I have to rack my brains very hard indeed to remember the last time I saw an enjoyable show on television about videogames, and that’s why I was personally delighted at the news that former games journalist turned comedian Charlie Brooker was to host a documentary, How Videogames Changed The World – if nothing else because it appeared to closely mirror a project of my own looking at the Twenty Games That Changed History. The show was broadcast last night on Channel 4, and I’m here to quickly offer up a few of my views on the documentary as a whole.
How Videogames Changed The World was a two hour special featuring Brooker, with a selection of other journalists and celebrity input, looking at 25 of the games that have altered the way the world have interacted with the medium as well as with each other. Rather than being a generic list countdown as it may have first appeared, the games were approached in chronological order, but if one is looking for an in-depth history of videogames than they will be disappointed – despite input from legendary designers such as Nolan Bushnell and Will Wright, their appearances were fleeting, and aside from a pleasantly evocative look at the battle for public affection between the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64, gaming hardware is barely considered at all. The documentary was more concerned with the outcome of the games rather than the history behind their design, and if this is the angle you were hoping for then I would recommend sticking with some of the literature covering the history of videogames (amongst which I would suggest Phoenix: The Fall And Rise Of Videogames by Leonard Herman and Replay by Tristan Donovan are the most interesting and readable).
What the documentary did especially well for me was that the games that were picked were the right choices, rather than the more obvious ones that plague lists (including I will happily admit my own). While looking at the origins of videogames the classics including Pong, Space Invaders and Super Mario Bros were all obviously present, but I was happy to see other titles like Manic Miner and Elite getting deserved consideration. As the show went on the choice of games became even more pleasantly unpredictable at times, with the highlight being the inclusion of Parappa The Rapper, before the final choice which was both highly unexpected but made perfect sense in the context of the show. The best strength of this particular documentary however was the inclusion of excellent archive material, featuring a range of games left off the main list and plenty of stuff that more casual gamers wouldn’t really have a full appreciation of including footage of the Senate hearings on Mortal Kombat and Night Trap. If nothing else, the documentary taught me that there is such a thing as Space Invaders Champion Of The Midlands.
Brooker also used his choices of games to cover a lot of issues that have cropped up with the rise of videogames as an entertainment medium. There were inferences on the debates on videogame violence and whether games make people violent (including some shocking commentary by young Call Of Duty players and a fatality from the most recent Mortal Kombat game that made me wince), the approach to gender in videogames, and how more recently games including Minecraft have been used as educational tools. Personally I was very stuck by the point on how videogaming is compared as a static and lonely activity to watching television boxsets, whereas the reality is the complete reverse.
I was also very happy that the documentary didn’t slip into the usual trap of becoming orientated around celebrities who clearly have no knowledge of the subject at hand; here’s looking at you ITV. Even the worst potential culprit, the rapper Labyrinth, at least displayed some knowledge that Eddy from Tekken can royally kick your ass. Instead, the contributors (which sensibly weighed more towards journalists than celebrities) came across as having genuine interest in the games that were being looked at and it was satisfying that that show wasn’t potentially ruined by their inclusion.
Overall I found How Videogames Changed The World to be an well produced, enjoyable, funny and often unexpectedly informative and thought provoking documentary that satisfactorily covered the issue outlined in the title. I applaud Brooker’s effort to put videogames back on television as well as Channel 4’s decision to follow up the show with Indie Game: The Movie (which was interesting in its own way), and hope that this might kickstart more videogame orientated programmes in the future.
And of course because we live in the modern age if you did happen to miss the show, you can watch this archived video. Due to licensing agreements, it is unlikely that the original show will ever be broadcast again on Channel 4.
P.S It was nice in a way to see videogames advertised on television again; although I’m sure the irony of spamming adverts for Killzone: Shadowfall and the PS4 during Indie Game: The Movie was not lost on some people