How Video Games Changed the World offered a very rare thing in television – an intellectual perspective and insight into video games. It’s the first television show – TV segment even – on British TV for a long time that didn’t approach the medium like it was some dangerous or baffling alien culture. It wasn’t perfect and suffered from having too many contributors and a – slightly hypocritical – desire to hold the viewer’s hand as if half the audience had no idea what a game was, but broadly it amused, informed and entertained.
The show was structured as a countdown of the most important 25 games, progressing chronologically through the last few decades. Predictably and frustratingly, the first game was Pong and the early section of the show could have been a BBC Six O’Clock News bulletin, full of basic descriptions of games and game mechanics. Does anyone really need an exact description of Mario? There are Daily Mail-reading grandmothers who know what Mario is.
The problem was that the show didn’t know exactly what it was trying to be. Host Charlie Brooker continually made the point that gaming culture is much more wide-spread than generally assumed (see: the title of the show) and yet seemingly felt the need to construct the programme as if people watching were ignorant of the basics. It was part Gameswipe, part straight talking-heads documentary, and part Channel 4, Saturday night countdown show. The programme could really have used a better, less purposefully ‘mainstream,’ structure.
In fact, it would have worked a lot better as a series. Five episodes of Brooker discussing games would be fantastic, and airing it in a slot that wasn’t as prominent as 9pm on a Saturday would allow them to be less broad in approach.
That said, Brooker talks in this Guardian interview about his previous BBC show Gameswipe, saying that while it received better viewing figures than his other Wipe show, there was little BBC interest in commissioning a full series. That’s the prejudice this show was up against, and flawed or not, Channel 4 should be applauded for running with it.
In the same article linked to above, Brooker says of the show’s Pong focused beginning: ‘Any gamers tuning in who moan about how we’re starting with Pong, should bear in mind that almost every game they’ve ever played starts with a tutorial – we’re not patronising them half as much as that.’ That didn’t make it any less frustrating, or unnecessary in my opinion, but the programme quickly moved on and its discussion of each game on the list increasingly offered the type of in-depth analysis you often see on TV about film or literature, but not video games.
We saw Pac-Man with its ‘complexity hidden behind simplicity’ and its genesis of cartoonish games, and sped through the early consoles: the Commodore 64, the ZX Spectrum and the BBC Micro – very much ‘the Liberal Democrats of computer systems.’ A look at Elite – a kind of line-based Grand Theft Auto – helped illustrate how games fit-into a broader cultural context and comment on the society that gives birth to them.
This was followed by the addictive minimalism of Tetris – ‘once you learn it you are already winning’ – and then a good chunk on the hilarious Monkey Island, which brought cinematic techniques to games. Brooker also pointed out the similarities between Monkey Island and Pirates of the Caribbean and this point – coupled with a later comparison between GTA and the movie Drive – showed how video games, often dismissed for trying to ape films, can actually influence other art forms as much as they are influenced by them.
If the show had a major issue it was that it replicated the problem of most discussion of video games outside of the video game world: it felt the need to constantly justify itself. Judging from The Guardian interview Brooker gave, he’s aware of this common issue but that didn’t stop the show from being very defensive and constantly trying to justify the medium. It was almost like a lecture designed specifically for people who think games are for children, intended to convince them otherwise, and that made the show a little annoying for the – probably vast majority – of viewers who don’t need convincing.
I think this attitude is what resulted in the cramming-in of so many contributors, especially the famous faces, intended to placate the non-gaming viewers and stop them from, in the words of Brooker, ‘shitting out their kidneys with indignation.’
I don’t care about Tom Watson MP’s childhood memories of playing Space Invaders. His views on video game regulation, yeah, okay, but not his reminiscing, nor a ‘cool’ DJ’s love for Monkey Island. I could have done with a lot more insightful comments from industry insiders and the gaming journalists like Rab Florence and Keith Stuart, and less of Jonathan Ross (although people like Dara Ó Briain, who have shown their insight into games in the past, were good).
The show was frequently funny, like Florence comparing older gamers being afraid of Doom to the people viewing films of trains for the first time and running out of the theatre – ‘These idiots thought it was a real train coming.’ As Florence pointed out, back then, a game in which doors could open was so revolutionary as to be frightening. It’s a great illustration and this is the type of gaming insight it’d be great to see more of on TV.
Such illuminating and humorous descriptions were peppered throughout, like a female journalist pointing out how absurd the 1990s controversy over game violence now seems, describing such violence as essentially ‘people made out of Ceefax getting blown up.’
Brooker described himself as ‘traditionally nonchalant about violence in computer games’ but he is clearly willing, unlike a lot of gamers, to address the issue, and admit that unjustifiable and brutal violence – like the Mortal Kombat 9 clip that was shown – is a problem in the industry. As, too, is misogyny, a complex problem illustrated by the conflicting reactions to Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft.
The show argued that such misogyny is challenged by games themselves – such as Mass Effect with its bisexual relationships and (optional) strong female protagonist. I’d argue that the same could be said of the violence in games, with, for instance, the fantastic Spec Ops: The Line skewering the first person shooter genre, which Brooker pointed out is the most worrying trend in gaming, breaking down barriers between reality and escapism in a potentially dangerous way.
