Video Games: The Movie

This moth Netflix released Video Games: The Movie, the KickStarter funded documentary from director (writer, producer) Jeremy Snead. Before I sat down to write this, I was thoroughly confused why this history / culture review / look-ahead documentary on video games would solicit opinion from Zak Braff throughout, but then I saw he was the executive producer, which should give you the perfect context for the quality of the rest of the film. 

The main problem of the film is I'm not sure who it's for. Let's go to the source on the film's KickStarter page: 

One of the major goals of our film is to tear down the misconceptions the public has by revealing the truth about video game culture and the amazing, vibrant community gamers have created over the years.

Okay cool. So this is for people who are not gamers in order to tear down their misconceptions. Well that being said by the filmmaker (or whoever writes his copy), the film does a decent job. In a lot of ways it was a more slickly producer Gamers (though that film's focus was just on MMOs), going through the history of games, what gaming culture is like and what excites those who game. I would have been really excited to see this when I was ten and maybe caught it late night on some PBS documentary series. In the same way I was excited for The Wizard when it came out simply because it was talking about games. 

However, while there's a decent amount of background on gaming and introducing gaming concepts as if they were new to the audience, there's also a tremendous amount of watching Will Wheaton, a bunch of gaming journalists, game design / coding luminaries, and apparently whoever was around when filming happened waxing annoyingly nostalgic about their favorite games. There's no problem with cherishing memories of games, but it's not exactly interesting to put to film. Unless your intent was to generate in your audience the emotion of "Totally. I know what's he's talking about."

Right alongside this is the really long montages of game footage, which if this was for non-gamers, it's given no context. If it is for gamers, there's little exciting there except the feeling of "Hey, I like that game." 

On that film technique, the long montage of the "next, next generation of games" near the end, I had to mute. It was akin to an episode of Top Gear when they test a new model car. In TG, it's playing with toys that I'll never afford, even if it is a brand plug, however, in this movie, I'm just being advertised at, which is particularly obvious, if you end said montage with close ups of a PS4 and a XBoxOne. Seriously, the only difference between the below ad and this movie is that XBox labeled the games.

While I certainly imagine the fim being sponsored to some degree by game companies, and that's forgivable but, there's definitely something worse in the film. Going back to the quote above from KickStarter, which supposedly explained the purpose of the film, there is immediately a tone of defensiveness. This film is about fix what's been done to us gamers!

And it's throughout the film. Two sections are of note.

First, the culture section is a long collection of clips and quotes of how great the gaming culture is. Yes, totally, games and the people I've bonded with over games are great. Yes, people do make friends when they do similar activities. Oh, people have gotten married after meeting in games. People have probably gotten married through the oil business as well but yeah, we should devote 20 minutes to this topic. Not trying dismiss it, but this isn't 1979 - while gaming may still have stigma of fat white dudes, it's not as though friendship through games is an anomaly. Again, maybe this film is indeed for the uninitiated, however, the section is mostly self-congratulatory. 

Second, and worst, is when the film discusses violence in games. The defense that the film mounts against accusations that video games causes violence is both unnecessary and also incorrect. To be sure, it doesn't take much for most gamers or even non-gamers to remember a parent accusing gaming for rotten children's and teenagers' minds.  

However, first off, you have to understand blow back. New media brings blow back. That happens. It's no coincidence that the stock footage the movie used of uptight white people discussing violence in video games are from the mid-90s. Columbine was the last serious discussion of video game violence as a motivator for unstable people. But it's new, kids play games, and it's something easy for conservatives to be upset about the world going to hell. It's gonna happen, it's not personal. After Marilyn Manson and Doom, there was Eminem, who was destroying American culture. Which again, he's white, he's charismatic, he was just another threat. 

Second, the defensive lines about violence in video games are just a trope at this point. My favorite is "As I recall, Caine didn't kill Abel with a Gameboy". Uh, sure. However, while it won't get you anywhere to say that games have a statistical correlation with violence (they don't), it's also not valuable to reduce the argument to absurdity. And that's really the problem with most defensiveness regarding violence in gaming (suspending for the moment discussion of sexual exploitation, racism, xenophobia, and so on). 

Look - in the same way the films says cinema doesn't deserve banishment because it has violence, there must be acceptance that some games are trying to elicit a reaction, trying to be purposefully, explicitly violent. Killing prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto is intended to piss people off and blow people away with its violence. It's not an incidental mechanic. It's not even misunderstood by players. 

Movies like Salo: 120 Days of Sodom or A Serbian Film aren't trying to be oblique about their intentions. They are trying to say - look at this crazy shit we filmed, it's intended to fuck with you. 

The problem with the argument that people don't correlatively kill after playing games is it's an attempt to deny that anything is wrong or could be wrong with exploitative violence in games. Yes, there's violence in films. But you can make violent, hateful, misogynistic films that deserve criticism or just to be burned. 

So the issue that violence in games causes violence in real life, yes, statistically disproven is not the entire point. The issue is that explicit, exploitive violence in games could still nonetheless be wrong on a critical / cultural level. It's not that violence shouldn't exist in video games - instead, just that if you're going to blanket defend it, then own what's there. I have no problem defending violence against demons in Doom, but that does not mean that I can or will defend a game like Hatred

With these two parts and the initial stated purpose of VG:TM, it really saps from the more basic informative aspects and the film feels unsatisfying at the end. I went from, wow video games are neat to uh, okay, I guess video game violence should be okay because it doesn't CAUSE violence, and closed with, those new products are cool, I suppose. 

This film, like so much of literature about gaming generally, smacks of immaturity on the topic. It is possible to write serious discussions of gaming, game culture, history of games, violence and expression in games, but a bunch of people sitting around saying that stuff is neat is ultimately unspecific and uninteresting. When additionally defensiveness is the key component in multiple sections in the film and even within the stated purpose of the film, there isn't much to say that's interesting since the narrative is focused on a straw man. 

The missing opportunity here is making a film that makes games interesting and enriches those who are gamers in their subject matter. Narrative ingrained with its subject matter has been absent from so much of gaming literature, and those who finally take on the challenge will deserve their coming success.