A film review by Craig J. Koban November 9, 2014 

VIDEO GAMES: THE MOVIE jj
 

2014, no MPAA, 105 mins. 

A documentary directed by Jeremy Snead

I’m going to preface my review of VIDEO GAMES: THE MOVIE by saying that (1) yes, I do indeed feel that video games are an artform and (2) I’ve been a lifelong gamer as long as I’ve been able to hold a controller in my hand.  I’ve played on multiple generations of home consoles (including archaic relics of the past like the Atari 2600, the Intellivision, the original Nintendo, and all the way up to current gen consoles made by Sony and Playstation).  Outside of the countless hours spent in darkened cinemas, some of my greatest entertainment pleasures in life were spent playing games.  I adore them so much that I devoted not one, but two blogs on the subject (which you read HERE and HERE). 

Now, the main reason that I offered up a little prologue to my review of VIDEO GAMES: THE MOVIE was to ensure that I don’t come across as an ignorant video game philistine.  I love games almost as much as I do the movies.  This left me feeling great anticipation going in for my screening of VIDEO GAMES: THE MOVIE, which I hoped would be a thorough examination of gaming history and culture.  Written and directed with great passion and enthusiasm for the underlining material by Jeremy Snead (who successfully crowdfunded the project on Kickstarter and Indiegogo in 2012 and 2013), the film is certainly well meaning and noble minded in terms of exploring and relaying the vast history and longstanding popularity of the artform.  

Unfortunately, Snead’s documentary is a bit haphazardly constructed and lacks a cohesive sense of organization.  That, and it really glosses over many of the issues that have problematically plagued gamer culture for years.  More than anything, Snead’s doc feels too much like its cheerleading to the gaming converts without really investigating its subject in a didactic manner.  It’s less an exploratory doc hoping to provide fresh insights than it is a 90-plus minute infomercial for gamer diehards. 

 

 

This is ultimately disappointing, seeing as Snead made his film from apparently 45-plus hours of footage, but it’s clear that only segments that helped to simplistically propagate the doc’s equally simplistic message of  “games are cool” were utilized.  Snead, however, does a solid job of immersing viewers early on (via a spirited narration provided by Sean Astin, whom clearly shares his director’s zeal for the material)  in diving back into the convoluted history of video games, or more specifically, what party can take full credit for technically creating the world’s first game.  Compellingly, there’s no single consensus on what the first game was, but the doc wisely offers up a decent cross section of opinion on the matter via its subjects, some notable ones including stars Will Wheaton and Zach Braff (the latter also serving as producer here), screenwriter Max Landis (CHRONICLE) and video game pioneers like Peter Molyneux and Hideo Kojima.  Regretfully, the doc never really gives these game inventors and artisans nearly as much screen time to speak as they rightfully deserve. 

Snead does make good use of some infographics throughout the film to chronicle the history of the medium all the way back from the earliest days of PONG and up until the present, but part of the nagging frustration of watching the history being covered and surveyed is how Snead jumps back and forth – mostly arbitrarily – through time, which may leave many lay viewers scratching their heads with puzzlement.  Some of the early sections of the doc also manage to deal with detailed discussions of how pixels work and the nature of CRT monitor systems, which will probably leave even hardcore gamer fundamentalists squirming in their chairs wanting to hit the fast forward button. 

VIDEO GAMES: THE MOVIE works wonderfully, though, when it's joyously steeped in giddy nostalgia, which can clearly be felt through the passionate responses of its subjects relaying their most pleasurable experiences with a controller in hand.  Even interviews with, say, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell reveal that big, iconic players like him in the industry – and ones instrumental in developing the industry that we know and love today – are adoring geeks of the medium.  The film splices in terrific commercials from nearly every era that shows the quantum leap in technical advancements of video games over such a short period (games have come an awfully long way in a matter of 30-plus years).  The doc also doesn’t shy away from Dark Ages of games as well, such as the infamous crash of the game market in the early 80’s, spawned mostly by companies – including Atari – putting inordinately lackluster product in consumer’s hands. 

Still, VIDEO GAMES: THE MOVIE – even with its already scattershot focus and lack of interview subject depth – suffers even more when it comes to penetrating deeply into some of the more polarizing and controversial issues that have befallen games for decades.  The whole ongoing subject of video game violence seems to be pathetically marginalized altogether, which is odd seeing as it has cast such an overwhelmingly negative shadow over the industry for years.  The doc does point out that, yes, the game industry has a ratings system and one that (the film claims) is more rigorously monitored than the MPAA system used for movies (the doc never once seriously addresses the ongoing issue of parents naively buying adult-contented games for young children without a care in the world).  Then there is the often deeply misogynistic tone of many games (especially for their treatment of violence against women) that the film also seems to sidestep.  At what point can material like this be just deemed as entertainment that should be taken with a grain of salt? 

There are other damning issues that have permeated the gamer milieu, like perversely antagonistic and – at times – toxically aggressive bullying that frequents online play.  There are certainly many exceptionally civil-minded people from all walks of life that play games online, but the way that VIDEO GAMES: THE MOVIE seems to forget about its darker underbelly seems suspicious at best.  Then we get to one of the more prevailing debates of games – are they an artform…or not?  I wholly subscribe to the former, seeing as there is definitive artistry – alongside engineering innovation – that goes into games (Braff sums it up best by saying that games represent “the ultimate example of art and science working together”).  Unfortunately, Snead’s film jumps into the thorny discussion too quickly and then jettisons it just as hastily to segue into the next talking point.  He could have, at the very least, provided some counterpoints to the argument of games as art (especially spearheaded by the late film critic Roger Ebert) to give the doc a bit more of a democratic focus overall.  Alas, there’s none to be had here. 

Again, I must reiterate: I love video games.  Always have...always will.  Yet, even the proud gamer in me left VIDEO GAMES: THE MOVIE feeling fundamentally disappointed by its limited scope, unfocused presentation, and by its startling lack of varied viewpoints contained within.  Great documentaries – even ones that try to proudly champion a cause – have the foresight to engage in a cross-examination of a multitude of opinions (pro and con) for its subject, but VIDEO GAMES: THE MOVIE kind of sheepishly feels too timid for such an objective minded discourse.  It’s so bloody enamored with unbridled adoration for the culture that it forgets to pose and deal with some of the more challenging (and damning) issues that people – gamers or not – have debated since the industry’s birth.  

If you want a fairly one-note doc that engages in loving – but short-sighted  – hero worship of gaming culture, then VIDEO GAMES: THE MOVIE will greatly appease your geeky sensibilities.  For those (like me) wanting a painstakingly rich assessment of video game history, then you’ll be left wanting to hit "reset" to start to doc over, hoping for a better result on a subsequent playthrough.    

  H O M E