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The GameCity prize for 2013 has gone to SpaceTeam, a smartphone title described by its creators as, "a co-operative shouting game." It was shortlisted against mainstream hits Fifa 14, The Last of Us and XCOM, as well as indie favourites Faster Than Light and Thomas Was Alone. And a daft and amusing game which involves yelling jargon at other participants in order to save a malfunctioning space ship won out against them all.

This is pretty much why the GameCity prize is important. While other annual video game accolades are handed out by game reviewers or dedicated game players, the GameCity festival decides its prize by calling in a panel of judges from outside the industry – most of whom never play games. They have a totally different slant on the mechanics of fun, and on what games should do.

I know this because I interviewed three of the judges after the extremely heated two-hour discussion that led to the winning decision. The session took place in one of the conference rooms at the Guardian office – a room that has probably seen its fair share of passionately voiced disagreements. And pretty soon into the evening, a gigantic fissure opened up between two sides of the gaming debate. In one corner was teacher and author, Phil Beadle, an expert in reaching out to school kids in working class areas; in the other were prof Uta Frith, a developmental psychologist at UCL, and Samira Ahmed, a journalist and broadcaster. None of them gamers, really, but the three of them opposed on the value of the medium.

The politics of gaming

Beadle hates games, it's pretty fair to say that. When I ask him why he decided to be on the panel, he squirms in his chair. "I did it as a favour to a mate," he says. "I know Iain Simons' [the GameCity director's] wife. I'm a school teacher by trade; I see how the mismanagement of games by parents has cut a swath through the educational possibilities among working class youths. I have a very visceral reaction to video games and I wanted to examine how much of that was my own bigotry. I have a political perspective, I see video games in the same way as I see football and religion – just a means to keep the working classes stupid and busy doing something of no intellectual value. They have a very corrosive political function."

It's just about the most fundamental rejection of games I have ever encountered in anyone prepared to consider them. Beadle talked about going into schools and seeing boys asleep at their desks; boys who – he said – had been playing games until the early hours of the morning. "I don't think games are intrinsically bad," he concedes at one point. "But in certain communities, the use of them is completely unregulated. The negative impact they have is more to do with laissez faire parenting than it is to do with any intrinsic morality in the games. But anyone outside of the education system is blind to the corrosive effect they are having."

I hadn't expected this. Beadle was the first judge to emerge from the discussion. I wondered what other deeply held belliefs were being voiced in there. I wondered if games were getting a pummeling. But they weren't.

Frith knows about games from her sons. They are grown up now and in serious academic careers, but they once programmed their own projects on an old Acorn Electron. "I was astounded by these games," she says. "They are a real part of our culture. I know nothing about them and that's wrong. I wanted to know what I was missing. I don't think I will become a gamer – with one exception. SpaceTeam was the one game that I could play without any practice, that I could join in with others and have fun with instantly."

On her side, to some extent, was Ahmed, whose key experience with games so far was one time she played Mortal Kombat for 11 hours on a flight from London to LA. "SpaceTeam has something very important," she says. "It has charm." Uta cuts in, "Yes, and I found another game very charming – Thomas Was Alone. It's so sweet, so simple. But with that one, I felt I could never play at any competent level. I couldn't make him jump successfully."

This brings us to a point that keeps coming up in our chat after the judging session: the exclusivity of games; their esoteric nature. Their shared language of input, sign and meaning. And how do you get past that?

Time and meaning

For Ahmed there was another important consideration – she thought a lot about, "the best use of time": did the games offer anything that would seem to her to be "better" than reading a book. "I liked SpaceTeam because it was something people could just do together - to have fun, to unwind," she says. "Like Twister. But less sexual."

I told them both about games like Papers, Please and Gone Home – games that aren't necessarily about fun, but have things to say, that can engage in the same way as literature does. "Games that try to bring in emotional engagement are interesting, because I sometimes wonder, should they bother?" says Ahmed. "In a way, one of the games that did it well without trying too hard was Faster Than Light, which to me, brought out the best aspects of the games I used to play as a child, where you fantasised about a sci-fi programme and you built your own space ship and imagined being in control of that world. And in FTL, you have that sense of being in the ship and taking ethical responsibility for your crew. That's lovely. It's important for young people to develop a sense of control over the world, because so much of their lives is out of control. It didn't pretend to be more than it was; it didn't go out to generate emotional engagement."

