I love the opening credits of this show
Screenshot: HBO

This isn’t a post about separating art from artist or anything like that, but let’s just say I’m not going to miss watching House of Cards. However, one thing that show did really well (aside from, like, egregious product placement) is show how video games can low-key be a part of anyone’s life, even if that person is the one who holds the nuclear codes. The show also did a great job of showing how people played games; the actors didn’t feel compelled to move their entire bodies around or click a million buttons at once or anything like that.

It’s tricky being filmed doing something like playing a video game or reading a book; many actors feel the need to “show” that they’re really reading or have big reactions to what’s going on onscreen if they’re doing something like playing a video game or watching a movie. What I’m trying to say is that it’s still pretty unusual for a movie or TV show to accurately portray what it’s like to play video games. I wanted to talk about a few that stuck out to me lately, for good and bad reasons.

I finally jumped on the Silicon Valley train about two weeks ago and I’m really enjoying it so far. As a relatively nerdy individual, a lot of the jokes and situations ring true. There’s a Mass Effect joke in the first season that was clever enough that I stopped and gave context for my fiancée (because nothing makes a joke funnier than explaining it in great detail, right in the middle of an episode of comedy), not to mention all kinds of satire of tech culture in general. Characters are obsessed with framerate drops, download speeds, who built their own rig. Every now and then, characters will be playing a video game, and it’s just something incidental. It isn’t a plot point, or meant to show character development; it’s just who the character is. Gilfoyle will be playing some online shooter and talking with another character, and it’s exactly like how my roommates and I used to talk to each other when one of us came into the other’s room while we were playing a game.

I’m only calling this out because of how unusual it is. I think it’s worth mentioning, if only because it makes video games seem like a normal part of every day life. Which they are, for millions of people. Good on you, Silicon Valley.

Another show that I thought had mixed results portraying video games and video game culture was Superstore, in an episode called “Midnight Release”. A big part of the episode centers around a big box store hosting a midnight release party for the next installment of a hugely popular video game and how the employees deal with the huge amount of people who show up. One of the employees wants a copy of the game for herself but isn’t sure if there will be any left; another character is tasked with keeping the line from getting rowdy. Superstore does a few things right, but also reinforces several negative stereotypes. Of course, the people who show up for the midnight release are über nerds; they dress up, they’re in character, they don’t shower and are socially awkward. Hilarious!

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To me it felt like the show was having fun at their expense. Nerds, right? They’ll do anything to get their vidjagaymes! Yikes, somebody teach these guys how to shower!! It felt tired, uninspired.

And yet! That very same episode does a great job showing what it’s like for somebody to relax with a video game after work. Amy, one of the show’s best characters, admits that she loves this series of games and is excited to play the latest one because of how violent and exciting it is. Playing games is a great way to blow off steam after a long day; for her, they’re an outlet and relaxation tool. Other characters react with a little surprise because they don’t see Amy as a character who would enjoy a violent game, and she does a great job of explaining why she enjoys playing.

It feels as though the show is trying to have it both ways, and maybe it succeeds; I’d have to watch the episode again (I haven’t seen it since it aired so who knows? I might be mischaracterizing things here). But what stuck out to me is that Superstore did a great job showing a pretty normal thing (female employee plays video games after work, and it isn’t a huge deal) while also making jokes about how people who play video games are smelly shut-ins.

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Video games and technology in pop culture have come a long way, and of course there’s a long way to go. I’m curious to see how things change as video games steadily get more popular.