Television has long pushed the worst kind of gamer stereotypes into the pop culture limelight.
There’s been a lot said recently about the viability of the “gamer identity” as a pop-cultural force. We’re in an age where the demographics of gamers and the definition of what being a “gamer” means (if anything) beyond simply a person who likes to play video games is up to question — up to and including whether or not it’s time to retire these ancient niche-definitions and move on altogether.
In between all the finger-pointing and muckraking, one thing becomes clear: That whole conversation is heavily informed (poisoned, even) by at least two decades of the broader popular-culture — television in particular — making “gamers” into easy jokes, cheap caricatures, gross stereotypes and socio-political punching-bags. And while things have (to some extent) begun to swing the other way (and while it absolutely cannot excuse extreme reactions to perceived persecution among anybody) it’s true that the image of the fat, greasy, antisocial creeper marinating in Mountain Dew and Cheeto-dust in Mom’s basement has been as hard an image for gamers to shake off as “pandering power-fantasies for insecure teenage bros” has been for the games industry to move away from. And it’s also true that TV has often done its best to perpetuate that image.
So, here are ten of the most egregiously-unflattering depictions of games and the people who play them to have graced the small screen…
10. DR. GUS LLOYD
Deadly Games (Series)
We’ve talked about this a bit before, but it still amazes me how prescient this (otherwise awful) 1994 UPN action series turned out to be about certain less-than-lovable public-perceptions (please note that this isn’t a “Least Accurate Portrayals” list) of gaming and gamers in the near-future.
Our nominal hero, Gus is a physicist who works out his personal-life stress by making an (insanely high-tech for 1994) homebrew FMV game in which “The Cold Steel Kid” (Gus himself) has to rescue a helpless damsel in distress (his ex-wife, who tooooootally shouldn’t have dumped him, yo!) from various super-powered villains… who get unleashed into the real world after a freak lab accident and come gunning for Cold Steel and The Girl as if they were still in the game.
So, basically, Gus’ petty revenge/empowerment fantasy using his ex’s image (without her consent, incidentally) now has her marked for literal death by supervillains on a weekly basis, and somehow he’s still the good guy. As a bonus, the conceit of the bad guys being “game enemy” versions of real people he felt had wronged him in the past ends up making him look like even more of a petty, vindictive twit: A Big Boss based on his father and a High-School Bully who throws exploding footballs? Okay, that’s one thing — but there were also evil digi-versions of the ex-wife’s mother, a (different) ex-girlfriend and even a car mechanic who once overcharged him.
9. COMPETITIVE PUNKY PONG PLAYERS
Bones, “The Gamer in The Grease” (Season 5, Episode 9)
For a moment there, King of Kong’s Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell were the new faces of gamer caricature; and Fox’s Bones capitalized on it in an infamously-silly episode that also (hilariously) included a B-story touting the release of their parent company’s movie Avatar.
The newly-crowned champ of a classic arcade game, Punky Pong (no, really) has been bludgeoned and dropped into a grease truck, and the former record-holder is the prime suspect. In the end, the killer actually turns out to be the vengeful father of an autistic boy who should be the real champion – had the now-dead challenger not fraudulently submitted video of his son’s playing as his own. Nobody comes off looking particularly good.
8. KIM MILLS AND CHRIS ALLEN
CSI: Miami, “Urban Hellraisers” (Season 4, Episode 9)
CSI: Miami was (proudly) the dumbest of the CSI franchises in their heyday, affecting the look and feel of a sleazy/cheezy 80s cop actioner with a 21st century gloss and loving every knife-fighting, gator-dodging, sexy-terrorist sniping, sunglass-flipping moment of it. But its contribution to the “evil gamer” genre was a whole other level of dopey.
