Douglas Bastard's Rants of Rage

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This article was written on 30 Dec 2017, and is filled under Uncategorised.

Imagination revisited

I wrote a blog post a while ago about how iPhones and games consoles don’t necessarily suggest the death of imagination nor suggest that the children who are often the principal users are lumpen and flat. That’s still the case. But I do want to introduce a further thought that settled on me while I watched two young children pretend to be aeroplanes in the car park of Sainsbury’s.

And it’s this. There is always, or there has previously, been a gap between imagination and the thing being imagined. That gap is filled with play. When I and my silly little friends at school used to imagine we were running around on a giant starship, we didn’t need to see the starship. We made it real with our imaginations. There were times when I was running down the narrow walkways in the school playground when they almost seemed to be in a spaceship and when the other children seemed not to exist.

What computer games do is that they make the spaceship real. You don’t need to imagine running down the walkways, because that’s what you’re doing. So much of our lives are lived on screen that what happens on screen is our reality, from films to TV shows and even YouTube clips. It follows that being able to create this reality, however tangentially and fleetingly, is a very, very powerful thing and the people who make the game thus become very powerful people.

Something, somewhere is being lost. Not in a particularly huge way, but the diminution is happening all the same. When I played computer games way back in the eighties and early nineties, the graphics still left that gap for imagination. The graphics were suggestive rather than illustrative, with two colour renderings of spacecraft having to stand for more realistic renderings. This was the case on the ZX Spectrum, my first computer, and was still the case on the Atari ST, my second.

In fact, on the Atari ST I had a game called ‘Carrier Command’ which was about capturing a huge archipelago from a hostile carrier. As memory was limited, the islands were shown in very, very basic detail with filled-in wireframe graphics for the buildings and missile launchers and even the carriers. It was evocative and eerily atmospheric, but only because there were things which you had to bring to it. Everyone imagines Rochester’s house in Jane Eyre differently and there were various elements in Carrier Command that you had to imagine differently, not least because the software couldn’t render people.

Now you don’t have to wonder. The games do it for you and fill in the blanks. I’m not saying that this is to be resisted, because had you offered the young me something with the processing power and realism of a PlayStation 4, I’d have fainted with joy. We live in a capitalist society, so if Mr Sony invents a new console he thinks would wipe the floor with Ms Xbox and Mrs Nintendo, he’ll do it. Such is life and such is the way that the changes that will happen are allowed to happen.

Somewhere in the middle of this I wonder if there isn’t some equity in game design that leaves room for imagination, but I think I already know the answer to that. One of the things that this country has always done is to produce intellectual copyright that shows a stunning level of invention, from Laurence Sterne to the admittedly execrable JK Rowling, and which is immensely marketable. Stop people from imagining and, in a very, very pragmatic way, you cut yourself off from this revenue stream and, in so doing, lose out on millions of pounds and stories yet to be imagined and written. That strikes me as a shame.

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