Wednesday, 14 April 2010

(Don't) choose television

When I grew up, the public library and the television set were the focal points of my life, especially in winter. Entertainment, information, excitement, escapism; they provided it both. Even well into the 1980s we had just black and white television, with a few channels and Ceefax. And when games consoles and cutting edge technology such as the Sinclair ZX81 came along, then, well, who'd need anything other than a television set for all their news, information and fun needs.

Spin just a few decades on. It was interesting to read the Techcrunch article about 800,000 US households abandoning conventional television for the web. I know where they are coming from, and it's a sensible place. This isn't as extreme as abandoning watching television programmes, merely using alternatives to the television box, set or screen and the traditional forms of television programme distribution.

That's 'television' as in the physical box in the corner, or the flatscreen bolted onto the wall. And the case for acquiring one is, personally, becoming steadily weaker. This isn't a 'luddite' move - rather, it's looking forward, rather than being chained to the problems of possessing that 'thing in the corner'. There's eight reasons which come to mind against getting a 'box'.

First, the cost. Yes, the price of the latest television set has come rapidly down. But it's still a good few hundred pounds to get even the previous wave of television technology. Then there is the TV licence: £145.50 in UK money, or around $220 per year. Then there is the cost of any extra satellite TV packages or channels over and above the cost of the basic or free service, plus any installation costs for satellite TV.

So that's many hundreds of pounds down in the first year, and several hundred for each subsequent year. As the technology changes so rapidly, depreciation means the second hand value is only a small proportion of the original cost. Compared to other methods of spending leisure time - walking, reading a book, playing on a handheld console, having a pint in the pub, listening to radio four - it's just not cost-effective.

Second, energy cost and CO2 emissions. Though television replacements, such as projectors, have an environmental impact, these are not as great as having a whopping big flatscreen TV humming away on the wall. Plus, there's the hit on your electricity bill:

And a 60-inch plasma TV can suck up more than 600 watts of power - six times what a conventional TV uses, according to the consumer groups.

Ah, the irony about watching TV ads and documentaries about global warming and climate change, on a plasma TV.

Third, having to arrange the furniture in the room around it. Ugh. I have too much 'stuff' as it is, now scattered around five countries, and with the television just comes more stuff - games consoles, satellite TV boxes, DVD players, sounds systems. Like a mutant plant, once it's established a presence somewhere it just grows. Less 'stuff' is good, not more 'stuff'.

Fourth. With the last television I spent - wasted - an absurd amount of time flicking through many dozens of channels, looking for something to watch. Or the least worst thing to watch that was bearable. Even on a busy day, there's no real time for this; too many work things, and non-work things, competing for my attention, that need to be done.

Fifth. I currently have no games console that requires a TV. But have several games consoles that don't (e.g. iPhone, Nintendo DSi XL), and the most likely one I'm getting next (the iPad) will also not require a TV.

Sixth. Just because you can watch a particular type of content on a television set now, doesn't mean you'll be able to in the future. Take the Ukraine vs England football match a few months ago. After decades of international football being available either on terrestrial and/or satellite television, this match was viewable online (or in a cinema) only. That's not great if you're a football fan and have forked out a large amount of money for your TV, licence and satellite subscription. Whither the broadcast of future sporting, cultural and entertainment events? Your guess is as good as mine.

Seventh. There's many screens already here; do I really need another one? There's several laptops, a DS, an iPhone, probably other stuff if I hunt under the bed and in cupboards. The screen on the Macbook Pro is big and shiny, and can be moved to anywhere in the apartment or on the balcony - no, anywhere in the world - with it, rather than having to face something bolted to one fixed spot on the wall.

Eighth. Moving home and/or house. I've had to do this one too many times in the last few years, and televisions are a pain. On the one hand they are big and heavy. On the other, they still need to be treated carefully due to the screen. And selling a television on eBay - have you worked out the postage cost for a laugh?

In Evesham I used to walk by one row of terraced houses in Hampton; for some reason, most didn't have curtains or blinds. And in an evening, every living room would be lit with the glow of the same tv programme, from a television set in the same place in the room. There was something creepy and unsettling, conformist, pig in a cage, rat in a box, about this. Is this what life is about, watching the same banal 'reality' tv programme as your neighbours on either side, at the same time, on your weekend evening? And is that what I'm supposed to be doing as a middle age English bloke.

No thank you.

Why does the television set in particular encourage this kind of behaviour, but other types of device on which television can be watched on do not? When Strickly Come Ballroom X Factor Star or whatever it is comes on, why doesn't everyone with a laptop, mobile phone that's tv enabled or other device stop what they are doing and all watch this - whereas, based on my (admittedly ropey and unscientific) empirical evidence, everyone with a television set does?

