Now, I’m not talking about movies based on pre-existing video games. I’d probably give at least a few old-school gamers a spontaneous aneurysm if I started discussing the Mario Brothers movie, although personally, I did think the Silent Hill film was solid (even given that the filmmakers had the unenviable task of trying to trim the series’ sediments of subtext into a cut-and-dry feature film). Thing with video game movies is, according to the gaming faithful, you’re going to screw the pooch one way or another. If you make it radically different than the source material, it begs the question of why you bought the rights to the franchise at all, but if you make it absolutely faithful (As with the first-person sequence in the Doom movie), people are still going to complain. Now, that scene in Doom is genuinely impressive from a technical standpoint, being a sustained, continuous take similar to certain action-packed moments from Asian cinema (The hallway scene from Oldboy and the staircase madness in The Protector come to mind, and I’m sure anyone else with a freakish knowledge of Eastern revenge thrillers will agree), but it was mocked instead of heralded, perhaps because it was seen as “too literal” a take on the source material. Like ordering a drink ‘on the rocks’ and getting actual pebbles.
So the gaming community and movies have had a bit of a rocky relationship a long time going. Used to be (and still is, occasionally) that movies might depict all games as using Atari’s soundbites, the bleeps and bloops stereotypical of early-80s gaming, or derping on simple details such as showing two people playing a one-player game. Typically those scenes aren’t at all relevant to the core plot of the film, but just window dressing in a specific scene. See the first Transformers movie (Bay, not The Touch), where a character plays DDR (or something) and the script gets numerous things wrong about the game mechanics. But honestly, I’ll give that stuff a pass because it’s extremely tertiary to the core plot. If they had shown Optimus transforming into, I don’t know, a sheep, then that would have been bad, because it shows a dire lack of knowledge on what the movie is actually about.
So that brings us to movies that aren’t based on a single video game in particular, but are instead about video games (in a fictional context). You might be saying, that’s a good thing, right? If Hollywood screenwriters are incorporating video games into the landscape of movie narratives on their own terms, doesn’t that speak to video games’ increased relevance as a legitimate media form?
I’m not so sure just yet. Let’s look at some case studies.
Stay Alive: 2006, starring Malcom (previously In The Middle), Jon Foster, Sophia Bush
Synopsis: A group of friends play a video game possessed by the vengeful spirit of Elizabeth Bathory, and are systematically killed off in the real world after they die in the game. All the while as bodies pile up, they’re forced to elude a squad of cops who aren’t entirely convinced by the kids’ Game-Gone-Jason-Vorhees theory, and only by uncovering the secrets of the game’s origins will they be able to save their lives.
This movie occupies an odd space in my library because of my ambivalence over it. On one hand, I do enjoy watching it, because it’s briskly-paced, the haunted game in question is actually fun to watch (No bloops and bleeps here, folks!), and it’s fun to see Muniz doin’ stuff (Maybe I’m just starved for the later seasons of Malcolm In The Middle to actually be released on DVD, like, ever…).
On the other hand, this is a movie about history written by people who probably failed history class, and it’s a movie about video games written by people who practically bend over backwards to show us they’re not actually gamers.
We’ve actually got a bit to unpack here in regards to how this movie treats game culture, but let’s look at the history angle first and get it out of the way: in real life, Bathory never left Europe, but the movie posits that she came and settled in the American South, where she lived on a plantation where all her servant-torturing and blood-bathing happened. Alright, because the movie actually takes place in America, I’ll run with that…although it does beg the question of why not just have the movie take place in Eastern Europe. The EU isn’t American enough for Hollywood, I guess. Also, they misspell the Malleus Maleficarum, if I’m to nag about details that I feel a little weird for being able to pick out from the jump.
