1. Reimagining Radio 4’s “The Moral Maze” as a computer game

    Posted July 27, 2011 in ideas  |  6 Comments so far

    The Moral Maze is a Radio 4 discussion programme where the week’s big news stories are pondered and pontificated upon by a panel of self-righteous pundits. Michael Buerk hosts, with Michael Portillo and Melanie Phillips as the principal guests, so it’s fair to say that it’s not exactly a home for left-leaning socially-liberal views.

    Although it’s not among my favourite programmes, The Moral Maze provokes the same horrified fascination for me as Any Answers (a topic for another blog post). I won’t go out of my way to listen to it, but if it comes on while I’m washing up it usually sucks me in. It’s smug, overweening, and bursting with a sense of its own preponderance. I guess that’s why it’s so hard for me to turn it off.

    Unfortunately not everyone feels as I do about The Moral Maze. That’s fair enough – Radio 4 discussion shows can be sleep-inducing at the best of times. So I’ve been thinking, how could The Moral Maze broaden its appeal? How could its matronly agonising be introduced to a younger, hipper audience?

    Yes, you’ve guessed it. By turning it into a computer game.

    The Moral Maze – The Game

    Title screen from the Moral Maze

    Title screen from the Moral Maze

    So it’s a one or two player game in which you can play as either Phillips or Portillo. Buerk is kind of like the Dungeon Master, looking down from above while you explore the now physically tangible Moral Maze encountering the various moral tropes that listeners will find very familiar indeed:

    • Single mothers
    • Women wearing burkas
    • Unemployed people
    • Drunkards
    • Libyan rebels
    • Nurses
    • People who are on strike

    …you get the general idea. These are the lost souls of The Moral Maze, staggering about in limbo until you emerge from the darkness wielding the sword of middle-class righteousness, ready to end their misery with your well-enunciated diatribe. Here’s how it works.

    People in glass houses

    Each time you come across one of these moral tropes you have three options: Embrace, Spurn or Equivocate. Here’s Melanie Phillips encountering a single mother.

    Melanie Phillips encounters a single mum

    Melanie Phillips encounters a single mum. What do you think she will choose?

    As you’d expect, we’re going to choose Spurn here.

    Judgement is given

    Judgement is given. The single mother has been Spurned

    Each choice changes your hit points and rectitude. Seems easy, doesn’t it? And at first, it is. The moral tropes are pretty straightforward and it’s simple to decide whether to Embrace or Spurn them.

    But as you proceed through The Moral Maze – The Game things get a bit more tricky. You started out condemning Muslims and embracing policemen; but what will you say about a Muslim policeman? You didn’t like people going on strike, and you didn’t like gay people; but here’s a gay Thatcherite, sticking it to the unions! What now?

    No prizes for hand-wringing in The Moral Maze

    Each judgement contributes to an increasingly complex moral framework of your own construction, leaving you at greater risk of contradicting one of your earlier judgements. This affects your hit points and rectitude, and too many mistakes will lead to defeat.

    Someone in a burka waves a Women's Institute flag

    Someone in a burka waves a Women’s Institute flag. What to do?

    When things get tricky you have a weapon up your sleeve – Equivocation. Often encountered on the radio show, equivocation is a tactic used by Moral Maze panel members who either can’t form an opinion or don’t feel brave enough to voice their views on air. A couple of minutes of intelligent-sounding but ultimately wooly waffle, and you’re done. But you can’t use it too often in the game – it weakens your character considerably.

    End game, and bonus levels

    So let’s say you’ve battled your way through the Moral Maze, casting judgements on its hapless stereotypes in an impressively consistent manner. The dope-smoking, lesbian, Muslim small business owner who didn’t support the Iraq war but wants Top Gear taken off air? You didn’t break a sweat. The slutwalking Catholic nurse who lets her children play violent video games but campaigns against pornography and votes for the Green Party? A cinch. But now comes the hard part – the end of game boss.

    The end of game boss

    The end of game boss – Michael Buerk

    An enraged Michael Buerk descends from his lofty throne to do battle with you. To defeat him you have to… well, I haven’t worked that bit out yet. I guess there would be a fighting mode with shuriken stars and nunchuks and so on, with lots of blood. It’d be pretty spectacular anyway.

    If you win against Buerk you beat the game, and see a completion sequence in which all the previous panellists of the Moral Maze, along with the hapless tropes you embraced along the way, parade past a giant effigy of whichever character you were playing. A bonus level is unlocked in which you can navigate the Moral Maze as Michael Buerk. What a twist!

    My final pitch

    The Moral Maze – The Game would bring the nation’s top radio discussion programme to a wider audience, especially if it was released on iPhone, Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii. But it would also encourage the nation’s youth to ponder the moral dilemmas that plague our confusing modern world and bring about a more judgemental society.

    And I’m sure you’ll agree, that’s just what we all need.

  2. Not the YouTube election, and not the X-Factor election either

    Posted May 7, 2010 in politics, social media  |  No Comments so far

    Back in December 2009, Steve Grove, YouTube’s head of politics and news, gave a sales pitch to a London audience of parliamentary researchers and policy wonks. Drawing on the the 2008 US presidential election as a case study, he encouraged his Westminster audience to place YouTube at the core of their campaigns for the 2010 election.

    Also at this sales pitch was Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s technology correspondent, who gave a detailed account of it on his blog. Despite the obviously commercial nature of the presentation, Cellan-Jones was fairly unquestioning in his write-up and went as far as suggesting that 2010 would see the UK’s first “YouTube election”.

    That was then and this is now. As I write, the UK is in political limbo after voters returned a hung parliament and it’s obvious that the election wasn’t a YouTube election at all. But in truth, it was never going to be. YouTube is less of a social tool here than it is in the US, or than Steven Grove seemingly led Cellan-Jones to believe. If any online services were going to play a role here, it would have been Facebook or Twitter, which revolve around interpersonal communication rather than YouTube’s quasi-broadcasting model. But even these services seemed to have little effect on the course of the election.

    Rory Cellan-Jones has today written a post describing how political parties used the internet in their campaigns – Labour’s “sophisticated use of Google’s AdSense system” and the Tory purchase of ad space on the YouTube home page are among the examples cited. I don’t think these are very inspiring, however. Ultimately the political parties simply bought media space, a part of election campaigning that’s nearly as old as the ballot box itself. It means little that the media space purchased was digital and not tree-based.

    So social media didn’t play such a central role as some thought it would, and the political parties took a pretty humdrum approach to their digital activities. But how different were things in the world of “old” media? Did it turn out to be more of an X-Factor election than a YouTube election?

    Traditional media outlets were in triumphant mood after the televised election debates which delivered such a boost for Nick Clegg. Media Week claimed  ‘old’ media was reasserting supremacy and even some digital agencies talked about “old media striking back”.

    The consensus was that the Lib Dem surge, triggered by the first TV debate, was the election’s defining event. This proved that good old top-down broadcasting, not this new-fangled and un-Murdochian internet stuff, continued to shape the opinions of the public. But when election day came round the Lib Dem surge was nowhere to be seen. So it turned out that the effect of the TV debates was actually pretty short-lived and ephemeral.

    Television, newspapers, YouTube and Facebook have all been vying for the chance to claim it was them wot won it. Rory Cellan-Jones, Media Week, Rupert Murdoch, Steve Grove – none of these people really got it right in the end. Like the election itself, the “old” vs “new” media battle  has failed to deliver a conclusive and straightforward result.