Monday, March 01, 2010

Videogames portrayal in TV shows.

Some people will argue that watching too much TV will make you stupid. That's partly accurate. If you use prime-time TV shows to learn about the real world, you will irreparably damage your brain. Then again, the dumber you get, the more enjoyable TV shows become. If you know nothing about medicine, law and basic science, shows like CSI, Grey's Anatomy and Ally McBeal feel believable. But as soon as TV shows start dealing with something you know a lot about, the believability crumbles away.

In my case it's videogames. Almost every time a videogame is portrayed in a TV show I cringe and find myself filing many mental notes, including a note about what a nerd I am.

Even when it's close enough, such as the World of Warcraft episode of South Park, "Make Love, Not Warcraft". The episode was created in collaboration with WoW's creators Blizzard Entertainment, but as someone who played the game quite a bit in the past (I know, don't go there) I could spot places where the game wasn't portrayed correctly. You can't level up by killing weak creatures in the same area forever!  Not even slowly. At some point they'll be too low level for you to gain any experience from. (See? Nerd.) At least Trey and Matt got the social commentary aspect spot on, as they often do.

Then you have guilty pleasures like Ghost Whisperer where the bad portrayal of videogames and virtual worlds is consistent with the show's apparent dedication to be perfectly dim in every possible way. When Melinda enters a 3D social network as a 3D avatar and gets into a super hero fight with a 3D avatar controlled  by a ghost in the episode "Ghost in the Machine" you don't find yourself thinking that this is the most annoyingly idiotic thing you have ever seen in your entire life, because if you did you would've stopped watching Ghost Whisperer after a couple of episodes. Jennifer Love-Hewitt gets to show some cleavage, wear a funny wig and indulge in cheap special effects that make Smallville look slick, so not all is lost.

 Intelligent and witty shows like House also can't avoid having a videogame episode. The same formula repeats every episode: a patient is diagnosed with a weird condition. The team keeps diagnosing it wrong until near the end House has an epiphany when he talks about something completely different, usually with Wilson. Still, you ignore that fact and enjoys the show because it is so well written and acted. When the overall writing is good you find yourself to be much more forgiving about unrealistic aspects. That's why I overlooked the terrible portrayal of a virtual reality videogame in the episode "Epic Fail". Pre-rendered 3D animation that didn't look at all videogamey and VR controls that didn't make any sense. Considering the atrocities out there in TV land, this was actually not that bad.

The most annoying portrayal of videogames I have ever seen, though, must be CSI Miami's "Urban Hellraisers". The show features a GTA-like game that players then emulate in real life as the thrills of killing virtual characters just weren't enough for them anymore. Wolfe plays the game to find out where the criminals will strike next. Each time he unlocks a new level they get a clue where the attackers will go next. I guess CSI's advanced computers don't have access to websites like where you can read the solutions for practically ever game out there. Fortunately for the crime scene investigators, the game is super linear. Any time you play the game, exactly the same chain of events takes place. I watched the episode and tried imagining playing the game in my head and I just couldn't. Seems to be a co-operative 3D shooter that is also competitive based on score. The game, both the virtual and the real life equivalent, make no sense whatsoever.

Then again, this is CSI. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to know when they are being ridiculous. For example, zooming into a grainy security footage to get the reflection from someone's eyeball or scanning a 2D image straight into a 3D model. You must turn a blind eye to the occasional bad science if you're to survive more than two consecutive episodes. Often there's a fun mystery in the heart of the episode that makes it worth it.

But what really got to me was the vilifying of videogames as murder simulators.  The players get massive bonus points for killing innocent civilians and they are happy to do to that in real life because videogames have numbed their moral compass blah blah blah. This comes from a show that uses murders on a tri-weekly base as a source for slick entertainment, including the occasional murder of children. That's without mentioning the many CSI games out there. If the CSI games are anything like the game portrayed in the CSI episode, I think I'll steer clear.

This is just from the top of my head. I'm sure there are lots of other cringingly great examples. Got any?



Andrew said...

Wow, good list - most of my thoughts repeated there.

The TV industry generally shies away from it all, considering I can't think of any major ones off the top of my head (although I do love the silly "Virtual" games most sci-fi sitcoms have - see Red Dwarf's "Better Than Life", hehe). I must admittedly not watch much crime or drama material, I am sure there are more dodgy ones out there. Soaps for instance are bound to have some bizarre cases.

I'd say the Film industry is a bit more...abusive...of videogames in that sense (ie; fictional stories). You'll find a good couple of dozen directly videogame related films which are just crazy on the "absolutely nothing like the real world and in fact is so science fiction calling them videogames at all seems bizarre".

Mickey said...

When a movie deals with game that it's premise right from the start. With TV shows it's a gimmick episode that is usually used a few years after the show started when the writers are struggling for new ideas and want to do something "current".

There are so many TV shows I'm not watching, I'm sure there are dozens of cringe-worthy examples out there.


Andrew said...

Okay, this is appropriate, having seen this today:

Not games but tech itself is seriously misdone on TV in general too ;) and that is much more common! :)

Mickey said...

True! I saw that link a few weeks ago. It's hilarious, but also depressing. Very well edited.

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