Former British Prime Minister John Major once described the country as one of “long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs and pool fillers.” A Conservative, he’d previously served in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet as both Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. But by 1997, thanks to failing economic policies, disagreement over a single European currency and dozens of tabloid sleaze scandals, his government had lost support, and was defeated in a landslide election victory by Tony Blair’s Labour.
“We are elected because we represent the whole of this nation,” Blair had said. “We are now today the people’s party, for the many not the few, the party that belongs to every part of Britain.” But Major’s ideal of Britain—quaint, antiquated and picturesque—persisted, and persists today. David Cameron’s Conservative party is now enjoying its second term and British entertainers are happy to serve as its propagandists. From Downton Abbey to Sherlock and Doctor Who, the popular culture exported by Britain today reflects a cute, posh, wealthy national image, filled with well-dressed and eccentric characters lifted straight from the cricket grounds and green suburbs of Major’s imagination. It’s representative not of the many, but of the few, satisfying an ideal of Britain as elite, pompous and gentrified.
Video games, too, believe in a prettified Britain. The “cultural test” that British game developers must pass in order to be eligible for a 25 percent tax concession leaves plenty of room for interpretation, stipulating only that games must contain a certain amount of British characters and locations, and not reflect any specific kind of national identity. Nevertheless, games like Thomas Was Alone, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Sir, You Are Being Hunted and Dear Esther portray a narrow and archaic ideal of the United Kingdom, where tweeness, pontification and old-fashioned class divisions and folklore still dominate. Thomas Was Alone is a cosy children’s story, narrated by author and television presenter Danny Wallace; Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture takes place in an English village during the 1980s; Sir, You Are Being Hunted recalls the British class system and hunting culture, and describes its mechanics as “stealth and survival with tea and biscuits”; Dear Esther is set on a windy, rainy island straight out of an M.R. James ghost story.
They aren’t directly incentivised by the tax system, but British game-makers, like television and film producers, have realised that amusing national stereotypes are top sellers abroad. Everyone giggles at the English toff. Everyone marvels at the rugged Game of Thrones-like northerners. There’s a certain kind of Britain—an idealised Britain, an archetypal Britain, a Conservative Britain—that global audiences are familiar with and enjoy. And if British game developers, especially precarious independent ones, want to play to that, who can blame them? As long as the Royal Family continues making diplomatic visits, there will always be a market for good old Blighty.
But ignoring the implicit financial motivation, that idea of Britain is inaccurate—like John Major’s Conservative government, it’s outmoded and out of touch, reflective of middle-class tastes and the socially privileged. Britain isn’t quaint. Britain isn’t posh. Britain isn’t a land of green fields, misty moors and rural stereotypes. It’s much more diverse and interesting.
And that’s what’s unfortunate about the current crop of games set in Britain, or centred on British characters and sensibilities: when so many different cultures and experiences make up the country today, they work to the same old stories and models, plundering for inspiration the basest and simplest in British character. It’s always the Industrial Revolution, or the aristocracy, or the folk tales. It’s never the modern city, or politics, or the actual people who live in the United Kingdom now.
Whenever I hear the British right-wing talk about the old days and a return to traditional values what I essentially hear is white people complaining that they don’t have all the power anymore, and that they prefer to think of a time when life was simpler (if only for them). Similarly, when I play games more interested in traditional British identity than the country as it stands today, I see game developers reluctant to research or get involved in complex subject matter.
I’m not asking for documentary, or some kind of video game census that equally and accurately depicts each place and person in Great Britain. It’s simply boring to relive the same national stereotypes, and disappointing that so many game-makers’ ideas about Britain are rooted in suburban privilege. The council estates, inner cities and immigrant cultures that comprise the contemporary United Kingdom have yet to get a look in in British-produced video games. The people supposedly responsible for exporting this country abroad seem uninterested in what they’re actually writing about, and as a result, the UK is continually associated with reductive, dull stereotypes
You wouldn’t know it to play video games, but this is not a country of long shadows on cricket grounds and invincible green suburbs. That depiction of Britain is not only overplayed, but rooted in a sheltered, exclusionary, Conservative attitude, one that would rather reminisce and imagine than discuss and engage. Games are already drowning in fantasy and homogeneity—above meaningful fiction and credible characters they value idle escapism and superlative characters. The British identity games espouse is an extension of that problem. And that’s a pity, because like war, crime, sex and people generally, if games examined Britain with a little more rigour both they and international audiences would find it much more interesting.
Ed Smith is a writer from the UK. You can find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.
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