The Video Game Episode Falls Flat

What do you like to do when you get bored? I mean that special kind of bored, as in when you’re so lazy that you don’t even want to procrastinate because it requires too much effort. Some may sleep, some may eat, but I watch bad children’s TV when feeling those particular blues. I don’t entirely know why I do this … something about not watching much TV when I was a kid and compensating for it in my adult life comes to mind, but, nonetheless, it’s a pleasing, mindless time-waster for me.

That is, it would be, except for the fact that almost every show to be produced since the late 90s has included one episode that is so cringe-worthy that it makes me sick. That one episode … the one that invariably ruins the whole show for me by exposing the writers as complete, out-of-touch incompetents, is simply known to me as The Video Game Episode.

Do note the capitalization in that title. This is a proper noun we’re dealing with here. The Video Game Episode is an institution of children’s media, from cartoons to sitcoms, and it is almost never done right. Countless shows, ranging the spectrum from Drake and Josh to Johnny Test to The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, not to mention Danny Phantom and its obvious ripoff Ben 10, have tried to make a compelling episode centered around video games … and failed. Game Over: Insert Coin. This fascinates me, so let’s examine just why exactly The Video Game Episode never seems to work.

First off, actors in The Video Game Episode are never playing real video games. I know this seems like a nitpick to start with, but hear me out; this one is significant in two separate ways. First, no real games are ever mentioned by name, despite often having an obvious real-world counterpart. Sure, you can pooh-pooh this one away with licensing costs, but in shows that often go out of their way to come up with clever puns like Mocha-Cola and Dr. Yepper for their soda names, they still never come up with anything even remotely witty for their gaming stand-ins.

Second, the actors in kids’ shows are never shown playing video games in a realistic manner. If you’ve ever seen an example of The Video Game Episode, you know what I’m talking about: random thumb movements, exaggerated facial expressions in reaction to in-game events, and physical contortions that have no influence whatsoever on gameplay. This is a far more obnoxious trope to me—sure, you can again explain it away by saying that the act of gaming is inherently static and the actors have to be especially histrionic in order to make the content exciting, but to me, that misses the point.

Most of the child actors and children watching these shows have played games extensively, so everyone involved knows that what’s going on on-screen isn’t actual gameplay—it’s slapstick comedy using the act of gaming as the butt of a joke. That’s fine and dandy, until you consider that the entire foundation of the joke can be stated thus: “People who play video games are idiots.” Thus, the entire humor of the joke is derived from a sense of superiority on the part of the viewer: “I’m not one of those stupid nerds, so therefore I can laugh at those beneath me.” Yeah. Not very nice when you put it that way, is it?

This leads me nicely into my last and most fundamental problem with The Video Game Episode: Even though the episode revolves around games and gaming, video games are always an obstacle to overcome, rather than a medium for growth. The main characters get in trouble due to the influence of video games and have to rectify the evils wrought upon them by the comedic scourge of a video game. Video games, therefore, are no better as a plot device than the main character kissing the girlfriend of a bully, or pulling a dumb prank, or anything else that would get them in trouble.

Rather than get all angry and rant about the injustice inherent in that assumption, I’d rather like to give one counterexample: The Video Game Episode of Disney’s Gravity Falls. This episode revolves around the main character, Dipper, accidentally bringing to life a life-size, 16-bit, obvious stand-in for Ryu from Street Fighter. The conflict in the episode arises when Dipper attempts to manipulate Ryu into fighting an older boy who has been hitting on his crush by telling Ryu that the older kid is a bad guy from the video game. When the truth comes out that Ryu has been fighting a normal, defenseless teen, however, Ryu is hurt, and Dipper has to set things right.

It’s actually a fairly tame, standard kids’ show plot, all told. However, the subtle difference between The Video Game Episode in Gravity Falls and an episode from another show is that video games are used as the medium through which to explore themes of jealousy and manipulation on the part of the main character—the medium, mind you, not the cause. Dipper’s jealousy was not caused by Ryu or Street Fighter, Ryu was simply the vessel for the exploration of Dipper’s own motivations. When you consider that video games are the inherent problem in almost every show—that every other show would have considered being a gamer to be a problem just as serious as jealousy or manipulative tendencies—you can hopefully see why I prefer Gravity Falls’s interpretation to most others.

I’m out of room for this week, so I’ll just say this to close: watch Gravity Falls. It’s a great show. Happy gaming!

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