The jury didn't like Fifa. Ahmed couldn't see the point of it, couldn't understand why people would want to simulate the sport in such detail, when the real thing is so readily available, either via 24-hour TV coverage or just outside in the street or park. "I'd like to see a swimming game," she says. "It's deceptively simple, but I see the scope in a game that's about managing strokes, the angle, the dynamics, and just going up and down!"

the last of us
The Last of Us impressed judges with its cinematic visuals, but Ahmed was disappointed that the lead protagonist was not the girl

The Last of Us was divisive. "I was quite disappointed by this," says Ahmed. "Ever since Red Dead Redemption, I'd got this sense that there had been this huge advance in the quality of narrative, but actually it's not the case. The characters are formulaic... I suppose the thing about it is, if you love those great seventies distopian sci-fi thrillers, this game puts you in that world. It's like being Charlton Heston in the Omega Man and that's no bad thing. But I would rather watch Charlton Heston." I try to point out that it exhibits a progression in game stories, from basic fairy tales to something that explores parental relationships. But I don't get far.

"What annoyed me is, you start off as a girl exploring a house, and it's brilliant, it's very chilling," says Ahmed. "But then later I'm thinking, why isn't the 14-year-old girl the lead protagonist of this story? Probably for all kinds of boring commercial reasons. No one is making those creative decisions. Look at Buffy, look at The Hunger Games – the interesting thing about the latter is that it's incredibly critical of turning everything into a tournament of death. Katniss has a real investment, she has flashbacks to the horrors of what she has done. Could that work in games? Also I want to see Jane Eyre: the video game."

Harnessing games

We talk about the conventions of games, and how they are defined and constrained by them. We compare the arcane language of games to how the conventions of cinema had to emerge over many years – spectators had to learn them gradually on a more or less societal level. But society hasn't yet learned the culture and semiotics of games to the same extent. And actually neither have developers. Everyone is still feeling their way. But I ask Frith, as a neuroscientist, if games have any professional interest to her. "Yes, definitely," she says. "Especially the promise they hold for education. Because clearly they tell us what people will do for a long time, what motivates them. People are now required to live their lives in what is a very complex society – if they can be motivated to learn things in the way that games motivate them, learning of everything may become very easy. That is extremely interesting."

I ask Beadle if he sees any way to harness the love of games that his pupils have shown – after all, he has in the past used football to teach grammar. Can games not be exploited for educational purposes? He sighs deeply. "If you had an educational game that exhibited the amount of creativity and intelligence that you see in The Last of Us, you would probably get buy-in from the kids. But to construct a narrative experience that detailed and engaging is a multimillion dollar operation. The use of games educationally is done on a much more tin pot basis and is done by people who want to make a fast buck, who don't necessarily have the talent. What we get from the ICT lobby within education is badly designed stuff that teaches you nothing. It would be fascinating to have a narrative constructed with that degree of creativity and intelligence for educational purposes. But I guess the dollars wouldn't add up."

Ahmed seems caught in the middle, between Frith's excitement about the potential of games and Beadle's dogged resistance. "If you compare gaming to alcohol, I think perhaps there's a difference between a connoisseur's appreciation of games, like sipping a fine malt, which is essentially what we're doing here, and binge-drinking because you're a teenager in an environment where, if you're not doing it, you feel left out. I don't think we can ignore the fact that it's about time - how much of your day are you spending on games? What else could you be doing?"

Reading vs gaming

I sense in Ahmed a very familiar standpoint – that it would be conclusively better to read a book, any book, than play a game. So I ask her, would you rather a child read a Jackie Collins novel than play, say, Thomas Was Alone? "No!" shouts Frith, immediately. "No, I'd rather they play something like Journey than read something like Jackie Collins," agrees Ahmed. Ah good, I respond, so we're out of this territory where all games are inferior to all literature? "The idea that any book is better than any game is not what we're saying," continues Ahmed. "But on the whole, the concentration required to read a book is important - we underestimate, especially with school-age children, the rapidity at which their attention spans are being altered by television and games. Look, I used to program my own games, you had to when home computers first arrived. We have to understand why things are different for young children."