That said, let’s look at how the movie treats games and game culture:
Well, the window-dressing, the dialogue effect-traits that the writers toss in to keep hammering in that the characters are gamers, is hit-and-miss. A character refers to the haunted game (before it murdalizes him) as “sickest shit since Fatal Frame”, which is a hit, because that’s exactly the kind of thing a gamer might say in the circumstance. A bit later, two characters discuss how to beat Silent Hill 4, and the sentence, “Of course I got the hyperblaster, what do I look like, an asshole?” gets blurted. That is a miss, because while I haven’t scoured Silent Hill 4 entirely, a big part of me doubts that something called a “hyperblaster” is needed to beat the game. So what all this comes off as, is some scriptwriter going onto the Gamestop website and just namedropping stuff he finds, hoping that he gets the context right.
Speaking of Gamestop, there’s a very awkward scene in the film where a cop, a “nine to five average Joe” with a car, a conservative haircut and street-smarts (or something) confronts a Gamestop clerk about the game. Now, here’s where we’re plunged into something that seems to dog these movies: condemnation by representation. To represent the average game-store employee (and by extension the average gamer), we have a neurotic, high-wired twentysomething with a haircut that would make Eraserhead blush, who moves like he’s on a perpetual sugar high.
That’s the issue of degrading a subculture or social group by representing them as something “sub-ideal”. It’s the same principle as the forum commentator who, desperate to gain the upper hand against someone in an argument, will fall back on the good old, “Well, because you [x], you must just be a basement dweller who weighs 300 pounds! Get a life, Jabba!” And it’s just as ideologically vapid here as it is there. Essentially, the tactic is this: “I don’t have to pay attention to your arguments, because you don’t actually matter.” I could talk about some of the times throughout history that this “condemnation by representation” has infected our literature and our films as a systematic way to culturally attack or even erase whole peoples (the space-time continuum is still reeling from the way the whole concept of blackface punched decency in the nads), but I should really cut it off there before people start to think I’m directly comparing gamers with the plight of the African American. I’m not, and if you misquote me on that, I’ll be really mad. The point is, Condemnation By Representation infects our society in so many different ways that I felt it was important to sidestep a little bit to discuss it.
What I’m saying is that here, it’s a silly, stupid defense mechanism that’s way more widespread than we’d like to think. Pay attention the next time you either find yourself roped into an argument in person or online: you might be surprised at how quickly this rears its facepalm-worthy head.
It’s actually quite remarkable that they manage to do that, though, in a movie where the main protagonists are all gamers, and where the audience is predominantly gamers as well. Who, exactly, do they think they’re appealing to with representation like that? At the risk of being seen as unduly harsh, this is called “not being self-reflexive enough to step out of your own bubble for long enough to write a scene”.
Also, the writers seem to be confused about how games are actually made. There are references to “Maybe it’s an underground game”. Yeah, those are called freeware. The term “virgin game” is thrown around, implying that that’s a thing that exists outside of this movie. The writers seem to be nudging to the impression that there’s a whole network of “underground games” and “virgin games” being swapped around like the heavy metal tape-trading scene in the 80s. But the fact is, the game industry just doesn’t work that way. I criticize this, because it’s not presented as a plot point in and of itself, but is instead presented as something that gamers in the audience should intuitively recognize and pick up on. And it’s wrong.
(Don’t get me wrong, I’d totally love for there to be some back-alley virgin game black market. Psst, hey buddy, wanna buy a Phantom console?)
See, the movie gives us the direct answer that a single person created this game from scratch, in his house. Now, that’s not unheard of at all: many freeware games are done by a single person with a lot of time and creativity on their hands. But this is a whole other level: from the parts of the haunted game that we’re shown, we’re talking a mixture of survival horror, and intense multiplayer Left 4 Dead style run-and-gun action, with graphics that wouldn’t be out of place on the Gamecube/Xbox (In other words, this is a game made to appear up-to-date with the technology at the time, the mid-00s).
Fact is, that kind of thing just doesn’t happen all on the shoulders of one person. It strains credulity to the movie’s supposed target audience. Look at it this way: one person could make a five-minute minimalist student film, but could one person make Die Hard? It’s the same principle with games. There’s a reason the credits list on just about any non-freeware video game is so long. As long as the average blockbuster movie, I would dare to wager.
