The recent Spielberg film Ready Player One contains a slew of video game nods and references, many of which stirred its audiences nostalgia strings. Personally, I felt it had a lot of issues and despite being a film about a gamer on a hero’s journey and video games in general, I should have been its key demographic yet I was left underwhelmed and extremely unimpressed as the credits rolled.
Of course, it’s not just big blockbuster films that fail to represent gamers or portray video games inaccurately, in fact the way they are depicted in TV has been a point of contention for a long time.
One of the worst offenders is a show which really should know better as it claims to be about geek culture. In The Big Bang Theory, early on in the first series the cast are “playing” Halo 3. I adore the Halo series so seeing it on a mainstream TV show at first felt novel, I was pleased that it had permeated into primetime and yet watching Leonard and Co. press every button in quick succession made my blood boil. If the actors had actually been playing, they’d have jumped in the air, fired one shot and then blown themselves up with their own sticky grenade. To add further insult to the Halo gaming community, none of the actors even had their controller turned on!
Sure, that might just be an oversight by the props department and these are just actors doing their job but in a show that claims to be celebrating geek culture, these things matter. Also, when did actors start thinking that games controllers were steering wheels? So many shows portray gaming as flailing about and mashing buttons. But before you bring up the Nintendo Wii, this phenomenon has been a trend in film and TV for years, hell…it’s possibly even more prevalent in stock photography.
Likewise, I know some games do actually warrant a small amount of button mashing but these games are either retro titles, where the controllers a stiff or they are quick time events in obscure Japanese RPGs which constitute a niche section of the gaming industry. In mainstream media, these games are not the ones being represented so why is there so much button mashing in commercials and TV shows?
The Big Bang Theory is not the only one to get Halo 3 wrong, I seem to remember an episode of Dexter where Michael C. Hall is playing it on a keyboard (many years before it had even been released on PC). One saving grace was that at least he knew how to use a sticky grenade but surely, it can’t cost that much to ask someone who actually plays games to fact check this kind of stuff?
Even Breaking Bad has caused the gaming community to collectively eye roll, Jesse clearly distraught after shooting someone in the head is playing the game RAGE, that part in itself isn’t an issue given how cathartic gaming can be but he’s playing it standing up and with a light gun! I know he’s got all that meth-money but I’m preeeetty sure that game doesn’t come with a light gun.
In this day and age, it’s hard to believe that actors don’t know how to play or haven’t played video games so what’s up with the inability to act like a gamer? Is it directors demanding more movement on screen? I understand that someone sitting motionless, concentrating on the screen and holding their controller perfectly still isn’t particularly exciting to watch. However, if that were the case then “Let’s Plays” wouldn’t dominate YouTube and Twitch wouldn’t be the successful live streaming service it is.
And TV commercials, I get it…you need people to believe that playing on your console or a particular game is the single best moment of these actors lives. You’re selling a product, cool…except please understand that actual gamers don’t fall for that, over acting our favourite activity is offensive to us. We buy games based on reviews (that hopefully aren’t paid for) or our love of a particular franchise or on the merit and calibre of a developers previous work.
Despite the overwhelming majority of TV shows getting it wrong, there are a few examples I’ve found that hit the nail on the head. The first are episodes 98 and 99 of the anime Gintama, where gamers are queuing up for the midnight release of the Bentendo Owee, an obvious parody of the Nintendo Wii. Given that the Wii was released just two years previously (one year if you count the manga which was the source material of show) it was definitely current. These episodes also highlight the passion of many gamers who will line up for hours to wait for a new release in a way that film or music fans don’t.
Additionally, all of the references utilised in these episodes are specific to the gaming industry, while some TV shows shy away from anything that isn’t a popular AAA title, Gintama has no qualms referencing Shenmue and its fans who desperately want a new instalment for example. It playfully mocks the more absurd parts of the games industry and does it well because from the dialogue and on-screen jokes, it’s clear that the writer knows the source material well.
Some of the references are more obvious, such as two characters donning Mario-style caps and moustaches but fundamentally the level of detail adds to the humour is quite frankly superb. I may be biased, as this show is my favourite anime of all time but the writers of The Big Bang Theory could definitely learn a thing or two from Gintama.
Another accurate portrayal of gamers can be seen more recently in Riverdale where in one particular episode, Archie and Jughead are hanging out and gaming *shock, horror* normally! Neither character is using their outdoor voice, nor is Archie frantically moving his controller about. They are just two dudes hanging out exactly as gamers do. Jughead genially criticises Archie’s lack of skill while watching him play, Archie is holding his controller horizontally and both are concentrating. It’s realistic, relatable and to add some more alliteration for the hell of it, refreshing.
Another show that gets it right is Community, in season 3 the group help Pierce win a video game called Journey to the Centre of Hawkthorne in order to claim his inheritance. In typical Community fashion this episode takes place mostly within this 8-bit game with each of the characters as avatars.
Although the parts of the episode I want to applaud are the moments where it cuts to the characters in real life because their reactions are completely representative of actual gamers.
Despite the bizarre consequences of the game (such as Pierce and Troy’s avatars being naked after losing a mini-game) and the violent things that happen within it (such as Annie and Shirley accidentally killing an NPC) the actors don’t react in alarm or over emphasise their movements, they are simply concentrating quietly on completing the game…you know, like real gamers.
Additionally, during the scene where Annie accidentally kills the Blacksmith, Shirley is shocked but Annie simply explains “This happens all the time in games, we can’t get hung up on real world morality” which then causes Shirley to relax about the violent scene unfolding.
It’s a commentary on our desensitisation of violence in games but it’s also accurate, not to mention the character of Abed, who falls in love with one of then NPCs, you only need to search video game fanfic to see that countless gamers fall in love with characters all the time and if they don’t, they always know that one friend who does.
Gintama, Community and Riverdale can’t be the only TV shows out there that represent gamers and the industry well, can they?
Games are increasingly popular, every year more and more people are playing them and the industry outsells the film industry on a regular basis so there’s no excuse not to depict gamers well and I hope we start seeing better portrayals in the near future.
Let me know in the comments section if you know of any TV shows that are accurate in their portrayal of gamers that I’ve missed.