This one ambitiously aims to cover both the “gamers as psychos” and “games are bad for you” angles at once: The CSI team is investigating a rash of murder/robberies and soon deduce that the perpetrators are acting out high-score scenarios from a GTA clone in real life. The game’s obnoxious creator (Chris Allen) is so evasive and unhelpful they end up having to play through the game themselves in order to know which “level” is coming next (apparently Prima doesn’t publish in this universe).
Meanwhile, a hardcore fan of the game dies of renal failure after a 70-hour play session, and it turns out Allen has been funneling guns and encouragement to the “real-life” players to promote his product. But the most-dangerous killer turns out to be Kim Mills, an initially innocent-seeming “gurl-gamer” who (sigh) only got into and good at the game because she wanted attention.
7. THE “BLOOD MATCH” DEVELOPERS
Law & Order: Criminal Intent, “F.P.S.” (Season 3, Episode 10)
This Law & Order episode is from the series’ deliberately-pulpy outlier “Criminal Intent,” which followed perps as well as the cops and kept the crime-solving out of courtrooms and in the hands of Vincent D’Onofrio’s blustery, disturbed pseudo-Sherlock Detective Bobby Goren.
In F.P.S. it’s game developers who get their cheeseball bad-guy moment. One member of the dev team behind an arena-combat title called “Blood Match” is revealed to have murdered one of his partners after he “changed” (read: got a girlfriend, cleaned himself up, acquired a social life) after the game made them rich.
6. IVAN, PHOEBE AND “MAITREYA”
The X-Files, “First Person Shooter” (Season 7, Episode 13)
Wow. I’d forgotten this existed until I sat down to write this, but I’m informed it’s remembered as one of “the silly ones” and “legendarily bad” by people who were way more into The X-Files than I was.
It’s an episode about video games from a 90s genre-show, which means it’s about a “virtual reality” game that drops players in lightly-decorated paintball armor into photorealistic B-movie scenarios that somehow starts killing its players for real. Of course, the players (apart from Mulder and Scully) are schlubby dorks. Of course, the developers (Ivan and Phoebe) are morally-problematic shut-ins who could end the killings by shutting down the game but won’t because “My creation!!!” Of course, the “world’s greatest gamer” brought in to fix things is a steely Asian guy who busts out the John Woo guns-akimbo routine. Of course.
The culprit, Maitreya (Krista Allen, so at least there’s that), a sexy virtual-nemesis who’s not even supposed to exist in the game… Twist! She’s was created by Phoebe for a separate female-led game she was making to escape her testosterone-heavy work-life, but somehow jumped over to the “boy game” and is now killing male players to feed off the macho aggression Scully has been tut-tutting about the whole episode. Yup — our actual premise is that a woman asserting herself in game development creates a (literal) man-eating monstress that kills guys and wrecks the game. Delightful.
5. LISA SIMPSON
The Simpsons, “Lisa Gets an ‘A'” (Season 10, Episode 7) and “Gone Abie Gone” (Season 24, Episode 4)
The Simpsons could well be the most pop-culturally significant television series of all time, and Lisa might the show and its medium’s crowning achievement in rendering complex, positive female characters. It’s also been a consistently forward-thinking show on the subjects of technology and (frequently) games in particular, with almost everyone in the family having had video-gaming as a hobby at one point or another.
So it’s unfortunate that both times games and Lisa have crossed paths, the story has (however amusingly) fallen back on the trope of video games as a quintessentially anti-intellectual exercise: In “Lisa Gets an ‘A,'” she gets so addicted to a game of “Dingo Dash” (read: Crash Bandicoot) that she forgets to study and has to cheat on a test for the first time. In “Gone Abie Gone” she gets addicted to Internet Poker and loses her college savings (or so she thought).
::Comic Book Guy Voice:: “Hmph! Soooo! Video games get to be bonding experiences for dopes like Homer and Bart, and even Marge got to kick some ass in the MMO scene, but put a game in front of the smart character and it’s all over for her, eh!?” …or, y’know, it could just’ve been a funny story. That’s also a possibility.
