Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Games on the Small Screen

A couple of days ago, I shared this video on Twitter. Be warned: this might be painful for those of you with low tolerances for awesomely terrible things.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never watched a full episode of Life, so maybe it was a great show. However, I have seen plenty of TV shows portray games in the same manner. Regardless of its inadvertent hilarity, this portrayal of video games and those who play them is ignorant at best and insulting at worst.

Even on purely logistical and technical grounds, nothing in this clip makes sense. While it is technically correct that an Xbox is a computer, whoever wrote the line “It’s just a hard drive with games on it,” clearly doesn’t know much about how consoles work. Who knows, maybe I was never 133t enough to get to the level in The Two Thrones that lets you navigate the console’s internal file structure using a knock-off Windows interface? I do know that the “You are Dead” and “Advance to Level 6” prompts are pure Hollywood “magic.” It’s sad that the writers either didn’t care or didn’t take the time to research the game or learn about how modern narrative-focused games are structured.

Even more annoying is the portrayal of the two competent video game players. The first one identifies himself by running down the stereotype checklist: “I’m 30 years old, I live with my mother, and I have a Captain Kirk costume in my closet.” Never mind the millions of people who play everything from Madden to Farmville, the parents who play video games with their kids, or that Modern Warfare 2 ads ran during the NBA playoffs, everyone knows that avid game players are just basement dwelling sci-fi geeks, right?

The woman who takes over for Mr. Nerd is no better. She plays the part of a modern day Tommy: she has some sort of mystical connection to the game that puts her in a trance. Part idiot-savant and part cyborg, she uses her intuitive gifts to guide the uninitiated through the mysterious virtual realm. It’s images like this that scare people away from games: people being drawn into a seductive world that only weirdos with innate skills inhabit.

However, TV doesn’t always get it wrong. Hanah and I were watching a clip from the Cosby Show and saw this:

Although it’s played for laughs, the scene speaks to some amusing truths about video games without being overly condescending. Who hasn’t been sent on a timed fetch quest that involved satchels, squirrels, and acorns? Olivia and her friend quickly illustrate the complex (and often humorous) systems that comprise games. Setting aside the fact that the “game” sounds like a bunch of generic noises and an NES control doesn’t have a “C” button, the scene presents a positive, realistic image of what games can be. The kids have learned a complex system while retaining their awareness of the outside world. Grandpa gets a bit more than he bargained for, but he quickly sheds his n00b status:

The Cosby Show was on the right track way back in the early 1990s. Video games can be engaging and enjoyable in the same way a good book or film can be. You can play them without being a social outcast or a member of some weird subculture. Games can be tools to explore character interactions rather than plot devices used to solve the mystery of the week.


  1. Games at this time were far more accepted, because they were still a new curiosity that kids have latched on to. We would make fun of my aunt when she visited us, as she'd be latched to Pac-Man for most of the day. I could absolutely relate to this Cosby episode.

    The paranoia about game violence really isolated the gamer.

    Life is usually pretty good. Unfortunately you have to admit that some gamers are like Mr. Nerd - that is, they are proud of their geekiness to the point of exclaiming it. Likely Crews (that's the neame of the main character), who hasn't been in the outside world for 10 years, chose the one guy in the office he knew was a gamer - the kind of guy that would loudly proclaim it.

    As for the woman, I believe she was an amnesiac or something and she showed some trace memory of playing the game - where she hid the files. Or something.

  2. (Hm, my first posting was obviously eaten by my browser, so a repost.)

    I usually ask myself when video games resp. videogaming are shown in a wrong manner on TV: Someone had to buy the console, choose the game and then play it - why not ask that person who probably know about games about how to use games/gaming correctly?

    It's also kind of funny that TV shows are today more complex than ever, but they still need or use games with old/timeless gameplay (racing, shooting and/or level structure).

    On the other hand: I quite often see a Xbox 360 standing in "normal" peoples rooms in TV shows. Or is that product placement by MS?

    PS: A thing that bugs me is when they show people playing games in TV shows and they manicly press all butons of the gamepad.

    PPS: Is the line of the first "Life" player his real characterisation or is it - even worse - a joke?

  3. I really must defend "Life" as a show. Terrific, but like all my favorite shows, ended way too early. I think the reason for the characterization of the video game in that episode was to streamline the narrative for the average viewer and avoid detracting from the plot. I too was somewhat dismayed by such a crude rendering of an original Xbox, but when viewed contextually, the show is essentially a crime drama with the story centered around some unusual crime. If the show went into the kind of detail we'd like to see, I think the story would be lost on such a small part of the plot.
    If I had to guess, I'd say the self-proclaimed nerd's statement is actually a positive. He blends into the normal social milieu of the station, and instead goes through the laundry list of nerd-isms as a sort of resume. Not a prerequisite, but how else can one explain one's 1337 status to a bunch of cops?

  4. Y'all are nerds.

    And I mean that in the best possible way. :-)

    I agree that there's room for all types of public game geekiness, I just get crotchety when it seems like the same flavor gets overrepresented.

    Also, damn you for making me interested in watching "Life."