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History Channel's Video Games: Behind the Fun – Review

Chi Kong Lui's picture

No matter how many magazines proclaim how videogames have become "socially acceptable," or that they are now a part of the "mainstream," I'm still not convinced. Take for example the upcoming release of the PlayStation 2 console system. On October 26, 2000, the PlayStation 2 will be unleashed onto the Northern American retail market, and gamers in the region will experience a new era of videogames. The much-anticipated console is expected to sell out at an unprecedented pace and set all kinds of retail sales records.

Yet for all the headlines and spin, neither the PlayStation 2 or any other console that preceded it has achieved mainstream popularity that has made it a universal topic of discussion at the family dinner table, the office watercooler or at a singles bar. No videogame or videogame-related product has ever matched the kind of socially acceptable buzz generated by even something so trivial as the final episode of Survivor. Sega may have made three times more money on its first day of Dreamcast system sales than the opening day box-office receipts of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, but how many gamers would openly brag to a date about being the first on line at their local Electronics Boutique? Meanwhile, everyone and their grandma were clamoring for tickets to Episode I.

The reality is that videogames remain in a very strange part of pop-culture. Too many people are playing to deny their significance, but not having officially shed its geek-roots image (despite stylish games like Parappa The Rapper and Space Channel 5), videogames are still considered by many to be a guilty pleasure and have yet to be taken seriously by the government, academic scholars and the mass media as anything other then an interactive medium that desensitizes teenaged boys.

Will public perception of games ever evolve beyond the idea that videogames are nothing more than an adolescent way to express violence and fantasy in an unproductive and anti-social fashion?

If public perception of videogames is to change, its has to happen by educating the people about how far videogames have come and what great possibilities lay ahead. With that said, the History Channel, under their Modern Marvels series, has put together a landmark piece titled "Video Games: Behind the Fun" that does an admirable job of trying to educate the masses and breakdown misconceived perceptions.

Making its world premiere at October 9th, 10pm ET/PT on The History Channel, "Video Games: Behind the Fun" is an hour-long made-for-cable show that essentially acts as a documentary-style primer to the world of videogames. Rather then focusing on one particular subject, the show jumps back and forth between various subjects pertaining to videogames. The show lacks structure and chronological editing, but makes up for it by cramming in heaps of solid information that isn't dumbed down.

Both PC and console games, old and new, get equal billing on the show, and literally countless games are spotlighted with gratuitous non-repetitious video footage spread through out. Of the classics, titles like Space War, Pong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders and Defender are highlighted the most. Of the more recent games on display most are Shenmue, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil Code: Veronica, Grim Fandango and Ultima IX: Ascension.

Technologically, the significance of things like texture-mapping and motion-capture are explained in good detail, accompanied with visuals that give a good behind-the-scenes peek at what goes into producing a videogame.

Historically, the show only dabbles in the creation of the earliest breakthrough games and those associated with those titles like Steve Russell, Ralph Baer and Nolan Bushnell. Though other influential figures in the industry are interviewed like long-time 3DO CEO, Trip Hawkins. The beloved social advocate of videogames, Dr. Henry Jenkins also makes numerous appearances along with notable game designers like Lord British himself, Richard Garriott and '80s arcade pioneer, Eugene Jarvis.

Ethically, the most popular debates about the moral and social implications of videogames are also raised.

Unlike so many other outside articles and TV spots that have come before it, "Video Games: Behind the Fun" takes the high road with videogames and presents the more culturally artistic and socially responsible side of videogames. According to the show, videogames are rightfully considered elaborate productions of sight, sound and story that are comparable to big-budget Hollywood films. The show also does a good job of highlighting a couple of developers that actually do consider the social ramifications on the games that they create and try to have a positive impact on society. Most obvious is Richard Garriott's Ultima series, which has always promoted virtuous behavior. Not so obvious was the segment on the now defunct Looking Glass Studios describing the morale responsibility they felt to the those who perished during World War II when creating their Flight Combat title after meeting with an real-life veteran who recounted his war-time experience.

Surprisingly, "Video Games: Behind the Fun" is at its best when it tries to break the publicly misperceived image of videogames as nothing more then childish and immature entertainment. The show does such a good job of displaying factual and statistical numbers that demonstrate the ever growing popularity of videogames. It also does a commendable job of describing what actually goes into making a game so that the next time you actually try to convince a group of non-gamer friends that videogames are a remarkable artistic achievement, they might actually begin to understand what you are talking about.

The show is not without a few minor negatives. Hardcore gamers and careful observers will notice a couple of glitches in the visuals like when a Vectrex version of Space War used in place of the original MIT version. Miscues like that are forgivable, but one that isn't so tolerable is an extended segment about Ultima Online. Throughout the segment, the show erroneously displays footage from the one-player game Ultima IX: Ascension instead of the actual online one.

It should also be noted that anyone expecting a full-length documentary entirely devoted to the history of videogames is going to be disappointed. Like I said earlier, "Video Games: Behind the Fun" is really more of a primer for the outsider then a detailed in-depth look. The show dances around many different relevant topics, but doesn't really delve too deeply into any. The console systems—starting with the 8-bit NES—are barely mentioned in passing. Interviews with industry gods like Shigeru Miyamoto, Yu Suzuki and Sid Meier are absent. Most hardcore gamers, who have read most of the major publications on the subject of videogame history, aren't likely to learn anything new. But again, that's not really a fair complaint when you consider the limited one-hour format of the show and its intended casual viewing audience.

In the end, you can tell that the producers of "Video Games: Behind the Fun" care about their topic and wanted to do justice to their subject. Given the constraints of only having one hour to convey their message, I’d say the show is wildly successful. While not extensive, it is still very accurate, informative and raises interesting social issues. The show ultimately marks a tremendous step in the positive perception of videogames and their role in society. Hopefully, more television shows, books and films like this will follow.

This program aired Monday October 9th, 10/9pm ET/PT, 2000

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