Frith counters. "But we have to be careful with this assumption about games and attention span," she says. "There is research that indicates attention span actually increases with gaming. And you could actually ask, well, is it a good thing to have a long attention span? Well, it depends on whether you live in a very fast-moving environment, and on whether you have to make lots of quick decisions…" And this is another important point; the whole idea about children no longer memorising facts because they have the internet to hand. Is that bad? Or is it just the human brain adapting to the resources available?

What came out the the judging process, from all the participants I spoke to, was a greater awareness of games, and the variety of experiences they offer. There were concerns about how much young people play them, and there was a sense that games still exclude those who don't know the conventions and traditions of the medium. But there was also an acceptance that these are things we should all understand. Because games aren't going anywhere.

Frith was the most positive advocate, perhaps, and she told me how she had seen games help autistic children – I have seen that myself of course. But she also saw in video games a wider truth, that is often overlooked or casually downplayed. "Human beings play, they have always played," she says. "People worry, is it a waste of time? Or they say it's okay for children but not for adults. Actually though, there are many indications that it is a really wonderful thing to do – especially when we're adults. These video games are new, what do they do for this love of play? There are problems that we need to discuss, but I can see that it is very creative. Not all video games are the same. It was wonderful for me to experience this world."

Gamecity prize: Last of Us and Fifa 13 shortlisted

Five things I learned at GameCity 8

GameCity 8, EToo London and the joy of gaming events

- The GameCity prize fight: how do non-gamers decide the best game of the year?

If you are anything like me, you can split your life into two distinct times: the time before Super Hexagon existed, and the time afterwards. Since the Hexagon Dateline, you will have spent significant lengths of time staring at moving hexagons of crisp light on your phone or your computer screen, listening to pulsing chiptune, learning absolutely useless skills like how to cope when the hexagon suddenly becomes a pentagon or the right way to get through those really annoying hook-shaped patterns on Hexagoner. And if you’ve even touched Flappy Bird once then you, like me, will be aware of how some games can feed on the part of your brain that just wants you to be a little bit better, and how once you’ve begun to play, stopping can be incredibly hard.

I was an hour and a half into my first session of Blast ‘Em before I managed to pull myself away, and I’d spent an hour of that promising that I’d only have one more go.

Power and precision

This is what Blast ‘Em is. It’s a deceptively simple game; like a traditional shmup, you control a ship flying sideways through space, using your mouse to maneuver it on screen. It moves as fast as you can move your mouse. It shoots, constantly, at speeds dictated by which power-ups you’ve managed to snag. You have to avoid the bullets and the enemies, and collect the coins they leave behind after you’ve shot them. It’s simple. Initially, it doesn’t seem terribly interesting, if that’s all there is.

It’s also slow, to begin with. Your rate of fire is slow. The enemies are few and fairly docile, easy to hit and to avoid. But after you’ve played through a few times, you start to realise that these early stages of the game are where your run can be made or broken; quite aside from accidentally smashing your ship into a slow-moving alien in a fit of over-enthusiastic mouse-waggling, you realise that your coins are also your power-up currency, and the game doesn’t ever give you quite enough of them to be comfortable. Better to grab them now, while they’re easy to get and the screen is still quiet enough for you to be able to distinguish between collectibles and bombs. Blast ‘Em’s opening section, which you will play over and over and over again, becomes an exercise in elegance and precision, hoovering up as many coins as you can possibly manage in the knowledge that later on, that will matter.

Whenever you can afford a power-up, in the early stages, you should probably buy one. Rapid fire is a big upgrade, taking you from a shot a second up to a constant stream, but it has to be: as soon as you get past the point where the first power-ups are likely to show, the difficulty ramps up. More enemies, more bombs. Then, after the point where you can probably just about afford the triple shot, vertically moving enemies and asteroids. You can’t afford to be precise and pick off every ship as it rolls towards you: you have to refocus, let your awareness drift outwards, rely on your peripheral vision for bomb detection. You have to hope that you’ll have enough coins to afford to keep your power-ups running, rather than planning for it.

Then, after two minutes or so of play, coins are no longer a worry and Blast ‘Em becomes a game of survival and little else. In just a few short minutes it manages to change the way you play completely, from deliberate precision to diffuse, organised panic. It offers glimpses of that strange hypnotic state that characterises the best Hexagonish games: a fragile balance between concentration and instinct, where thinking too hard about what you’re doing can cause it all to collapse.

