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31 Dec 2009

The Noughties: a Nostalgic Retrospective

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As we draw to the end of the first decade in this brave new millennium of ours, it's natural to cast one's eye back over the previous ten years and ponder what events, people and themes have characterised this period.

Perhaps the most notable thing is that we struggled to find an easy label for the decade - 2000s, zeros, twenty hundreds, noughties ... It's no wonder that feelings of uncertainty and angst dominated when we couldn't even agree on a good name for this timespan.

Of course, war and terrorism are both tightly threaded through the decade. From '9/11' to Obama's recent commitment of 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan (what's that in your hand, Mr President - no, your other hand ... it's ... it's a Nobel Peace Prize!). It's been a depressing and violent decade, to say the least.

Although often (wrongly) presented as the 'opening salvo' of the war on terror, 9/11 clearly ushered in a new era of intensified conflict. Regimes all over the world used the attacks to further their own agenda, typically as a pretext for ordering tighter controls of their own population. But often the overblown (or just plain fabricated) threat of terrorism was used to justify the invasion of innocent countries or regions. Not only Iraq and Afghanistan, but Pakistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Chechnya, Georgia, Lebanon, Palestine and many others were all invaded or saw military intervention of one form or another. Governments everywhere generally became adept at spreading fear and terror in the name of fighting terror.

This in turn stoked existing, long-held grievances and acted as an excellent unifying cause, behind which previously disjointed groups could unite. The upshot, unsurprisingly, was not just a colossal death toll, but a predictable and dramatic increase in terrorism.

One of the biggest crimes of the decade however (second only to giving the order that resulted in over a million deaths in Iraq) is the silence and complicity of the mainstream media. After all, the role of the press is supposedly as a watchdog for the nation, not as happened - obsequious cheerleaders of official policy. Nowhere was this worse than in the United States, where government and military sources were regurgitated as gospel and a cloying air of patriotism stifled any genuine discussion. It's quite possible that, in hindsight, 2000-2010 will be remembered for the death of honest, unbiased journalism as much as anything else.

But there was something going on in the twenty-hundreds that, in terms of its implications, was bigger than all of the above. I personally believe that these first faltering steps in the new millennium signaled the moment that, as humans, our own fallibility dawned on us.

After riding high for some 150 years, making incredible strides in the advancement of medicine, technology, science, construction, transport, business, the human race has reached what feels like a pinnacle of sorts. Looking in the mirror, we'd be forgiven for seeing an evolutionary Adonis staring back - as a species, we're the fucking best. But now some pretty worrying cracks are appearing.

Confidences in age-old systems are beginning to wane. Banking, democratic governance, energy production - some of the cornerstones of Western civilisation all revealed inherent weaknesses. Stuff started running out in the noughties; people noticed the change, tried to downplay the change, but anxiety spread like a fever. After all, while the invasion of Iraq served many political purposes, it was also, lest we forget, the first major war for control of a vital energy resource. (Many people have predicted the first of many). And to cap it all, after almost 30 years of warnings from the scientific community, the reality of climate change revealed itself in a number of empirical ways and finally became mainstream discussion.

At the end of the decade, we find ourselves at the confluence of several major threats to our existence as a species. Nuclear war, terrorism, climate change, economic instability, dwindling resources and increasing cost of basics: food, energy and water. Any one of these things would be a major challenge. Together, especially when they are interrelated, they pose a real quandary.

Such overwhelming uncertainty might account for the glut of so-called 'disaster porn' reality TV (When Nature Goes Bad etc.), end-of-the-world disaster flicks and the like. These cultural outputs tell us all we need to know about living under constant threat. And, of course, you didn't need to turn on your TV or go to the cinema to get your fill of disaster porn in the noughties. Natural disasters were hot news: the 'boxing day' tsunami that killed an astonishing 200,000+ people. Then the Myanmar typhoon and hurricane Katrina all played their part in putting things whatever things may be in perspective.

