Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Finding Video Games in the X-Files

Ever since I discovered that the entire run of The X-Files was on Netflix streaming, I've been devouring the episodes at an alarming rate. For me, it scratches the same itch as Star Trek: earnest (if somewhat convoluted) overarching stories that tackle issues of science and philosophy, broken up by one-off stories, genre pieces, and monster of week episodes along the way. Imagine my delight when I came upon one of these "light" episodes called, "First Person Shooter."

Yup, it was time for Mulder and Scully to enter the mysterious world of video games. I'm always a sucker when it comes to analyzing how games are portrayed on the small screen, so let's see if this episode does justice to the medium.

Military Grade Secrecy

Mulder and Scully are sent to investigate a mysterious death at a video game company specializing in making extremely realistic virtual reality shooter games. Of course, before they can even talk to anyone, they have to go through more security than they encounter in the FBI building. Badges, retinal scans, private security, harsh NDAs; it's all only slightly more extreme than the steps real game companies take to hide their own trade secrets. Wouldn't want the number of grenades you can carry in the next Call of Duty to leak, right?

Gender Wars

The crux of the episode revolves around a digital femme fatale AI who goes rogue and starts killing players. Of course, she conducts business burdened only by the most minimal amount of clothing. The twist (you know you saw this coming) was that the AI was originally created by a female programmer as a side project to undercut the testosterone-laden environment in which she worked.

Putting aside the killer AI for a moment, it's still a familiar story in the video game industry. Blockbuster titles are still overwhelmingly created by men and targeted at traditionally male audiences. Power fantasies, scantily-clad women, and explosions defined the fictional game, but such characteristics apply equally well to any number of popular shooters we play today. Scully skewers games as immature hobbies made for men to "get their ya-yas out," and she's not wrong. Unfortunately, she also dismisses any women that might be interested in the medium (which almost leads to her demise).

It's also important to consider the historical context in which the episode was released. In early 2000, the frat house environments of companies like id software and 3D Realms reigned supreme. The CEO of the fictional game company is a dark cross between David Jaffe and John Carmack. He's obsessed with both technological and design matters but blind to any consideration for inclusivity.

The Asian Prodigy

The FPS company brings in the legendary Daryl Musashi to figure out what went wrong in the game. Everyone except Scully regards him with a hushed awe, as he is world's premier gamer; someone that seems to be naturally in tune with the program. The preternaturally-skilled Asian kid is a persistent stereotype, one that I'm sure people have (or will) study for some time. After all, we talk about Justin Wong and Daigo Umehara the same way folks talked about Dennis "Thresh" Fong back in the heyday of Quake.

Who knows if the writers (William Gibson(!) and Tom Maddox) knew about this real life analog. I made the connection, but of course I may have been acting the fanboy, just like Mulder and the rest of the geeks.

The Search for Immersion

The episode relies heavily on the assumption that the holodeck is the holy grail of games, that with sufficiently advanced technology, we can physically enter a game. All this makes sense in the context of the late 1990s and early 2000s, during the hardware wars and graphics card competitions. However, after the turn of the century, something unexpected happened that disrupted this vision of the future.

Instead of retreating into game worlds, we're pulling games into our world. The rise of social networks and new platforms like iOS have blurred the line between where a game ends and where everyday life begins. We're not wearing goggles or haptic gloves, but many of us are under a constant barrage of game-related information. Push notifications, status updates, email reminders that it's your turn to move in a dozen different Facebook games get mixed into the everyday tasks of life. Games have become increasingly immersive thanks to social tools rather than virtual reality.

In the alternate reality of this X-Files episode, a game like Rage would be more important than Angry Birds, since it pushes us closer to photorealism and theoretically draws us further into the game. In our world it's the opposite: games like Angry Birds are designed for us to draw them into our world and integrate them into our daily routines. It's not the kind of immersion we dreamed of in the late 1990s; it's a much weirder, unexpected, gradual phenomenon.

Chest-high Walls

In a shocking display of prescience, about 75% of "First Person Shooter's" action sequences involve people taking cover behind chest-high walls and shooting dudes. Also, Scully's big move to save the day was basically one extended turret sequence in which I discovered that watching such a scene is about as dull as playing through one.

Arbitrary cover and boring turret sequences in the year 2000? I suppose we're supposed to think that the episode was just ahead of its time? I, for one, am not buying it. I've watched enough X-Files to know that somewhere, there is an ominous, cigarette-smoking man who visits every major publisher to "convince" them of the need for chest-high walls. The truth is out there.


  1. When i was watching this episode some months ago, (my girlfriend and i were collecting this series to watch it again^^) I was very embarrased to see how the wrtiers of this episode thought of videogames.

  2. It's funny that whenever people think about virtual reality style video games, it's either an FPS or an action game. It seems like the most logical first step would be some kind of immersive strategy game where you walk around the map or act as some sort of giant, unseen force moving your units around the environment. My thinking is that such a game has less random movement, more set rules, and would probably be easier to model.

    In any case, it's a pretty cringe-worthy portrayal of games. That being said, my late 1990s/early 2000s FPS and LAN party experience would look pretty cringe-worthy out of context as well.