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Stories and Games (1): Art

Over on ihobo today, the first of three promotional pieces for Imaginary Games. Here’s an extract:

Can games be art, and should we care either way? Every culture respects some activities and objects as 'art', and grants to these a certain esteem that is entirely apart from their practical uses. Art, as Oscar Wilde suggested, is quite useless, but nonetheless great art, good art, and even interesting art attracts a lot of attention, a lot of praise and criticism, and a lot of money. The question of whether games can be art is usually treated in one of two ways – often dismissively by presuming either they must be art (Santiago) or they can't be art (Ebert). In my book Imaginary Games I take another path: the question of whether games can be art is misguided, because all art is a kind of game. To understand why this is so, there's no better place to start than looking at the relationship between games and stories.

You can read the whole of Stories and Games (1): Art over on

My Philosophy Trilogy

Just before Imaginary Games was released, I submitted the manuscript for The Mythology of Evolution to the publisher – my thanks to everyone who helped me with this, even those who were unable to do so in the end owing to life intervening. It was a great deal of work, but also very rewarding, and I couldn’t have done it without a lot of support. I’m pleased with the resulting book, which concerns the role of imagination in science and evolutionary theory in particular, and is written in an accessible style for an intelligent but non-expert reader. Inevitably, the book also deals with the presumed conflict between science and religion, and deconstructs this into something considerably more plausible.

The third part of this trilogy of philosophy books, Chaos Ethics, is currently being researched. I have now read Aristotle’s rather dull Ethics, and have just started on Parfit’s unfeasibly long On What Matters. My reward for working through this monster is to read Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals, which I bought a while back but haven’t had time to tackle. Parfit also seems to have taken a shine to Kant since Reasons and Persons, so I’m interested to read his consequentialist take on Kantian ethics. I expect to be blogging some new ethics pieces in the Gregorian New Year, so watch this space moral philosophy fans.

I’m struggling to wrangle my internet presence now that I have two blogs and three social networks (Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter) – not to mention a baby! – but I'm doing the best I can all the same. What’s really suffering right now is Google Reader, which most days I just can’t handle and I end up marking all as read blindly. I’m thinking I might have to trim this down to just the blogs I’m most strongly attached to (which probably includes yours if you’re reading this), but then again when the baby goes into full time nursery it will be a very different situation for me so perhaps I should not panic yet. Apologies to anyone whose blog I am usually active in commenting – feel free to draw my attention to anything I may have missed in the ensuing carnage of parenthood.

A new short serial on ihobo to promote Imaginary Games begins tomorrow and runs over the next three weeks – I hope to see you in the comments!

Imaginary Games - Out Now!

Imaginary Games.Final Cover It gives me great pleasure to announce that my philosophy of games book, Imaginary Games, is now available to buy both as a paperback ($19.67 on and as a Kindle ebook ($11.58 on – although those prices may have changed by the time you click on them, of course.

In a rather bizarre situation, there are apparently 8 used copies of the book for sale with prices ranging from $14.95 (+$3.99 shipping) to an astonishing $51.47 (+$3.99 shipping), and conditions varying from ‘Very Good’ to ‘Like New’. Since a quick look at the publisher’s stock records shows that as of writing the only copies in circulation are my author copies, these vendors must either be slightly underselling or radically overselling copies of a book they don’t actually possess. Wild.

I’d like to take this opportunity to reiterate my thanks to everyone who has supported this project over the years. Despite being impressed with my proposal, many reputable publishers turned me down on the grounds that they didn’t believe such an odd topic could sell even 500 copies (the exact figure quoted by one such publisher). I hope to prove that there are in fact gamers out in the world with an interest in philosophy – and philosophers with an interest in games – and that the question of whether games qualify for the cultural esteem denoted by the term ‘art’ is one that matters to a great many of us.

Imaginary Games is available from all good booksellers now.

Videogames are Doomed

Over on ihobo today, I indulge in a little ol’ fashioned doomsaying. Begorrah, it’s been a while! Here’s an extract:

Within ten years, the videogames industry as you know it will be dead, and in its place will be something you hate. But it won’t matter that you loathe the new way games are offered to you, because in ten years time the producers of content will view you as nothing more than a secondary market, someone they’d like to pull into their fiscal nets but only if they can catch those younger, more easily influenced players as well. Ever wondered why they “don’t make ‘em like they used to?” – both in games, and in films, books, TV shows, music and anything else you’d care to mention? It’s because you’re getting older, and the corporate money that funds almost everything you adore is forever in love with younger audiences, those that are more susceptible to marketing, and less prudent with their money.

You can read my complete take on why videogames are doomed over on (I’ll leave it to you to determine how serious I am about this).

Moffat vs. Davies: Doctor Who Showrunner Smackdown

Contains spoilers for the last two years of Doctor Who episodes.

