“You hold the high score in virtually every massively multiplayer online role-playing game!”
According to crime drama NCIS, not only do MMOs have high scores but there’s someone who holds nearly all of them. Meanwhile Life imagines a criminal hiding an incriminating spreadsheet on an Xbox 360 and making it so that somehow it’s only unlocked by beating Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones in a Rocky-style montage. CSI: New York envisions Second Life as a place where cops chase gun-toting furries on hoverboards. Actually, that one’s about right.
It’s easy to get frustrated when visual media portrays gaming inaccurately, but visual media routinely screws over all niche interests: cooking, comic books, whatever.
It’s easy to get frustrated when visual media portrays gaming inaccurately, but visual media routinely screws over all niche interests: cooking, comic books, whatever. It’s been 50 years since Medic and doctors still put on stethoscopes backwards. Gaming isn’t special and we shouldn’t be surprised when visual media makes mistakes that we’re the only ones spotting.
Nor should these point-blank inaccuracies lead us to assume TV and film writers are unable to be incisive about gaming, no matter how great the gaffes or unlikely the source of insight. For example, no-one would expect Hackers to say anything particularly astute. The 1995 film is fondly remembered for visualizing databases like Tron, hackers as pretty teenagers boldly garbed in Day-Glo, and modems as running at the “insanely great” speed of 28.8bps. It was not entirely precise.
What Hackers gets no credit for doing, because maybe it didn’t mean to, is aptly conflating hacking with gaming. The film hints at their common ludic and cyberpunk themes, themes that 90s hackers like David Troup and Craig Nerdorf talked about: competitive exploration, puzzle-solving, divergence, and futurism. The scene in which Dade beats Kate’s Wipeout score, an event that preludes their hacking rivalry, is what best underlines this commonality but the conceit is carried throughout the film.
Maybe this interpretation is a stretch. In any case the observations are benign; the film romanticizes gaming just as it does hacking. Often with inaccurate portrayals of gaming, it’s not the errors themselves that rile us but the vitriolic agenda from which they come. Law and Order’s infamous tripe about obese, addicted, socially inept gamers is laced with political rhetoric, while CSI regularly plays to games-cause-violence headlines. 2009’s Gamer has a potentially smart plot about players controlling humans in real-life shooter and social games, but takes both genres to absolute extremes in a feeble excuse to glorify violence and depravity rather than comment on it. When non-fiction bias spills over into fiction, the inaccuracies are the easy targets for us to shoot down first.
There’s a difference between innately and superficially inaccurate, however. With the latter, criticism can be constructive. For example, some critics took exception to the 2000 The X-Files episode “First-Person Shooter,” saying the idea of a homicidal virtual reality game was farcically impossible, and deriding vague tech terminology like “search the wireframe” and the “scanning in” of character actors. They particularly criticized the portrayal of the male players as aggressive, immature nerds crying out absurd vernacular like “cyber-thugs” and “cooked meat,” claiming the episode ignorantly portrayed all games as pandering to childish, masculine aggression.
Unlike Gamer, “First-Person Shooter” doesn’t just play dumbly to the mainstream perception of gamers getting off on violence and depravity.
However, the episode isn’t as ignorant as it seems to be. Actually, it’s brimming with FPS references: the game’s Nazi-like enemies are from Wolfenstein, the armor from Unreal Tournament, and the bikers reference Kingpin: Life of Crime. As Mulder enters the game he dons sunglasses, sleeveless armor, and a newfound machismo that echo Duke Nukem; the homicidal female character combines Sin’s domme-wear with an actress who bears an uncanny resemblance to Lara Croft.
Scully is unsurprisingly cynical of this violent, sexist game: “What purpose does this game serve except to add to a culture of violence in a country that’s already out of control?” she asks Mulder.
“Who says it adds to it?” he replies.
Unlike Gamer, “First-Person Shooter” doesn’t just play dumbly to the mainstream perception of gamers getting off on violence and depravity. It references specific FPS games and especially those like Unreal Tournament that brazenly played to that perception; if we cringe when we hear the episode’s catchphrase “the blood-thirst is unquenchable!” then it should be because we’re reminded of “Monster Kill.” Games have yet to be shown to cause violence or sexism, but shooters like Duke Nukem and Unreal Tournament, for all their fun, do not assuage that mainstream cynicism of gaming, and that’s the point the episode seems to be making. With post-Gamer hindsight, maybe the episode is sharper than those critics suggested.
For all the inaccuracies, there are things to be gleaned from what is crucially the external perspective of visual media. The same X-Files episode also notes that gaming often misrepresents women because there are too few female developers, an industry problem still even a decade later. The Bones episode “Gamer in the Grease” dilutes competitive gaming to wholly being about retro arcade games, but also notes gaming’s therapeutic role in autism, something House and The Wizard have done, too. Speaking of House, the 2009 episode “Epic Fail” features another completely implausible VR game, but subtly hints at how the stress of the games development process can affect health. The external perspective can help visual media make observations that those who are too close to gaming may not be able to see, and often ones that the industry isn’t enthusiastic about making.
There’s no denying that TV and film have a great deal of influence on the popular consciousness, which is why we get so upset when their depictions of our beloved gaming fly so very wide of the mark. The truth is that outside of repeat offenders like serial crime dramas, visual media is improving at depicting gaming accurately. Since The Simpsons and Bart’s arcade days there’s been a slow movement within cult TV to portray regular people playing regular games. The geeky but well-adjusted Tim Bisley of British sitcom Spaced was regularly seen with a PlayStation controller in his hands, typically with little comment. Games were just something he liked, no big deal.
There’s no denying that TV and film have a great deal of influence on the popular consciousness, which is why we get so upset when their depictions of our beloved gaming fly so very wide of the mark.
Now gaming is a frequent, accurately portrayed part of a growing number of TV shows including South Park, Futurama, and action-comedy Chuck. Hearing Morgan talk to Chuck about sniper rifles in Gears of War 2 makes us feel like we’re watching our own. Meanwhile, in the 2007 film Reign Over Me Adam Sandler’s character uses Shadows of the Colossus as an effective escapist tool for dealing with his emotional trauma. And 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon has taken valuable parenting lessons from The Sims.
In some cases, however, the superficial accuracy is overrated. Just because The Big Bang Theory gets the names right that doesn’t mean its portrayal of gamers is any less clichéd. House may feature shiny new handhelds but it uses them to represent House’s inner man-child. Even Gamer correctly visually referenced Call of Duty and PlayStation Home, and look how that turned out.
TV and film have so much influence on the mainstream, much more than games do regardless of which industry is the commercially biggest; everyone goes to see the must-see film, not everyone plays the must-play game. TV and film writers are now growing up as gamers themselves, but they can still offer an external perspective that those of us closely tied to the industry, be we critics, developers, or core gamers, simply cannot, and there is unique value in that external perspective.
Sinan Kubba is a London-based freelancer whose work has appeared at Kotaku, Paste, and play.tm. He hosts the Big Red Potion podcast and has been known to wear his girlfriend’s Pikachu slippers on occasion.