Meanwhile on the interwebs, social networking went beserk and the penetration of MySpace, Facebook, Twitter et al. Have very quickly conditioned an entire generation to depend on an endless cycle of assertion, feedback, approval and response. Astonishing and occasionally impressive as this phenomenon was, it could also be said to be symptomatic of our collective malaise that we have become increasingly dependent on interdependency. Nothing screams 'I'm scared' more than constantly wanting to feel that someone is out there, listening, agreeing and interacting. Over-simplified? Perhaps, but just take a look at the one word that got America's first black president into office: hope. We're clutching at anything we can get.

At the end of the decade, we find ourselves at the confluence of several major threats to our existence as a species. Nuclear war, terrorism, climate change, economic instability, dwindling resources and increasing cost of basics Of course challenges bring out the best in human nature too and on the positive side, we're beginning to see a rise in community focus, grass-roots organisation, people taking control, being conscious, being critical of and questioning authority; not just accepting that the way things are is how they have to be. There's undeniably a growing realisation that our existence is not sustainable - emotionally, you could compare us to a toddler; just becoming self-aware, aware that there is a world beyond ourselves and that we have an impact on it.

Which brings us slightly awkwardly back to games and what we do (because after all, this is a blog on a game publishing website and if we didn't somehow tie all this in with what we do, our shareholders will be furious). Because this part-time enterprise is born of that very same realisation and no doubt, this has lead - in part at least - to War on Terror's success.

That game, as an object, represents something that is being appreciated and repeated more and more - the questioning (even undermining) of official voice. That brightly coloured box, using for its title the very lexicon of the absurd, as dreamt up by the 'enemy', is a little symbol of defiance - a small transference of power from them to us. If you're an English literature teacher, the game is the fool in a Shakespearean tragedy, free to say what it likes by prattling apparent nonsense. If you want a more popular reference, we're Michael Winner in the esure insurance ads, with a special licence (supernatural ability?) to point out artifice and fakery. You don't have to play the game (or even know how it's played) to recognise and enjoy that. I think that's why we've seen people adopt it so fondly, championing it themselves, spreading the word with a fervour that we find both humbling and hard to match ourselves.

I'm not saying that War on Terror will be remembered as the game of the decade, even though that is just what I said, but if, theoretically, when the committee of Historically Important Board Games meet to nominate their choice for 2000-2010 and War on Terror is unanimously voted as the winner, it will be less to do with the (awesome) gameplay and more to do with the fact that the issues that inspired it could reasonably be claimed to be the dominant zeitgeist for the period.

Finally, it's been a hell of a decade for us at TerrorBull Games. Since founding the company in 2005 we've published our first game, been through the reactionary press wringer, had stock impounded and seized by the police, been rejected by the industry we naively thought we could be a jolly part of ... and then our luck slowly began to change we were invited to America for our first convention and the world's first War on Terror tournament, we started picking up some serious (and famous) fans, Amnesty International and the Nobel Peace Center joined the growing ranks of those suddenly championing a game that was now being recognised as having a real social value. We brought out a second game about the financial crisis and most recently the BBC seem to believe we're the saviours of the British board game industry. That's quite some turnaround.

So while we're in a nostalgic mood for a very nostalgic decade, it's fitting that we give thanks and praise where it's due and that's to everyone who's ever bought our games, played our games, raved about our games, became outraged by our games ... you all contributed not only to the games' success but to the very dialogue that was virtually absent back in 2003 when we started development. This, for me, is the real success of the decade for us. It looks like, on some very small, local level, it looks like we made a bit of a difference. Thanks, all.

P.S. To end on a warm, fluffy note, a special thanks to Mark Harrison in Manchester for sending us our first ever Christmas Card after we moaned that no one cared. You are the future, Mark! Never lose your humanity!

 

Posted by Andy S on 31 December 2009 - 0 comments

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