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Gaming TV: Charlie Brooker's Gameswipe

Saying Northern cities are weird and violent is funny. Every time.

Charlie Brooker, professional media sourpuss, occasional comedy megabrain and former PC games reviewer, tonight turned his frighteningly successful brand of comic sneering towards a games documentary(ish) on UK digital station BBC4. As with his Screenwipe and Newswipe shows, it’s him in a dimly-lit lounge, frothing bitterly to camera about popular culture. UK folk and IP perverters can now watch it online on the BBC iPlayer here, but I’ve just watched it the old-fashioned way. ON TELEVISION, AS IT HAPPENED. It’s like I live in the 1800s.

While entertainingly bombastic and very much in the Brooker tradition, it was odd, uneven and sometimes awkward. The chosen approach was explaining games to a casual or entirely disinterested audience – which perhaps speaks volumes about the kind of folk who salute Brooker’s flag these days. He may have arisen from nerdish roots, but he’s The People’s Angry Sometimes-On-The-Internet Man now. So, no information or insights that an RPS reader wouldn’t already have been aware of, but it did at least cover the topic broadly rather than just spending 20 minutes a piece on Mario and Sonic. And if we want gaming TV to succeed it needs to reach a larger audience too – so being broad was the sensible choice, even if it was rather vague and confused with it.

Its format was a rapid run-through of the major gaming genres – some of which were treated fulsomely, such as a generously-proportioned segment explaining how Beatles Rock Band works (which surely even the most ardent non-gamer already has a sense of), and others of which were dismissed in less than 10 seconds – as with his curt “I don’t like them” for the entire strategy genre. That wouldn’t bother me half as much if he hadn’t earlier spent bloody ages showing and describing the lacklustre new Wolfenstein, before concluding that yes, it was lacklustre. So why include it all, and most especially why make it the key focus of the first-person-shooter segment?

That said, it was generally an agreeable watch, and certainly had a few moments where the blend of celebration and cynicism towards this silly, wonderful thing we spend so much time on was note-perfect. It also featured a near-beautiful tearing-apart of 50 Cent’s game and the horrific values therein, and a sadly fictional game about pushing Myleene Klass into the river.

The games-discussion highlights didn’t involve Brooker himself, but instead some astute and more genuine interviewees – such as Dara O’Briain taking his irksome Mock The Week hat off to genially discuss why some games seem so determined to punish us, and Father Ted/Black Books writer Graham Linehan rolling his eyes at the still-awful state of game storytelling before offering a couple of interesting examples as to successes in that area. Also, a pretty song by an Escapist writer about how stupid the Wii’s Mad World is.

Very funny and slightly smart in places then, but not a patch on his Screenwipe or Newswipe shows – which is primarily the fault of deciding to cover the entire subject and history of videogaming and be a review show, rather than analysing/taking apart/building up a specific element. Not helping was that Brooker’s known and occasionally evident affection for videogames was drowned by his trademark poisonous tone being so unrelenting. There wasn’t much Yay! Games! – so why was it made, and what did it want to say? We’d have done it better, of course – if by “better” you mean “Kieron rants about Thor, Alec mumbles mean things about his own cat, Jim tells a three-hour EVE anecdote and John has a bit of a cry because he missed the latest episode of Leverage.”

Perhaps it would have gone for it a bit more if it was on one of the major stations, rather than consigned to a sleepy 10pm slot on sleepy BBC 4. I’m really glad it got made, but it needed to blow the bloody doors off to help earn games a regular place on TV again. My hope is that Gameswipe’s one-off nature means it’s simply a trial run, testing the waters for a series that actually has something to say and goes into more detail than “GTA is famous for being violent” and “pressing buttons on a plastic guitar is a bit embarrasing.”

There were brief hints of “this is why games matter”, and it nearly made something of how ridiculous and reactionary mainstream news coverage of games is, something that I’d love to see someone of Brooker’s profile take to task, but he opted to simply give them enough rope rather than counter them in a way that non-gamers would have learned much from. The coke-drinking gag was proper clever, mind.

I’m fairly sure it gave non-gaming Brookerites exactly what they wanted, and hopefully that’ll pull in enough of an audience to have another, more thoughtful crack at the concept and thus, just maybe, finally shake games-on-TV’s embarassing legacy. Definitely worth a watch, despite its stumbles. More of this kind of thing please, but turn the sneering down and the enthusiasm up, just a little.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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