I was catching up with Riverdale this weekend, a teen drama that’s deliciously trashy in the best ways, when I noticed something spectacular.
In this season’s eighth episode, which aired three weeks ago, pals Archie and Jughead are hanging out with a video game. Forgive me for not recognizing what game they were playing exactly; it’s some superhero-looking massively multiplayer online game on Xbox One. Archie’s doing terribly, dying within the scene’s opening moments. Jughead, ever the know-it-all, criticizes his best friend’s performance.
Neither one of them ever jump to their feet, or swing their arms around, or start yelling at the screen at anything above an indoor voice. Archie’s controller remains perfectly horizontal — no outrageous, wild tilting. It’s clear that Jughead is only observing, despite references to the game being multiplayer.
In short: They’re two friends having a typical video game-filled hangout sesh, and it looks exactly like what playing video games in the real world looks like.
This seems like a strange thing to celebrate. I promise you that, as a seasoned TV watcher, it’s not. Countless shows and movies take the rather mundane activity of playing a video game and transform it into something visceral, as if it’s a contact sport. We’ve all seen those stock photos of people playing video games, springing out of their seats to thrust their entire body into a shooter or racing game. On TV, that’s taken to the nth degree.
Lisa Foiles, an actress and former Kotaku columnist, wrote about this phenomenon in 2010.
“Some would argue that it's because most actors are unfamiliar with gaming and are therefore unsure of how to portray a ‘gamer,’” Foiles said of the tendency for actors to get so deeply, physically invested in every video game they play. “But that's what actors do. It's their job to become a different person and accurately simulate their activities and occupation.”
Foiles argued for the need to represent games more authentically, especially as they became increasingly mainstream. But as someone who’d experienced this from the Hollywood side of things, she pointed out that directors often want to portray playing a video game as “the single most exciting moment” possible, for audiences’ sake.
If it’s not a director instructing actors to make gaming seem far more physical than it needs to be, it’s a director missing the nuance of how a game actually plays. Take this scene from Breaking Bad, a show I am less ashamed to love. Depressed drug dealer Jesse Pinkman opens the 2011 episode with a cathartic session of Rage, a game that was new at that time (although still a few years out in Breaking Bad’s timeline — oops).
Rage isn’t an on-rails shooter. That didn’t matter to Breaking Bad’s creative team. For the scene to work, they needed Jesse to be playing the game while standing upright, to drive home the connection to the recent shooting that still plagues him. For anyone who actually played Rage, though, this is an obvious error.
One episode of Dexter showed the serial killer using his office PC to play ... Halo 3 ... using a keyboard ... and that’s it.
Yeah, sure, maybe in your dreams, Dex. Even if this gameplay session is totally implausible, at least Dexter maintained his steely demeanor while playing. That’s the only part of this scene that has anything in common with reality.
Here’s what may be the most recently reviled example of clueless gaming on TV: a scene from Life, a detective show on NBC that didn’t last very long. In the first scene from the below compilation video (feel free to watch the rest for some more awful examples), the show’s cast gathers around Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones to solve a crime. A drug dealer apparently hacked into the game to hide the evidence of his crimes, and the detective team has to go in and play the game to unearth it. It’s ... not great. Not great at all. (Warning: There’s some gross language that appears briefly in a subtitle later on in the video.)
“Listen, people who don’t know about video games who continue to use them in your media,” wrote The Mary Sue in a takedown of the Life episode, back in 2011. “Whether or not you are being given a big check by a game developer to include their game in your show, how hard can it be to use a tiny portion of that money to pay a freelance gamer to consult with for your project? Or, at the very least, how hard can it be to type g-o-o-g-l-e-.-c-o-m into a web browser and spend an hour or so researching?”
It’s nice to see the team behind a teen drama at least doing some research. Riverdale’s video game scene is brief and ultimately unimportant to the plot; it’s almost akin to a throwaway line. But considering how rare it is to see video games portrayed with any authenticity on the small or big screens — give or take films like Reign Over Me, whose obsession with Shadow of Colossus remains its best feature — even these tiny, chill gaming moments are appreciated.