So at the end of the day, what’s this movie saying? It’s a film about a subculture, made by people outside of that subculture, who have chosen to more-or-less make up the rules as they see fit rather than take the time to make the movie seem more authentic to the subculture it’s trying to solicit. I’m not going to go with the typical academia-talking-point of, “It’s saying that video games are bad for your health!”, because I don’t think the writers were trying to imply that all video games are possessed with the spirit of a bloodthirsty Countess, nor that Sub-Zero actually rips your spine out when you lose at Mortal Kombat. “Don’t play the haunted video game”, at the end of the day, is no less a Space Whale Aesop (a moral that doesn’t really have context in the real world, just in the fictional world where it’s presented) than “Don’t watch the haunted videotape that people always die a week after watching”.
Instead, I’ll just say this: Stay Alive is a fun watch, but it seems to be fundamentally at odds with itself in terms of what it’s trying to say about games and gamers. Maybe they should have hired some actual gamers to write their movie about the haunted video game, but now I’m just talking crazy.
But it could be worse.
Gamer: 2009. Starring King Leonidas and Dexter.
Synopsis: In a future where condemned criminals are remotely controlled by gamers in a deadly multiplayer game, one such criminal decides that he wants out – much to the chagrin of the game’s creator.
I’m just going to jump right back into the whole ‘condemnation by representation’ concept with this one, because…ugh. One of the gamer characters in the movie is – okay, you remember I mentioned Jabba The Hutt earlier?
Yeah. It’s like that. One of the gamer-characters is the closest you can really come to a human version of Jabba, from the grotesquely rollicking fat that cascades down the rotund form, to the waves of junk-food residue and saliva that besmirch his form. 19th-century Minstrel shows were a less dehumanizing portrayal of a person than this inanity.
I mean, Christ, I can already hear you clamoring for the Eraserhead wannabe from Stay Alive, because at least he registers as Homo sapiens sapiens on some ‘regular’ level. Here, every effort is taken to ensure that this particular gamer is as borderline monstrous as possible. It’s a scene meant to discombobulate and disgust, but at the idea of the gamer rather than the scene itself.
But maybe in the midst of my haste to attack that nauseating characterization (in more ways than one), I should back up and give you all some context. The character is playing what can best be described as a real-life version of Second Life. I don’t know too much about SL, other than it’s a virtual, uh…second life (You see what I did th-oh, forget it).
But the point is, apparently you can, shall we say, do things on Second Life. Do things that you can do in real life, but that are quite a bit easier to get on the inter-…sex. I’m talking about sex.
And that’s exactly what this Jabba-man is trying to do in the movie: take a character in the “video game” for sex. Thing is, as I mentioned in the synopsis, the “characters” in these “games” are real people whose bodies are simply controlled by players. This right here carries several disconcerting implications, the first and most obvious of which is what can best be described as the ‘half-consentual rape’ of the character being played.
Secondly, the vibe that they seem to want to give throughout the movie is, “This is a semi-realistic vision of the near future”. Essentially, they’re making the leap of logic that says, “In the near future, the Sims will be real people whose bodies are controlled by an outside force.” There’s a very dystopian air to these proceedings, not in the traditional sense, but in how human life in the movie has come to be incredibly devalued. After all, the main focus is on the other “game”, which looks like Gears Of War or something in a real-world context. Death and sex, respectively, are the goals of the two main games in Gamer.
Of course, the protagonist in question is the played, not the player: Gerard Butler is one of the ‘characters’ in the war-style game, who has to both resist and collaborate with his ‘player’ in order to get back at Michael C. Hall’s character, the creator of the game. I might be fuzzy on a few details, but it’s been a while since I watched this and I’m not too enthusiastic to dive back in. To their credit, Butler’s “player” is indeed characterized as a fairly “Normal” (quote-unquote on purpose, because again, it’s a constructed idea of “normal” that has become pretty prevalent in Western culture) person, but it feels like he’s treated as the exception and not the norm, which is a big no-no.
