How Video Games Changed the World offered a very rare thing in television – an intellectual perspective and insight into video games. It’s the first television show – TV segment even – on British TV for a long time that didn’t approach the medium like it was some dangerous or baffling alien culture. It wasn’t perfect and suffered from having too many contributors and a – slightly hypocritical – desire to hold the viewer’s hand as if half the audience had no idea what a game was, but broadly it amused, informed and entertained.
The show was structured as a countdown of the most important 25 games, progressing chronologically through the last few decades. Predictably and frustratingly, the first game was Pong and the early section of the show could have been a BBC Six O’Clock News bulletin, full of basic descriptions of games and game mechanics. Does anyone really need an exact description of Mario? There are Daily Mail-reading grandmothers who know what Mario is.
The problem was that the show didn’t know exactly what it was trying to be. Host Charlie Brooker continually made the point that gaming culture is much more wide-spread than generally assumed (see: the title of the show) and yet seemingly felt the need to construct the programme as if people watching were ignorant of the basics. It was part , part straight talking-heads documentary, and part Channel 4, Saturday night countdown show. The programme could really have used a better, less purposefully ‘mainstream,’ structure.
In fact, it would have worked a lot better as a series. Five episodes of Brooker discussing games would be fantastic, and airing it in a slot that wasn’t as prominent as 9pm on a Saturday would allow them to be less broad in approach.
That said, Brooker talks in thisGuardian interview about his previous BBC show Gameswipe, saying that while it received better viewing figures than his other Wipe show, there was little BBC interest in commissioning a full series. That’s the prejudice this show was up against, and flawed or not, Channel 4 should be applauded for running with it.
In the same article linked to above, Brooker says of the show’s Pong focused beginning: ‘Any gamers tuning in who moan about how we’re starting with Pong, should bear in mind that almost every game they’ve ever played starts with a tutorial – we’re not patronising them half as much as that.’ That didn’t make it any less frustrating, or unnecessary in my opinion, but the programme quickly moved on and its discussion of each game on the list increasingly offered the type of in-depth analysis you often see on TV about film or literature, but not video games.
We saw Pac-Man with its ‘complexity hidden behind simplicity’ and its genesis of cartoonish games, and sped through the early consoles: the Commodore 64, the ZX Spectrum and the BBC Micro – very much ‘the Liberal Democrats of computer systems.’ A look at Elite – a kind of line-based Grand Theft Auto – helped illustrate how games fit-into a broader cultural context and comment on the society that gives birth to them.
This was followed by the addictive minimalism of Tetris – ‘once you learn it you are already winning’ – and then a good chunk on the hilarious Monkey Island, which brought cinematic techniques to games. Brooker also pointed out the similarities between Monkey Island and Pirates of the Caribbean and this point – coupled with a later comparison between GTA and the movie Drive – showed how video games, often dismissed for trying to ape films, can actually influence other art forms as much as they are influenced by them.