By Adam Smith on November 29th, 2013 at 5:00 pm.
With a few notable exceptions, games haven’t broken into the world of television. There’s Videogaiden, of course, and I rewatch that at least once a year, but games are more likely to be mentioned in a news report about the commerce value of consoles or a violent occurrence than for their artistic or cultural merit. Arch-satirist and clever clogs Charlie Brooker has previously enjoyed some success with Gameswipe, but a trailer for his new programme, with writing from RPS chum Cara Ellison, Jon Blyth and Matt Lees, suggests that it might be a very important piece of television. A shame then that Brooker’s segment with journalist/presenter Jon Snow about the Playstation 4′s launch showed the latter displaying the unimaginative approach of an old man in an old medium.
It’s odd that television shows don’t notice that games exist very often. Whenever an advert break interrupts a programme, there’s almost as much chance of an EA logo hitting me square between the eyes as there is of a perfume advert making me want to scratch my own eyes out. Occasionally a subplot in a soap opera might involve somebody losing their job, their family and their home because of an addiction to Angry Birds, and there’s that guy who bangs on about ‘EPIC DEALS’ on the GAME advert, but mostly a whole day can pass without regular programming noticing that most people know what a game is and have probably played one. That’s why Snow’s bewildered belligerence is so frustrating. He acts as if he’d resort to poking the machine with a stick if left on his own with it. The stubborn shield of a mind refusing to inquire.
Jon Snow is certainly capable of being both inquisitive – he’s a journalist after all – but here he’s more inquisitorial, looking for evidence that meets his assumptions. I’ll openly admit that I haven’t even finished watching it because I cringed so hard midway through that I nearly fell out of a nearby window.
There’s at least a degree of play-acting from Snow but the attitude is condescending. It’d be simplicity itself to assume that attitude is born of ignorance, a lack of exposure to games and Snow’s age (he’s 66, Brooker a sprightly 42). None of that is entirely fair and the latter point is balderdash. People of all ages play games and while it’s a more common hobby for certain demographics, assuming somebody 60+ doesn’t understand games is no more helpful than assuming a teenager doesn’t understand how to use a library. As for the ‘lack of exposure’ problem, let’s take a quick look at some of the things that Snow might have been exposed to in regards to the recent console launches.
There was Microsoft’s ‘knitting’ advert, in which a letter could be customised, madlibs style, and addressed to a significant other. The default options (it has since been removed) read “hi honey…I know you’d rather knit than watch me slay zombies”. No genders are mentioned but it’s easy to leap to the conclusion that this is a man addressing a woman, and so Microsoft help to confirm Snow’s belief that gamers don’t get married often because, in their culture, there “probably aren’t any women”. Sure, your ‘honey’ might be around but she’s got other things to do.
Then there’s the fact that playing a game is equated to ‘slaying zombies’. Sadly, that’s often true and I’m not sure how much leeway Microsoft had given the launch lineup for the Xbox One. I can’t find the rest of the options now – I think ‘working up a sweat’ was one, bizarrely – but sports figured largely as well. Sports and zombies. I don’t think they mentioned Zoo Tycoon.
Sony, meanwhile, bought Page 3 in today’s Sun (doesn’t link to The Sun), pushing ‘Rosie, 22, from Middlesex’ out of the picture. It’s not quite the God of War goat or Battlecruiser 3000 AD’s campaign (NSFW), but there’s a marketing guffaw, one sexy thing replaced with another. Of course, it’s also just a way to get lots of eyes glued to a picture of a newly released product, but it can also confirm pre-existing bias regarding links to lowbrow lad culture (for American readers – ‘lads’ are like ‘bros’ but with a stronger alcoholic content).
At RPS we quite clearly love games and spend a lot of our time thinking and writing about them, but we’re often irritated by the crappier side of the industry and the conversations around it. That’s as it should be. Mark Kermode and Roger Ebert were so dismayed when they watched Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen because they love films and don’t want heavily marketed piles of crap to represent what the medium can be.
Imagine if you’d never seen a movie before and somebody sat you in front of that, followed by Zombies vs Strippers. You’d think cinephiles were idiots and you’d probably never open your eyes again.
Fortunately, Brooker’s ‘How Videogames Changed the World’, airing on Channel 4, tomorrow at 9pm, looks like a perfect antidote to the Snow segment, and to a lot of the cynicism and rot that builds up over years of looking into the grungy corners of gaming. I’d expected something knowing, in-jokes and references, but judging by the trailer it’s a show for everyone. I found it quite moving.
And, yes, I love that the boundless inventiveness, logic and creativity of Minecraft is represented by a giant chicken. Perfect. And correct.
There are so many ways to consume media about games. You’re reading a website right now and you can probably still find a magazine if you look hard enough. There are books about games, podcasts, Let’s Plays, Twitch streams – there are more ways to consume information about games than ever before. That’s no surprise. We’re drowning in data. I don’t even get out of bed most mornings without checking the news on my phone first, mechanically swiping across to a browser in one motion as I turn off the alarm.
Games don’t need representation on television and by treating them with disdain or apprehension, its own representatives confirm that it is an old form of media. Inflexible and soon to be as perilously poised as printed news. In terms of content, I can’t remember a time when there was so much on TV that was so critically acclaimed, but how many people watch Breaking Bad in a boxset or through an internet service? How many people tuned in every week, at the designated time? As a timetable of broadcasts, television channels are less relevant than ever, and most are demonstrating an awareness of that and a willingness to change.
Brooker’s new programme looks like it might show that a major UK channel is willing to show a respectful and insightful approach to new media as well, crafted by an assortment of passionate and knowledgeable writers. Here’s hoping.