Random encounters

Blast ‘Em is grimier than Super Hexagon, with a gritty crunchy old-school aesthetic, but no less charming for it; the downside is that sometimes your ship’s collisions are down to you failing to judge the pixel-thin collision distances around chunkily-drawn enemies. It’s also not too hard to master, and once you’ve hit that survival threshold there’s less incentive to keep restarting. Its randomised enemies sometimes serve it poorly; there’s no pattern to learn, and no higher levels of skill to master once you can respond to the basics well. There doesn’t seem to be much left to see or achieve, beyond a personal best and a place on the leaderboards, and Blast ‘Em currently lacks friend leaderboards.

Flappy Bird acts on a similar feedback loop, though a much shallower one, and it succeeds because it’s on mobile. Super Hexagon is also at its best on mobile. Hexagonish things seem more at home there, where short serve play is almost mandatory and there are inevitably natural breaks that will prevent an endless loop of play. Blast ‘Em, despite being perfectly suited mechanically to mobile, would struggle there: controlling the ship with your finger while still being able to see the screen would be impossible. That seems a shame; it would very much life as a short-serve commute-buster. Sitting down at the PC to play it feels like more of a commitment than it ought to require.

But the biggest issue is that it takes two short loading animations and a click to restart the game, instead of a single immediate click. The good news is, if you’re a wannabe coder, the source code is available to buy on Steam so you can craft your own version. It’s written in C# and programmer Byron Atkinson-Jones has a question and answers section on his Steam page to help people modify the game. I’d take out those loading animations if I could.

Because if Blast ‘Em had a shorter restart loop, I would probably still be playing it right now. If you are anything like me, you will probably have the same problem.

Blast ‘Em is available now on PC, Mac and Linux for $5.

- Blast ‘Em – your next unstoppable gaming compulsion

Jann Mardenborough won the Nissan PlayStation GT Academy competition in 2011, earning the chance to take part in professional racing. Backed by Nissan, he has since competed extensively in sports car racing and completed one season in single seaters; he’s finished with a class podium at the Le Mans 24 Hours and as runner-up in the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand.

As part of the Infiniti Red Bull Racing driver development programme, he will race for Arden International in this year’s GP3 Championship – one of the most important feeder series for Formula One.

I started gaming when I was seven

Playing Gran Turismo on the original PlayStation, really just racing games, I played the odd shooting game now and then but the majority of it was racing, I’ve always had a passion for Gran Turismo and to drive cars I’d probably never, ever, get to drive.

For my A-levels I designed a gaming pod to race in

I made it out of MDF wood and bought myself a wheel paddle with some money I saved up, and then I was away. About a year later GT Academy came round, and served me pretty well.

Winning GT Academy was the best moment of my life

I knew that my life was going to change massively. After that, the first time I drove a fast GT car, a fast road car, that was a pretty cool moment – to be released round Silverstone in a 500-horse power Nissan GT-R was pretty crazy for a 19-year-old.

The transition from videogame to real-life driving wasn’t that difficult

The controls and physics engines in games these days are crazy, they take real-life data from cars and then put them into code so that the way that the car pitches and brakes and the steering input works very well in racing games.

Of course you feel the G-force which you don’t in the game, but you’re so tightly strapped into the seat, that it’s not really an issue.

People think gaming is just lounging around

But it can actually be something that’s fantastic and, although it’s all happened very, very quickly, it’s a amazingly cool situation to find myself in.

In a way, I’m sort of living out my childhood dream, so it’s very fulfilling that gaming is what has allowed me to do that.

It would be the absolute pinnacle for me to reach F1

But I’m concentrating this year on GP3 and will try to develop and improve. The Infiniti Red Bull Racing driver development programme means I can use their simulators to train so that I can arrive at a track I’ve never driven at before and can be on the pace in the first practice session.

A lot of guys have made the jump into the top of the sport from GP3, so it’s nice to know that I’m in the correct championship, and with a great team as well, I’m in a great position to get the ball rolling.

The GP3 season begins in Spain on 9 May, Sky are televising all the races

- How Jann Mardenborough went from Gran Turismo on a PlayStation to being a racing driver
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