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No games please, we’re British

Danny Boyle’s magnificent Olympic opening ceremony celebrated everything great about Britain – except for our games.

The wait is over, the torch has reached the end of its journey and the 2012 Olympic Games are finally underway. And, by all accounts, they started on a high, with Danny Boyle delivering an impishly entertaining opening ceremony that hopped playfully from one icon of Britishness to another. Pastoral greenery gave way to the soot and steel of industry, Beatlemania segued into glam, punk, techno and grime. Mary Poppins battled Lord Voldemort. Oh, and James Bond went parachuting with the Queen.

Perhaps most interesting was the section that offered a symbolic journey through our pop culture evolution, inextricably tied in with technological innovation. A troupe of rather cheesy youngsters danced and texted to a soundtrack of classic British tunes, while their house was covered in projections of scenes from great British film and TV. Then the house flew away and revealed Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, looking a bit surprised and over-awed by suddenly finding himself in the middle of a stadium.

As endearingly goofy as it was, it did a good job of showing how pop and gadgets combined have been the backbone of our social lives going all the way back to the 1970s. There was just one thing missing. Can you guess what it was?

Clue: it’s why you’re reading this site.

Where were the games? How do you tell the story of British entertainment and technology without acknowledging the role that gaming played in that story?

This is, after all, one of the few industries where we can still lay claim to being world class, surely the sort of thing you’d want to remind people of as recession bites ever harder and traditional industry slips into reverse?

It’s not as if there was nowhere to fit gaming into the sequence. There was even a kid, playing with what appeared to be a Nintendo DS. For a brief moment, we see what he’s playing and the graphics are projected across the stadium. And what was he playing? Some made-up generic version of what old people think “computer games” look like – all chunky spaceships going pew pew pew.

How much better would it have been if the kid had shown a little more patriotism, and historical awareness, by playing on a Spectrum in his multimedia semi-detached home? How cool would it be to see footage of Daley Thompson’s Decathlon dancing across the stands and beamed around the world? A game about a legendary British Olympian, developed by a British software company, for a hugely influential British computer, which in turn inspired a generation who would put British games development on the map. 2012 is even the 30th anniversary of Sinclair’s rubbery beermat. What could be more perfect?

Perhaps that would be a little too esoteric. Boyle has already said that he had to pass on some classic British signifiers, such as Firmin and Postgate’s wonderful Clangers, for fear they would confuse international audiences. Something more mainstream and modern, then.

Boyle got away with using The Clash and the Sex Pistols, but I suspect singing Grand Theft Auto’s praises would have been a step too far, even if it is by far the most successful and ambitious digital export from these shores. Lara Croft, perhaps? Created in Derbyshire in real life, born in London within the fiction, she’s still one of the world’s most recognisable gaming icons even if her fate is now in the hands of a US developer. Heck, why not throw a little digital James Bond in there to rub shoulders with the real thing? It’s thanks to British studio Eurocom that 007’s gaming adventures have taken a definite upturn in recent years.

Could it have been simple political nervousness over endorsing a pastime still commonly associated with sallow, doughy-fleshed kids, twitching in the pale blue glow of a soulless screen, lapping up a diet of mindless conflict? That certainly didn’t stop them flying the flag for British soap operas – hardly the most active or intellectually nourishing of our output. Even if that were the case, why not just show our wide-eyed modern family enjoying some Kinect Sports? Another big British hit from a venerable British company, a fine example of games as a tool for health and social engagement, and another game that dovetails beautifully with the Olympic spirit, overtly tying the humble suburban lounge to the glamorous stadium in a shared dream of glory, virtual or otherwise. Maybe Sebastian Coe didn’t want any finger-wagging emails from Keith Vaz on Monday morning.

It just seems bizarre that the ceremony could find time for clips from Hollywood movies like Shrek and Wall-E, despite having no connection with the host nation, yet left our creative souls in the games industry completely out of the picture. Not even a glimpse of Miner Willy or Sabreman to pay homage to our 8-bit past.

Of course, there’s no way to fit everything into a ceremony like this. Doctor Who, finally finding favour in the US, was present only in the ghostly echo of the TARDIS briefly audible in amongst the pop songs. Even Charles Dickens, whose bicentenary this is, was barely represented – his only contribution a scene from the movie version of Oliver Twist. But other British television shows were given their due, while other British literature was solemnly saluted. Individual efforts may have been overlooked, but the medium as a whole was acknowledged. It was only games that were left off the menu completely.

Boo hoo, poor us. Gaming has been the unloved stepchild of the media for so long that it’s easy to not even notice slights like this, innocent though they may be. This is about more than just stamping our feet and crying that our hobby wasn’t given Olympic validation on an international stage though.

Gaming is a unique and integral part of our entertainment industry, and it’s an area where we can lay claim to just as much of a distinctive cultural voice as film, music and television. Perhaps if the opening ceremony had been staged by someone of a more weathered vintage the oversight could be expected, but Danny Boyle has shown time and again that he’s no fuddy duddy. Even if he’s not a gamer, he’s surely familiar with games and the impact they’ve had on our culture. Did he simply decide against including games, or did it not even occur to him?

None of this should take away from what was, all things considered, a remarkable piece of pageantry. It’s just a shame that even when we’re staging a lavish love letter to our national achievements for the whole world to see, we forgot to mention one of the few things that we’re absolutely brilliant at. Gaming is an area where Britain has a proud history of innovation, and an astonishing track record of critical and commercial success, so why are we still so bad at celebrating it?

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2 comments on “No games please, we’re British

  1. A beautifully written article Dan. Send it to Jim Naughty – it’s just the kind of thing they’d love on R4’s Today programme (although they’d turn it into a trite filler, no doubt).

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