Pastimes: Julian Knight
In her occasional series, Rosamund Urwin meets up with parliamentarians to discuss how they unwind away from Westminster. Here, Julian Knight shows Ros the joy of video gaming
When Julian Knight was a teenager, his father gave him £10 to buy a video game. Knight wanted Graham Gooch’s Test Cricket for his Amstrad CPC 464, but the shop didn’t have it and he ended up with World Cup Carnival, a football simulation released in 1986 and widely panned. Knight stayed up late, desperately trying to make it work.
“It was unplayable: you couldn’t control the players and you’d lose every game seven-nil,” he recalls. “My dad was angry because I hadn’t bought the game I’d wanted, so I had to pretend it was really good.”
This did not put off Knight, now 49 and Conservative MP for Solihull in the West Midlands, who still loves the “escapism” video games offer. He even has a console in his Westminster office: “For my staff,” he notes hastily. “I’m too busy.” All he can squeeze in currently are short bouts of the strategy game Civilization VI. “You can do 20 minutes and stop, so it’s good on the go.”
As an only child from a lone-parent family (his parents separated when he was 10), Knight says he has always had to “make my own entertainment, my own world”.
He says his life has coincided with the great video games revolution, starting with the table tennis-esque Pong on the wooden Atari 2600 (“I always wanted one, but we didn’t have the money so I was incredibly envious of those who did”), to today’s ultra-sophisticated games. He goes misty-eyed as he reels off the catalogue of consoles he has owned, and games he has adored.
At university in Hull, where Knight read history, he bought a second-hand Nintendo Entertainment System – “a means by which not to study”. He progressed to a Super Nintendo, bought on credit while working at the electrical goods chain Comet.
He and his housemate, Mel, would spend their evenings playing Donkey Kong, Super Mario Kart and a puzzle-platform game called The Lost Vikings. Knight got so stuck on the last one that he called a tips line, which existed to advise players on how to complete games: “The guy just said: ‘The clue is a tomato,’ and put the phone down.”
As a child, Knight made his own newspaper and sold it door-to-door. He went on to became a journalist and, while working as a consumer affairs reporter at the BBC, wrote reviews for PlayStation 2 games.
Are video games generally a force for good? Absolutely.
He’s even a fan of Grand Theft Auto, the violent action game series that sparked a moral panic when it was first released. Knight, now chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, does not believe such games are dangerous. “I’m a libertarian and I don’t think we should over-legislate,” he says. “A lot of video games have moral tales to tell – about building, progressing... Are video games generally a force for good? Absolutely.”
What worries him, though, are loot boxes – video game features which involve an unknown prize, sometimes earned through playing the game and sometimes paid for with real money, which he calls “just gambling”.
The DCMS Committee published a report into loot boxes, where Knight felt his love of gaming helped. “I’ve got a different background from other [members]. I’m not imbued with high culture, I’m more popular culture.”
He likes that the work of the committee is “bite-sized”.
After the loot box report, someone on the Tory staffers’ WhatsApp group said: “I think Julian is a secret Call of Duty late-nighter.” He laughs at this; it’s one game he doesn’t play: “It’s not really my bag, but I am certainly someone who would be a late-night games player if I wasn’t 49 and tired most of the time.”
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