So I'll stay non-conformist (how sad that the height of being a rebel nowadays is deliberately not owning a HD television), even though people sometimes look at me with suspicion ("Is he a communist?") or sadness ("Oh, business must be bad for him lately.") or mirth ("Loser! You can't watch Jedward live!" - oh, how ironic is that thought). Just because I don't have a television doesn't make me a hippy luddite. For example, Aleks Krotoski, who presented Virtual Revolution and writes for the Guardian on technology doesn't have a television and she's more connected and clued up than, well, just about anyone.

And even though non-conformism results in lots of letters from the TV licence detection people (they said they would call round to check, but never did), and possibly a TV detection van sitting outside. Though it's unclear whether they ever worked or not, or even were real, and I'm curious about how they'd work with an apartment block of over 100 units.


Getting an alternative to the television - maybe, for playing video games and DVDs on a large screen, I might go for a projector at some point with an enhanced sound system, into which one can plug in a games console, DVD player, and other bits and bobs. This one, for example, sells at less than 500 pounds, has good reviews, and produces a picture that's comparable to professional home cinema screens. Yes, Wii Fit games and like would look rather splendid on that (characters as tall as you are in life?). Though this would mean more 'stuff' again. Le sigh.

For actual TV programmes there's the magnificent BBC iPlayer (so long as you can wait an hour or so until after the live broadcast of the programme - hardly an onerous thing), as well as equivalents for Channel Four (though of inferior picture quality) and Channel Five (not much on there, but Paul Merton's trips around countries were good). I prefer watching TV this way anyway, as it's like TV; start and stop it when you want. I can also buy content off iTunes, which is sometimes cheap purchasing by episode, though sometimes expensive e.g. £8 for one premium episode of Family Guy - maybe not. And yes, the BBC still gets some money from me, in DVD sets and downloaded content from the aforementioned iTunes, so I'm not putting Jonathan Ross et al out of a job. No objection to paying the BBC a fair price, but despite having socialist leanings (Americans, you may hiss and boo now), the 'one size fits all' model of the TV license looks increasingly lame.

So, no television set for me. Anyway, time to listen to The Archers now.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

What are games really teaching us?

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited (by no less than Aleks Krotoski) to be a panellist at the What Are Games Really Teaching Us? evening at the Dana Centre in London, funded by Nintendo. The Guardian advertised it beforehand, which gave the opportunity for a few of their readers to comment with their opinions.

Boxing game

As Aleks is the direct cause of two of my career changes in the last decade, and as it sounded fun, I accepted. This was an odd event for me; I'm used to the academic arena, standing up there and warbling away while subjecting the audience to an increasingly risque batch of Keynote slides (if academics are unexpectedly exposed to naked flesh, they tend not to remember whether your presentation was any good or not - fact).

However here, the evening was split between playing a selection of Wii games, and taking questions on how and whether games taught us "stuff", either implicitly or explicitly. After floundering a bit at first (the other two speakers had some informal but prepared notes, whereas I had a napkin with the ironic "Do not headbutt anyone who mentions violence in games" written on it), and helped by the free beers that Tobin acquired for the speakers, I just started to say the first things that came into my head, which seemed to work. Hopefully.


More professionally, Pat Kane (one of the other speakers and - get this - one half of Hue and Cry) spoke eloquently about several wider reference points regarding games in teaching. He pointed out that games and gaming were as essential to sleep (too right: much of our daily routines are made of play and challenges), and made a lot of socio-economic and political points about games and how they make other scenarios and worlds possible in the mind of the player. Methinks I'm going to purchase his book The Play Ethic: A Manifesto For a Different Way of Living and read a little further on this.

The other speaker, the game designer Sophie Blakemore, made pertinent points about the use of violent games, and how American and British gamers used different terminology when describing how they played games. I chipped in with some comments about how virtual worlds are used for more serious purposes e.g. training, simulation and roleplay, and the emergence of location-based gaming. It was disappointing - and puzzling - to note that only one member of the audience had participated in Geocaching (much more about this in future postings), especially as this is such a popular pastime.

Games pile

Some of the audience mused and were sceptical about the value of games in learning (breaking the oft-broken rule that if you can't figure out how X is useful to you, that doesn't mean that other people cannot find it useful), though most of the comments were open-minded. Actually this was a much better audience than many academic debates on games and learning I've attended over the years. Maybe it's because the audience were more willing; maybe because games are more acceptable to the general public than they have been, even a few years ago; maybe it's because academia tends to attract vocal people who's attitude is "Can't work, won't work" to anything they aren't funded to do. Who knows; maybe it's healthier to do more public, and less academic, debates such as these.

Dan Bowman blogged the event, as did Ian Hughes (one of the Second Life mafia there), while Joanne Jacobs live blogged it.