Though pop culture is packed with terrible video game stereotypes, there are good portrayals of gaming and gamers, too.
Last week I tackled television’s worst portrayals of gamers. This week, it’s time to take a look at the medium’s best, counting down from 10.
10. GEORGE COSTANZA
Seinfeld: “The Frogger” (Season 9, Episode 18)
It’s popular to point out how un-revolutionary Seinfeld feels today. Its impact on the TV comedy landscape was so instantaneous, its imitatable aspects so immediately apparent (“Pop-culture references? All of the characters can be selfish jerks??”) that it felt like The American Sitcom went to bed as Family Ties and woke up as Seinfeld mere hours later. It can be easy to forget just how much of what we take for granted now was birthed by Jerry Seinfeld’s offbeat ode to NYC malcontents — so of course, Seinfeld pioneered pop culture’s now booming retro game affection.
In many ways, Jason Alexander’s George Costanza was the “worst” of the show’s proudly-awful main cast: Detached urban-coastal myopia was their shared sin, but George lacked Jerry’s wit/talent, Elaine’s semblance of struggle or Kramer’s otherworldliness — George was only a jerk.
But even jerks have their humanity, and it’s somehow fitting that one of the few times he got a genuinely (if still pathetically small-scale) sympathetic “quest” to undertake it was about preserving a childhood memory… of video games.
George’s rediscovery of an ancient Frogger arcade cabinet that still held his high-score, and subsequent attempts to acquire and protect it, were an endearing window into how he became the “grown-up” that he is; with the hilarious live-action recreation of the game as the icing on the cake.
9. JOHNNY ARCADE
Video Power (Series, Season 1)
As I’ve delved into elsewhere, Acclaim and Haim Saban’s brand-X Captain N wasn’t exactly good television. Just about everything in Stivi Peskosky’s kid game guru was panderifically chintzy, right down to a character named “Arcade” who exclusive raved about console games.
Still, revisiting Video Power gave me a renewed affection for the erstwhile Johnny Arcade, who in retrospect feels like an unusually successful attempt at positivity as marketing: The idea of Johnny as the equivalent of an MTV VJ (the position nearest to godhood in 80s pop-culture) but for games was as cynical as these things get, but the idea that a kid whose passion was video games could also occupy the zone between “bully” and “teacher’s pet” that defined the Heroic Ideal of that TV youth heroes (see also: Simpson, Bartholomew J) in an age when most of pop culture was still content with the sun-deprived friendless-loser archetype? Good on you, Johnny Arcade.
The less said about Season 2 the better, though. ::shivers::
8. THE GREENDALE 7
I took a shot at The Big Bang Theory last week, which I feel was wholly justified by virtue of The Big Bang Theory being a cancerous cultural polyp made vaguely less noxious only when Wil Wheaton turns up. But I don’t, like many, hate it for being a “nerd minstrel show” — I hate it for being a bad formula Friends riff (and I don’t even like Friends very much) that panders for web traffic with a superficial gloss of trite “geek references” that Tim Buckley would find hacky.
The real Great Geek Sitcom of the era is, of course, Community, precisely because it doesn’t wear its nerd bonafides like a “look at me!!!” rainbow-wig — it wears them on its heart. So of course, it’s also given us heavily game-inspired moments like the shooter-influenced paintball episodes and the very concept of the Dreamatorium. But the crowning gamer event of the series (so far) was watching The Greendale 7 zap themselves into an 8-bit game to fight for Pierce’s inheritance in “Digital Estate Planning.”
7. PLAYERS & AGENTS
Where in The World/Where in Time/Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?
You could run a college lecture course on the enigmatic meaning of the Carmen Sandiego franchise: A strangely complex feeling Latina antiheroine seared into the pop-culture DNA of a medium today largely defined by beefy Caucasian fratboys. A franchise from the much-maligned “edutainment” genre remembered with an unironic fondness befitting a Smash Bros competitor. Most improbably of all: The source of some of TV’s great game-adaptations.
Turning WITWICS’s thief-hunting-as-geography-bee setup into an educational kids game show was an obvious stroke of brilliance (a clever if typically eyerolly 90s FoxKids cartoon perhaps less so), but it was also one of pop culture’s first direct, qualification-free acknowledgment of video games as worthwhile teaching tools — the importance of which cannot be overstated considering this was also the era of Joe Lieberman’s Congressional witch hunt against “violent” gaming.
6. FIN, JAKE & BEEMO
Adventure Time (Series)
References direct and indirect to the ephemera of retro gaming (particularly but not exclusively 80s and 90s Nintendo properties) are integral to Adventure Time’s fancifully post-apocalyptic headspace, both in the way it leans on an assumed familiarity with fantasy/action game tropes to fill in the story gaps and keep the pace brisk and how it uses that same familiarity to subvert expectations — most famously in The Great Mushroom War sounding so much like just another nod to Super Mario Bros as to hide the reality of it (and, thus, of Oo’s very nature) in plain sight.
But just as the show lives and dies by its characters, Adventure Time’s best gaming content comes from the way it informs the relationships and bigger ideas that are at the heart of a series that’s all about the main characters (all overgrown children to one degree or another) gradually figuring their own world out. And that’s where Beemo comes in.
A sentient robot built in the image of a Gameboy-esque handheld game originally designed to help raise children, in a sense Beemo (and his interaction with the heroes) embodies the wish-dream of “beneficial nostalgia” that seems to be part of the lifeblood of Adventure Time — that the things we love can be preserved, not just for us, but to reach across time and bring happiness to others.