The show then briefly touched on the satire of The Sims. That game is now redundant, Florence argued, because ‘we are The Sims now,’ with social networks giving us ‘that top down view into people’s lives.
Satire and violence combined was examined next, with Brooker describing Grand Theft Auto as ‘the Frankie Boyle of video games: nihilistic, Scottish, hard to defend in The Guardian, and to what end? It just wants to make you laugh.’ There was a little on the satire in GTA from a games journalist, pointing out that it’s commonly the outsiders that are best at holding up a mirror to American society, but I get the impression, from this show and others, that Brooker – one of the UK’s best satirists – isn’t a big fan. He seems really troubled by the violence, and there was a suggestion that the satire in GTA is broad and misses its mark a lot.
I don’t agree with that. GTA is full of juvenile humour and anarchic offensiveness but that is a hallmark of satire. There was, for instance, at least one masturbation joke from Brooker in this show. Or take Private Eye, the UK’s best satire magazine, which is so often needlessly offensive that it has a running joke about outraged people cancelling their subscriptions. Personally, I think GTA’s satire is admirable. As the journalist in the show said: ‘The fact that they’re trying goes beyond what most AAA games are doing.’
Next up was Shadow of the Colossus and Papers Please, in which ‘the player can’t be sure they are the hero,’ games that, unlike movies, can make you feel guilt, and Warcraft, ‘the point where the lines between games and reality blurred.’
The latter of those provoked some more defensive justification of the medium, with Brooker sarcastically calling games ‘a sad, sedentary pursuit so unlike the way you’re sitting in a dark room watching me say this.’ Dara Ó Briain followed this up by comparing gaming to the socially acceptable practice of watching endless TV: ‘Yes, you may learn a word or two of Danish [from TV box-sets] but it’s just as passive. At least my thumbs are getting a workout.’
Call of Duty – ‘The Citizen Kane of remorseless gunfire’ – made the list, the online element of which Florence described as ‘Like listening to a children’s choir sing the longest, most vile version of The Aristocrats.’ This was followed by the broadening of games user base with Wii Sports and Angry Birds, and then the learning potential of Minecraft – with an illuminating story from Keith Stuart about his son, who is on the autistic spectrum, and how the game improved his life.
Television’s influence on games was discussed next, focusing on the emotional The Last of Us, and the show finished with the number one game: Twitter, which is a bit of an annoying thing to do, a sort of twist ending. The show’s contributors made some good points though, with Brooker describing the social network as ‘a massive multiplayer role playing game where you play a character loosely based on yourself while trying to accrue followers.’ These are games we don’t even realise we are playing and which have, Brooker concluded with a sinister note, ‘burrowed by stealth into aspects of our social life.’
How Video Games Changed the World could have been better, and I think it certainly would have worked better as a series rather than a slightly overlong, over-stuffed single show. But it tackled video games in an intelligent way, and discussed them, for the most part, within the premise that they are a legitimate art form, worthy of analysis. If the show is a one-off, then it was a commendable and enjoyable one, but ideally, if the viewing figures are good enough, Channel 4 will see the potential in capturing a completely untapped market, and encourage Brooker to make a full series of video game focussed shows.
Random notes and choice lines:
- Quite a few notable omissions from the list of games. For me, Zelda, Portal, maybe Goldeneye, and the Bioshock games should be on there.
- If you want some outstanding, Brooker-esque video game journalism then Zero Punctuation is the place to go. It’d be great to see Brooker do a regular game show and get that review series onboard. Alternatively, check out one of David Wong’s fantastic, Brooker-like, video game articles.
- Out of the non-industry contributors, I think Rab Florence, Keith Stuart, Aoife Wilson, Keza McDonald and Gary Whitta were best, in that order. A Brooker hosted show with these guys could be great.
- The show seemed to be operating under the assumption that the audience would be in large part non-gamers. I don’t think that likely to be the case.
- A post-ad break warning from Channel 4 that the show contained ‘scenes of animated aviation crashes’ was a reference to Friday’s helicopter crash in Glasgow. A warning is appropriate and sufficient, and Channel 4 should be applauded for not cancelling the show outright, which is what some channels – the BBC quite possibly – would have done.
- The show’s chiptune, theme tune is here for anyone interested.
- I liked Rab Florence’s description of the hard to understand Starcraft fanaticism in Asia: ‘People just enjoy watching people who are good at things.’
- Brooker on arcade machines: ‘Coin-guzzling monoliths.’
- On COD protagonists: ‘boring, cookie-cutter, Caucasian, hetero dude with a dick and a gun and fuck all else of interest’
- On (sarcastically) women: ‘What I won’t refer to as the tittied gender.’
- On The Sims: ‘Took the American suburban dream and made it into an endless, pointless, pain in the arse.’
- On interactive TVs: ‘Increasingly require you to wave at them, like some kind of peasant.’
- On Angry Birds: ‘Brought intense, hand-held pleasure to millions, just like your mum has.’