Video games in movies need a reboot

There’s a nerdy loner sitting in the dark explaining how he’s “really into computers.” We watch him manhandle a control, pressing a million buttons at once in no specific way, and the sound effects we hear are random bleeps and bloops before some deep, ominous voice says “Game Over.”

This is how Hollywood sees the average video gamer.

Video games as they are depicted in the movies are horribly dated representations based on clichés from the ‘80s that in no way resemble the way modern video games look and feel. In the 30 years since games started becoming a subject of movies, most games have evolved to a point where they could and should be called art. The media however still views them as a joke.

Suffice it to say, a movie like Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph” will not convince many adults that games are for people other than kids. It’s a movie that attracted a lot of attention in the gaming community by essentially being “Toy Story” for video games and for being jam-packed with Easter Egg references to cult favorites. But it’s a sugar coated story about being yourself that has more scenes of animated movie chaos than simulated levels that would provide depth and understanding about games.

So that’s the first myth: that video games are kids’ stuff. The second is that they’re goofy. One of the video game tropes that is quickly becoming a cliché is characters in comedies playing either “Dance Dance Revolution” or “Guitar Hero.” It’s usually a silly montage in which Paul Rudd or Vince Vaughn dances around for a minute, and it has very little to do with the actual game.

The third myth is that games are all based on earning points or high scores or having enough lives. These haven’t been features of current generation gaming for years. Most movie depictions of games are ridiculous because they’re built around in-game rules that are completely made up and nonsensical.

“Tron” and “Tron: Legacy” are usually the best examples of movies about video games, but what game have you ever played that looks or feels anything like “Tron?” It looks and feels like an action movie with a tech vibe. This is also true of movies like “eXistenZ,” “Gamer” or “WarGames,” movies that use the made up rules of their game universes to stage an elaborate metaphor about the nature of reality.

Even something like “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” arguably the movie that most closely “gets” the way video games feel, is completely of its own design. The seven, progressively more difficult and diverse bosses, the “Street Fighter” inspired attacks and the cute floating lives that even cause Scott Pilgrim’s respawn, are all wonderful nods to gaming, but does it get at what it feels like to play a game with real artistic virtues?

What movie has any understanding of what it is to play “Bioshock,” “Assassin’s Creed,” “Red Dead Redemption” or the “Uncharted” franchise? These games are actually becoming more “cinematic,” to the chagrin of some gamers who want games to maintain their identity. But making a game that references Westerns, is photo realistic, historically accurate or Hollywood smarmy is the one way games are getting noticed.

Now, I understand it’s not cinematically interesting to watch someone play a video game, but it’s not exactly interesting to watch someone read a book either, and it hasn’t stopped Hollywood from making wonderful films about literature.

If they are to be used, games need to be incorporated into character development and not just be used as a plot device. One minor example I can think of is “The Wrestler.” A kid is explaining to Randy the Ram how to play “Call of Duty 4,” and we get a human moment from this adult relating to a child as he accurately explains what it’s like to play. A second example is from the indie sci-fi “Another Earth.” A teenage girl is playing “Wii Sports Boxing” with an older man, and in instructing her to keep her guard up and always keep fighting, the metaphor sinks in that this troubled character needs to stay strong to overcome her depression.

I envision a game based movie where the story isn’t about a teenager being sucked into a video game (the abominable “Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over”) or about a skilled player who gets to play the game in real life (“The Last Starfighter”) or about playing games in a cheesy tournament setting (“The Wizard,” admittedly a horrible movie but with nostalgia value for a lot of gamers because of the Nintendo Power Glove and the joy of discovering the secret passageway in “Super Mario Bros. 3”).

I would want a small-scale indie movie where the character plays a modern, single player game regularly. The problems he encounters in the game, be they insurmountable odds, awful grind quests or victories could be paralleled in the character drama developments in his real life.

It doesn’t have to be filled with references. It doesn’t have to be staged with action sequences. It just has to take video games seriously.

Note: The two best representations of video games I can think of are both from TV: the “Make Love, Not Warcraft” episode of “South Park” and the episode of “Community” where the gang plays an old 32-bit side scroller. Both of these actually consider normal behavior when playing a game, like in the “South Park” episode where Stan’s Dad asks what the shortcut is to give a sword to someone. These too are somewhat nostalgic, as well as clichéd representations of gamers, but they show an understanding of what video games are actually like.  

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One Comment

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  1. Really nice post and I agree, the depiction of video games still is weird. Some shows even manage to still use 8-bit sounds when someone’s playing on an PS3 or 360. I am looking forward to seeing Wreck-It Ralph though 🙂

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