The Guardian redesigned their website this year. I’m not a huge fan, but they did make one change that I’ve not noticed any one talking about – video games have been moved from the technology section to the culture section.
There’s a sizable part of the gaming community that tries to champion video games as important pieces of art, that they should be classified as cultural products, the same way TV shows, films and books are. As time goes by, it’s really cool and interesting to see just that happening.
One way it’s changing is the depiction of gaming and those who play games in TV shows. Dr House, of course, was constantly playing on his SP and DS, but this was little more than product placement. NBC’s Life featured an execrable segment involving hacking, and someone hiding some sort of file in a video game, in this case a Prince of Persia title. It took all the stereotypes of gamers and tropes of video games, mushed them together, and produced this poorly-veiled advertisement for a shitty game, long forgotten in the sands of time.
There are rare occasions when video games are used as a metaphor, like the Breaking Bad scene where Jessie plays a laughable, mock-light gun version of RAGE. It looked stupid, but it got the point across and it made sense thematically. Product placement, but used to develop a character.
Enter House of Cards. Francis J Underwood, through all three seasons of House of Cards, has shown himself to be a bit of a hardcore gamer. People will cry product placement (David Fincher has insisted none of the Sony references were paid for. The infamous PS Vita scene being a parody of TV product placement is the only explanation), but throughout the series, video games are used metaphorically and symbolically. There will be mild spoilers for the show from here.
In seasons one and two, Francis spends a lot of time killing children online in various Call of Duty games. He also indulges in games of God of War. In season three, when he is made Commander-in-Chief, he stops playing the games. The man who played at war no longer needs them, he is pretty much a god of war now, literally killing children in warfare. It’s basic symbolism, but it’s exciting because it’s video games used in a grown up way.
Francis later plays two indie games, Monument Valley, a beautiful isometric puzzle game set in a world of impossible structures, and The Stanley Parable, a hilarious deconstruction of narrative, player decisions and consequences in video games. He’s inspired by a video game reviewer’s prose and asks the reviewer to help him with a book to promote his job-creating scheme. When the fuck have you ever seen a games journalist as a character in anything? The reviewer is treated on the same level as other journalists on the show, with his writing described as ‘gorgeous’ at one point.
Frank lies down and plays Monument Valley, nonchalantly, like any fictional character would read a book or play a piece of music. Like it’s a normal thing to do. Because it fucking is.
Frank and a few other characters talk about ‘indie games’ and ‘consoles’ without stopping to explain to the audience what an indie game or a console is. The writers expect you to be a part of the 21st century and know about games. It’s depressingly refreshing just how much the writers respect the audience and don’t talk down to them.
Later, Frank plays The Stanley Parable and is baffled by the narrative.
“I don’t get it,” Frank says, while The Stanley Parable’s narrator delightfully natters on.
“The game’s unwinnable, that is the point” the reviewer replies.
“It just started over again!” Frank complains, as the game loops. Again, the audience isn’t pandered to and told what the game is. The game is barely in shot, but it doesn’t need to be. Their discussion about the game mirrors Frank’s experience as president, his experience in politics in general.
“Chaos takes over, it’s impossible to follow the rules.”
Frank turns off the game and takes a swig of whiskey.
“This is too much like real life.”
A basic metaphor, but goddamn it’s exciting to see.