4. LITERALLY EVERYBODY
Code Monkeys (Series)
Yes, I know some sundry otherwise-decent members of the Nerd-God Periphery did some work here and there for this short-lived series, but still… was there ever a more schticky, bro-tastic pander-fest in regards to game-themed entertainment than Code Monkeys? And I mean setting aside the fact that it was seldom very funny and featured very little clever insight into the “gamer culture” it was trying to be the cartoon vanguard of.
Yes, fine, we’re not necessarily supposed to “like” Dave and Jerry, but their frat-boy antics are clearly meant to be laughed along with instead of at and the complete lack of actual likable characters around them takes the “anti” out of their “antihero” designation pretty quickly.
But okay, fine, the Jonathan Coulton song is catchy.
3. LEONARD, SHELDON, HOWARD & RAJ
The Big Bang Theory (Series)
I shouldn’t have to explain this one.
JEFF AND AMBER SAMONSKY
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, “Bullseye” (Season 12, Episode 2)
“This is the kingdom of Galagar!!!”
Law & Order’s big franchise motif is stories “ripped from the headlines,” which used to mean stories exploring fictional cases grounded in topical real-world issues but now mostly means the story-department fitting whatever skeevy news items from that month’s Gawker feed they can into a given episode — usually regardless of what the actual main story is about.
Case in point: “Bullseye” is mainly about Detective Benson (Mariska Hargitay) getting involved with a charismatic child-safety cyber-vigilante after a young girl is sexually assaulted… after having fled the home of her neglectful-addict parents to forage for food. The topical twist? The parents (Jeff and Amber) aren’t on drugs — they’re addicted to a video-games. This, of course, was right in the middle of a wave of “baby starves while parents are playing World of Warcraft” news stories. Classy.
Technically, we’re meant to feel bad for Amber (she got hit by a bus and has a brain condition that makes her believe her daughter is some kind of pod-person imposter) but Jeff is literally Gamer Stereotype Zero: A drooling, nasally, unshaven, overweight dweeb who’s basically taking advantage of Amber’s situation. But at least he doesn’t turn out to be the rapist (“Bullseye” is fairly lurid and twisty, even for this series), just a creep.
1. ERIC CARTMAN
South Park (Series)
Yeah. Thought I was gonna go with Jenkins, aka “The Griefer,” right? Nah, too easy. While the South Park universe’s resident World of Warcraft buzzkill may be a classical gamer/nerd stereotype, the joke of the episode is that he is just a common gaming social-hazard, not really any kind of supervillain.
Eric Cartman, on the other hand, is the actual full-stop psychopath most often seen on the show — after all, he’s one of the four main characters. And across the show’s twenty seasons he’s done everything from murder Scott Tenorman’s parents, infect his “friend” Kyle with AIDS (on purpose), form a new Nazi party inspired by The Passion of the Christ, summon Cthulhu to destroy the world, and manipulate a tolerance movement in order to get Family Guy canceled — all while being a whiny, greedy, lazy, racist, sexist, anti-semetic, reactionary homophobic bully who’ll crumple into a sniveling ball of crocodile tears the moment he’s remotely challenged.
He’s immature-entitlement personified, in other words, so it’s probably not an accident that South Park’s arch-cynic creators decided that he also be the most video-game FIXATED of the main kids: His obsessive drive to possess the latest games and consoles (Dreamcasts, PSPs, Wiis, Xboxes, etc) has driven the plots of multiple episodes. Finally, He just “fits” the other (newer) unfortunate stereotype of gamers — the casually-cruel, socially-detached power-fantasist — to an alarming degree… right down to the fact that, despite being on-balance more overall “evil” than most characters on this list, Cartman (and many fans) undoubtedly still sees himself as the “real victim.”
So there you have it: The ten most cringe-worthy “gamers” of television history. But! It’s not all bad — and next week I’ll be back with ten times TV actually did right by the world’s Joystick Jockeys… and the results might surprise you!