Davies and MoffatIn 2005, Russell T. Davies brought the venerable Doctor Who franchise back from the dead, and in 2010 Steven Moffat took over the reigns – but who is the better Who showrunner?

The biggest difference between the two writer-producers lies in the period of Doctor Who that influences their work. Davies, raised on the horror-influenced Philip Hinchcliffe-Tom Baker era, has always been drawn to science fiction in the style of Dalek-creator Terry Nation. Davies-era Who was built on 1970s style sci-fi with its emphasis on space-faring far future settings, accompanied by generous body counts and monsters that cannot be reasoned with that are unleashed by lunatics who bring about their own doom. Drawing influence from the original serials that had enjoyed the greatest popularity was a sound way to rejuvenate the show, and Davies novel trick was to wed these kind of stories with a very British kind of soap opera – urban family melodrama in the style of Eastenders or Coronation Street. This helped secure the regenerated show with a wider audience of adults, while vintage monster romps with Daleks and Cybermen helped bring in the audience of young boys the series was always intended to attract.

Moffat, on the other hand, was a child of the Peter Davison era Doctor Who, a circumstance alluded to in his charity special Time Crash, in which the David Tennant Doctor – acting as a direct mouthpiece for Moffat – admits to the Peter Davison Doctor that he was “always his Doctor”. (That Tennant too had great fondness for Peterson’s performance helped make this mini-episode payoff so successfully). 'The Davison serials were markedly lighter in tone than their precursors, while still possessing a darker edge, and saw a return to the “Tardis family” format that had been the hallmark of the show’s early days, with William Hartnell holding the keys to the little blue box – back before the Sonic Screwdriver had even been conceived. (Speaking of the Doctor’s ultimate plot device, the Davison Who also saw an editorial directive to eliminate the lazy use of the Sonic Screwdriver by writers as a one-size-fits-all deus ex machina – quite the opposite of its contemporary deployment as a gizmo-slash-tricorder-slash-technotaser.)

Despite the change of influences, Moffat has been reluctant to tinker too greatly with Davies’ formula and has kept the family melodrama, while moving its terrestrial base of operations out of the city for the first time in the show’s history. The transplant from London to village was pronounced during Moffat’s first year, but has faded into insignificance during Moffat’s second term for one simple reason: without the family-waiting-at-home structure of Davies’ soap stories, the melodrama has moved into the Tardis itself, with the dead-again, alive-again romance between Amy and Rory becoming supplemented with the kill-me or kiss-me relationship between the Doctor and River Song. The “Tardis family” format that inspired this approach was never quite as over-the-top as it is now, however. The original “family” were the Doctor’s granddaughter (a character now sadly forgotten by both Davies and Moffat) and her terrestrial school teachers, who happened to be a married couple. The new “family” uses a mighty dollop of time-travel nonsense to contrive River as both the Doctor’s lover and the daughter of Amy and Rory. The payoff of this thread would perhaps have been more satisfying if it did not feel so uncomfortably pulled from thin air.

Indeed, pulling plot elements from nowhere seems to be the hallmark of Moffat’s tenure as showrunner. The episodes he wrote under Davies leadership were pleasingly tight in their construction, and far and away the best of the rather uneven stories during the first few years of the revitalised show. Yet in “A Good Man Goes to War”, Moffat invents a Magnificent Seven-style entourage for the Doctor without any of that troublesome foreshadowing or continuity that would usually be required. This is a stark contrast from Davies more laborious approach to climaxes, which followed in the tradition of long builds pioneered by X-Men comic writer Chris Claremont (and most recently championed on TV by hero-slaying geek favourite Joss Whedon). Davies seasonal arcs simmered slowly (and occasionally tediously) towards an over-the-top finale. Moffat seems more willing to quickly microwave his long-term plots and throw in some fireworks to compensate for the half-baked preperations. The 2011 season in particular suffered from the strain of a premise delivered solely in the bookends of each half-season, and conspicuously absent in between.

Against the Terry Nation style of science fiction storytelling so prevalent during Davies’ tenure, Moffat has largely eschewed the conventional Doctor Who settings of  moonbase or future city in favour of bait-and-switch stories that seem to offer the ordinary or historical, but have techno-nonsense thrown in at last minute. You might think you’re watching a pirate adventure/horror story, but by the end it’s about a malfunctioning medical hologram (alas, not played by Robert Picardo). Although it seems to be  a creepy hotel, it’s really a prison satellite for a rubber monster with a lip-service connection to the classic Who monster, the Nimon. I suspect this shift from space opera to something closer in style to Sapphire and Steel is a double-edged sword, less pleasing to the sci-fi faithful, but perfectly palatable to the wider audience for the show.

