'game over' screens, and the music is tragic, poignant almost, not the immensely stirring music of previous Call of Duty games.

The rating system is there for a reason, as anyone over 18 is deemed capable of making their own judgements on content. If not, it is the responsibility of the parents. It is not, however, the responsibility of politicians and tabloids to direct vitriol against games without merit. Indeed, their comments have probably contributed to the massive commercial success of the game.