5. PHILIP J. FRY
Futurama: “Anthology of Interest II” (Season 4, Episode 3) and “A BiCyclops Built For Two” (Season 2, Episode 13)
“All right. It’s Saturday night, I have no date, a two-liter bottle of Shasta and my all-Rush mix-tape… Let’s rock.”
Okay, so Fry might not be the most positive depiction of… any of the things he’s supposed to be (subpar delivery boy, so-so boyfriend, haphazard-at-best universal savior) but he sure is endearing — and the idea that his gaming skills were about the only virtue of his 20th Century life that carried forward to the 30th (he mops the floor with his “future people” friends in a VR sim in “A BiCyclops Built For Two”) feels pretty appropriate.
And yes, the retro-gaming reference-fest in “Anthology of Interest II” is about as good as that sort of thing gets, even if “that sort of thing” boils down to “build an episode out of nostalgia shout outs.”
4. CAPTAIN DONALD CRAGEN
Law & Order – Special Victims Unit: “Care” (Season 3, Episode 9)
“I defeated the Gorgon, freed the forest from evil demons, and rescued the dying princess from her dungeon.”
SVU provided the second “worst ever” example on last week’s list, so consider this a redemption entry.
To crime fiction fans, Captain Cragen (Dan Florek) wears his life story on the outside with his age, downward-looking demeanor, hangdog expression and world-weary sighs: An Irish NYPD cop from the bad old days who was too resistant to corruption to advance and too decent to quit, with an AA membership and a sad escort-habit (he literally just took them out for the conversation) to complete the picture. It was his job to run defense between The Brass and his detectives as they faced their weekly nightmare cases, not to solve them — but one time he cracked the case himself… by gaming.
The case in “Care” involves a developmentally-withdrawn foster kid obsessed with a medieval video game suspected in the death of a fellow child. But he’s not the real culprit, a fact that Cragen realizes when he discovers a surprising skill for the boy’s favorite game and with it a common rapport that ultimately leads them to the truth and the arrest of the real killer.
3. CAPTAIN N
Captain N: The Game Master (Series)
On balance, Captain N: The Game Master is on the middle-plane of iffy 80s/90s game cartoons — not as good as Sonic: SATAM but better than The Power Team. Still, in terms of premise, you can’t do much better than getting yanked into Videoland to become a real-life world-savior hero on the strength of your gaming skills alone.
What stands out, though, is that the series was amusingly upfront about what Kevin Keene being a “game master” actually meant in his era: He’d played all the games, so he knew all the secrets and tricks by heart. Sure, that’s not nearly as flattering as what would today doubtlessly be some pandering claptrap about his reflexes and critical thinking skills, but it was a big treat for Generation NES fans all the same.
2. CLARISSA DARLING
Clarissa Explains It All (Series)
The quintessential Gamer Girl before there was even a word for it, Clarissa Darling — as we’ve discussed at length before — was in many ways a forerunner of Millenial geekdom: a female Ferris Bueller (sans the sociopathy) who wore and embodied the ephemera of nerd culture unmoored from its once-prized “outcast” status and retrofitted into be-yourself hodgepodge fashionability.
Was Clarissa even a “geek?” She certainly walked the walk. But she was definitely a gamer — an amateur game-designer, in fact, who used homebrewed PC games as a way of working out her issues with family and friends. It would take games themselves another decade or so to truly go “mainstream,” but in Clarissa Darling a generation got its first non-pandering icon who said that gamers could also be well-adjusted, cool, sociable and, well… “hip.”
1. MISTER ROGERS
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (Season 13, Episode 9)
I haven’t talked much about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in my shows or columns, I realize. Not for lack of wanting to, but from lack of inability to talk or think about the late, great children’s television host without dissolving into a teary puddle of goo. So we’ll see how this goes.
Fred Rogers was American television’s last and greatest secular saint. It’s popular among vile cynics today to paint him as simply the progenitor of self-defeating “self-esteem” culture, what with his mantra of telling generations of children that they were special “Just the way they are,” but he and his message were so much more than that. This was a man who spoke to children like they were his equals: He taught instead of lecturing. He led by example instead of scolding. And even though he was, away from the cameras, a man of God (an ordained minister, to be precise) he never preached. In an era when the intelligentsia was looking at television as the mind-killer, this was a man who looked at the emerging technology and thought it could be used to achieve a specific good — the education and enrichment of children — at a level never before possible. He believed that television and technology could be good for you and that the airwaves were a vital public resource, and he fought the United States Congress for it.
And so it’s only a little surprising that, as part of a six-episode “arc” on the subject of games and play in his 13th Season, Mister Rogers made video games one of the small wonders of life he wanted to share and chat about with kids. And yes, that’s Keith F***in’ David in there, too.
Taking a curious look at the workings of a Donkey Kong cabinet is, justly, a blip on the timeline for Fred Rogers: the man who taught generations not to be afraid, to be curious, to seek knowledge and to love themselves. But for the history of gaming it deserves to be remembered as a milestone. To be included among the things Neighborhood thought was worth talking to kids about placed gaming in a (still rare) position alongside more venerated pastimes and acceptable mediums — to fall under Rogers’ quiet observational approval was as close as any part of pop-culture got in that era to a blessing from on high. At the very moment games were becoming the new scapegoat for childhood time-wasting, (especially from TV shows, which viewed them as competition) Mister Rogers said differently.
Because Fred Rogers was a hero.