Perhaps the most surprising element of the Moffat-era Who isn’t what’s changed but what’s stayed the same, specifically the expression of contemporary hostility to religion in general, and faith traditions in particular. Davies, as I’ve discussed before in the Religion in Science Fiction serial, was always hostile to traditional belief, and got away with his boot-in-the-balls approach to people of faith by painting in the broadest strokes (“religion is bad”, a view that even practitioners of religion are sadly open to) while bizarely maintaining an ethical stance so incredibly close to Christian morality that on the whole everyone but myself was perfectly satisfied. Since most viewers in the UK shared Davies hostility to organised religion, it didn’t present any problems at all to the majority of viewers.

Expecting this religion-bashing to end when Davies left the show, I was shocked at Moffat’s creedist racism in the aforementioned “A Good Man Goes to War”, which suggested via the Headless Monks metaphor and ‘Papal Mainframe’ quip that  Catholic Christianity makes a virtue of naive stupidity, and (equally insultingly) that Protestantism is envious of any faith that denies reason. People laugh when Catholics in the US suggest that the last respectable bigotry is against them, but stories like this demonstrate how little non-religious people understand about the complex relationship between Catholics and the Vatican. While there certainly are criticisms that could be levelled at the various elements of the Catholic tradition, the belief that its laity simply do what they are told by the clergy is a wild fantasy. The kind of prejudice Moffat expresses in this episode yet another example of how a dogmatic faith in reason has fuelled an enthusiastic positivism that inherits many of the flaws of the religious institutions its most vocal practitioners despise.

The brief nod of sympathy to Muslims in “The God Complex” did little to offset the weird conflation of faith with superstition and thus irrationality that underpins this antipathy in contemporary Doctor Who. Rory is ceremoniously blessed by the Doctor as being free of faith – apparently neither his faith in his wife nor his faith in medicine qualify, for reasons that are never explored. This episode rests on the assumption that we can reliably divide our beliefs into the reasonable and the unreasonable – Saint Rory is absolved of guilt because his faiths (we are told) are justified and thus non-existent. Everyone else, however, holds beliefs that exceed what is (it is implied) acceptable, and therefore must suffer. It’s a more sophisticated kind of prejudice than Davies offered, but its roots are the same.

It's extremely disappointing when this kind of cartoon caricature of religious belief is offered as entertainment, especially alongside an uncritically professed faith in science and reason. Frankly, I find it utterly implausible that a Time Lord would believe in the kind of gene-supremacy Matt Smith is made to utter near the end of “Closing Time”, as if gene-centric perspectives were factual rather than rhetorical in nature. It is not that faith should be immune from critique, but rather that the forms of faith present in the world today are routinely divided into the good and the bad along lines that originate in ideology. Science fiction is a mirror we hold up to ourselves, and what this show is currently reflecting is our tremendous capacity to absolve our own beliefs while condemning those who believe differently. The Doctor’s other-worldly perspective in classic Who was always rooted in a steadfast rebelliousness against all kinds of dogma, irrespective of its source – there was a sound reason why the presumed impossibility of the bumblebee’s flight was offered by the fourth Doctor as emblematic of his view of the universe.

The biggest problem that Doctor Who suffers under Moffat’s rule, however, is not ideological but pragmatic. While Davies occasionally green lit some very poor stories for development, you could always rely on the Steven Moffat episode to really come through. From the eerie charms of “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” to the quirky inventiveness of “Blink”, not to mention the  sublime “The Girl in the Fireplace” (quite possibly the best Doctor Who episode ever written) Moffat was always Davies’ secret weapon, able to assuage any doubt about the quality of the show with blisteringly original tales. But who do you turn to for a dynamite episode when you are Steven Moffat? While there have been fewer dreadful stories under his watch, there have been very few truly great stories, with the possible exceptions of Richard Curtis’ “Vincent and the Doctor” and perhaps (for the fans, at least) Neil Gaiman’s “The Doctor’s Wife”. Moffat’s episodes under his own leadership have been terribly indulgent (although perhaps not as indulgent as Davies' own), and so far we have yet to see the emergence of any great writing talent to replace him.

In all honesty, I can’t say I miss Russell T. Davies – his melodrama was overly laboured and his builds better than his payoffs – but I do miss the Terry Nation-Philip Hinchcliffe-Tom Baker influences that held the Who balloon aloft during his tenure as showrunner. Equivalently, while I can’t say I’m not enjoying the show with Steven Moffat at the helm, I can’t help but feel that Moffat’s best work required someone to tell him ‘no’ from time to time. With the impunity of power has come some sloppy excesses, and it rather seems that the extra demands of producing the show leave him less time to construct his stories as robustly as he did in the past. Regardless, Doctor Who remains one of the few television shows I can actually manage to be excited about watching – even if the recent episodes, more often as not, have left me with a little too much disappointment and not quite enough pride in this, the longest running science fiction series in the world.