So, you might ask, how is this very different from something like Death Race? Both present a society wherein, just like the gladiators of old, real-life death has become a publically-accepted form of entertainment. It’s a theme common with dystopia narratives and authors like our good buddy Orwell: by devaluing the human from a soul with inherent self-worth into a machine that is only useful so long as it serves a specific purpose, to be discarded after the fact, you make it that much easier to wield a wholly nihilistic sort of control over a populace. So what makes this so different, you ask?
And my response is not without bias, as an unashamed gamer myself. But the fact is, video games are only now beginning to enjoy acceptance within the critical spotlight, so an alarmist narrative like this isn’t just sniping from a distance, it’s kicking the art form while it’s struggling to get up. Never mind that Jabba-boy there is a massive (no pun intended) “take that” to gamers as a whole (Or maybe just Second Life-ers, I can’t read the writers’ minds), the implication is a parallel drawn between games like Gears Of War and actual killing, like the mainstream acceptance of violent video games will somehow lead to mainstream acceptance of real-life murder for entertainment.
So yes: if that sounds familiar, it’s the same ‘moral panic’ that gripped parents all over Western culture when the first Mortal Kombat came out and allowed their kids to simulate ripping someone’s heart out. That these games were tainting the fabric of society. Even though movies regularly reached those heights of violence and the six o’clock news fed our kids’ heads with tons of frightening violence in a much more realistic context, it was video games that we needed to crack down on!
In fairness, when the first Mortal Kombat hit arcades, video games were still seen widely as ‘kid’s stuff’. Mario and Sonic were the order of the day: games based on reflexes, hand-eye coordination and swathed in bright colours. Mortal Kombat was swathed in bright colours too, just…by the end of the fight, one colour pretty much dominated over the others.
But when you take into account the fact that Gamer was made in an era when games are working to be accepted into the social fabric of narrative same as film and book, this film seems absurdly regressive in its alarmist message, playing on the outmoded and largely invalidated fears of a conservatively-minded demographic. It preaches to a choir, feeding on those fears to provide an “effective” message as opposed to something more meaningful.
So what’s all this say?
I’ll be the first to admit that a sample pool of two movies makes for slim pickings in terms of what over-arcing commonalities that can be drawn from this, but keep in mind that the type of film I’m looking for here – a movie made in the last seven/eight years that is explicitly about video games in a fictional context, but not actually based on a specific licensed game – isn’t as big a target as I’d like to think.
But the common thread between the two films I’ve looked at today is that they both attempt to speak on a subculture that they go out of their way to let us know they’re not part of. Stay Alive comes off like the uncle who comes over and tries to ‘get smooth with the kids’ by using lingo of a subculture he was never part of, while Gamer is the conservative politician who trumpets out one of his less-savory bodily cavities about the immoral and dangerous state of video gaming.
Something about this strikes me as intrinsically flawed, for two reasons:
1: They could just as easily have gotten gamers to write these movies. Given the increased prominence of games in today’s culture, it’s a little baffling why they clearly didn’t.
2: What does it say about a film’s intentions when the writers take measures to distance themselves from the subculture being discussed in said film? No effort is even made to truly mask the Condemnation By Representation distancing tactic used in both films.
But all this negativity is pretty pointless without a counterpoint, so here’s what I think should happen if we’re to see a movie marketplace that integrates the gamer community in a positive way:
-Writers who don’t try so hard to make themselves seem like a part of the gamer culture when they’re not. It tends to come off as plastic and artificial as it…well, as it is.
-Video games integrated in the same way as films or books. You see a character casually playing video games, integrating it into their day like it ‘ain’t no thing’. There’s an early episode of House M.D. where the titular character is playing Metroid: Zero Mission on Game Boy Advance. It’s just there for flavour, like it would be if he was reading a book or watching a movie. Given that the character is a genius (even though he’s an ass who often gets written on that very fine line of what is and isn’t acceptable for a protagonist to say in a narrative), this is an example of positive integration.
Maybe one day, we as gamers will have our School Of Rock or Be Kind, Rewind: an homage to our art form that might poke fun or satirize, but at the end of the day endear to, what we’ve come to love about it.