Back in 1989, a fat-cat Hollywood producer (or so I picture) had a revelation: Those videogame things he’d seen around were gaining a large and untapped following of little runts. He envisioned a film starring characters based on those kids, a film made for those kids. A film not like Tron – an adaptation of a videogame – but one with gamers as the unlikely heroes. What audiences got was The Wizard, something that even 5-year-olds frequently described as “poo.” Even if we overlook the fact that it was basically a feature-length Nintendo ad, The Wizard can pretty much be summed up by the following IMDB quote: “There are numerous factual, audio and continuity errors with the videogames.” Using pre-recorded video, button mashing actors and vague dialogue that had nothing to do with what was onscreen didn’t fool our younger selves back in 1989. It didn’t start fooling us any time over the next 19 years, either.
There’s been some pretty bad offenders over the years. Malcolm in the Middle had mysterious game-less Game Boys. Every soap has the generic kids sitting in front of a TV that produces R2-D2-like sounds. And then there was 2006’s “horror porn without the porn” flop Stay Alive. But there have also been rare gems such as South Park‘s “Make Love, Not Warcraft” that have managed to stay faithful to the games they portray, earning fame on TeamSpeak channels across the internet. Instead of listing every show or film that’s attempted such a feat, I’ve found three examples of how to do it perfectly, just about right and completely arse-ways.
By far the worst offender I’ve seen in a long time occurred in a recent episode of Scrubs entitled “My Hard Labor.” The gaming aspect of the story focuses on Turk playing his new videogame instead of spending time with his newborn daughter. As with 95 percent of all Scrubs storylines, it all wraps up with sentimental music, the realization that life is great and occasional parental neglect is, in fact, all right after all. But that’s not really the problem here; the problem is the horribly inaccurate and occasionally absurd actions and dialogue that surround the whole ordeal. First we see a screen of Enemy Territory: Quake Wars in which the character seems to be running in circles around a truck. We then cut to Turk and JD mashing on their Xbox 360 controllers like they’re trying to type an angry letter rather than play their magic co-op game that’s clearly set to single-player.
This is just the beginning of a wonderful array of nonsensical actions. First, Turk successfully unplugs the Xbox 360 from the television in the space of two seconds. He then brings it in this state to the hospital and proceeds to wave it around, asking for a second player to help him finish Enemy Territory‘s single-player mode. The closest this scene gets to “real” gaming is a barely contextual reference to Halo‘s Warthogs, but they’re still clearly playing Quake. Then again, even after spending hours completing it, Turk still hasn’t realized that it might be called something other than “that game!” Of course, it’s a comedy series, but the humor here was clearly unintentional.
I don’t understand how the writers/directors/actors got the whole thing so wrong. Surely at some point the sheer awfulness of every game “reference” in this episode crossed a gamer’s path before it hit the airwaves. But that’s the thing: It probably did, only to be shrugged off as an inconsequential plot point. A show like Scrubs, though a comedy, places a lot of emphasis on making sure the medical aspects are accurate, even though only 5 percent of people might notice. Yet here we have a grossly inaccurate depiction of something that millions of viewers are going to spot. The sad thing is if we weren’t all changing channels because of these God-awful attempts, we’d notice the story they’re trying to tell: It’s OK to unwind and play games for a bit. Compared to CSI‘s “all gamers are Grand Theft Auto-trained killing machines” view on gaming, Scrubs has a message we can all get behind.
A more recent example is an episode of The Big Bang Theory that largely centers around the group’s efforts to hold a “Halo night.” From the beginning, it’s a massive improvement on the Scrubs attempt. But they also demonstrate a solid grasp of basic gaming lingo. There are jokes about spawn camping, cloaking and Needlers aplenty. The show also prevents itself from making nothing but in-jokes by simply introducing one non-gamer character so that everyone can relate to it. This is essentially how it gets by; it might be about a group of realistic geek characters, but everyone can understand its humor because of the one “normal” character there giving everyone funny looks. The episode does a bang up job of portraying not just gaming, but gamers – for the most part. It still suffers from problems that distract from it: Again there’s button mashing, this time with upper-body paralyses added for effect.
There’s a very simple rational behind my lack of tolerance: If you make a film about baseball, you can’t have characters playing with tennis rackets. Why should we hold the portrayal of videogames to a lower standard? The entertainment industry needs to realize that audiences care about how their games are depicted whether it’s baseball, Halo or even Texas Hold ’em.
Spaced is one of the few perfect examples of how it should be done. It not only went down in TV history, but it was because of a single episode that the series earned most of its loyal following. Back in 1999, the show was on its third episode. In it, a little-known actor named Simon Pegg played Resident Evil 2 for so long he began to confuse real life with the game itself. Genuine Resident Evil 2 screens explain where the jokes are coming from; controllers are used properly; and lines from the game are spoofed. They’re jokes for gamers, rather than about gamers. Even game music is used to cut from one place to the next. Spaced and, in many ways, The Big Bang Theory were probably never intended for anyone beyond those who’d appreciate this type of humor. But why not apply their onscreen approach to gaming to mainstream entertainment like Scrubs?
I’ve been acting, writing and directing for film and theater for five years now, and I’ve been gaming all my life. The most recent overlap of the two was my brief stint as a guest writer and actor in the Resident Evil episode of The Escapist‘s de-rez series. Another occurred last summer during the shooting of the upcoming Irish feature film Suckers in which I play an all-out PC nerd/gamer Chris Rice. Suckers starts out as an Irish Breakfast Club, but 10 minutes in, a heap of vampires show up. Chris was originally written as your stereotypical onscreen nerd. He was there simply to confuse other characters and the viewers with his various nerdy comments on whatever scenario they happened to be in. One the of the film’s directors, de-rez‘s Chris Slack, and I set out to fix this problem and decided to use the method that Spaced perfected. We simply changed all of Rice’s “nerdy” comments into what you might read in gaming chat rooms. Essentially, Rice was now a real PC gamer: “rofling” instead of laughing, calling people “noobs” instead of benders and screaming “Pwnd!” while killing vampires instead of … well, just screaming.
We didn’t rewrite Chris using lame pop culture references; we rewrote him to say exactly the kind of stuff most online gamers say on a day-to-day basis. Suddenly, he was funny to all types of audiences for two reasons: Anybody who didn’t grasp our gaming jokes still found him curious and bizarre, but to gamers, he was now one of them. When it came time for the first screening of the film, only 40 out of the 200 present were gamers. But Chris’ lines got laughs from the entire audience, gamer and non-gamer alike. Slowly but surely, gaming culture is becoming part of the mainstream; but there are still plenty of people too caught up in the stereotypes to notice.
My plea to filmmakers is this: For love of the film industry, the gaming industry, yourselves and most importantly your audience, please stop mashing buttons and start playing.
Stephen Colfer has never written a byline before, and when he isn’t contemplating what to put in it, he’s usually acting in a theater house, writing/shooting a talkie or being harassed by Leon Kennedy.