Mass Media Myth-making: Some comments on 'Just a Game'

By Rosemary Young (February, 2004)
It's my habit to keep an eye out for TV shows on computer games so this one, Just a Game, didn't escape my notice. Also it caught my attention because it's a CM Film Production made right here in Australia and backed by the Film Finance Corporation. Some of the footage even comes from my home town although it takes a wider view with sequences from far distant shores as well, and there are appearances by people like Peter Molyneaux (Theme Park, Syndicate, Republic), Jonathan Chey (Thief, Thief II) and Will Wright (The Sims).

It's clearly meant for general consumption rather than being aimed at the 'converted' as it includes a brief glance back at the genesis of electronic games as well as other generalised information about games and game players. In essence it's an attempt to reach out and tell us all about the wonders of computer games. This is the reason it is so interesting ... So what does it say? I taped it around a month ago so it's taken me a few weeks to find the time to watch it and comment. It's clear that, marketing permitting, it will be shown internationally, so if you don't live in Australia and haven't seen it yet ... watch out!

It opens in the excitement of the 'Cyber Olympics', or The CBL (Cyberathlete Professional League) Tournament of 2003 in Dallas, Texas. Successful competitors gesticulating gleefully and testing their skills against one another in a multiplayer shootout. The message delivered is clearly that computer game playing is good fun. Despite the shooting it's a cooperative, shared and friendly activity, just one of many leisure activities or even sports competitions in our society that attract both players and spectators. It also covers the touchy subject of the effects of computer game violence on players and there are brief comments by experts from both sides of the fence, amongst others Dr Jeff Brand and Craig A Anderson make appearances. Concentrating as it does, though, on the multiplayer 'dens of iniquity' the agenda is clearly to justify computer game playing as harmless, and just another community activity, and even a legitimate 'sport'! If you lived in Australia and knew how much we worship sport, then this is high approval indeed!

What it tells us
After the brief introduction we get a smattering of the history of computer and video games naming the first show-ground mechanical attractions as the inspiration (test your strength against a robot arm, push buttons to make mechanical figures move, etc.). Then, after citing some of the early electronic examples including Pong, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pacman, etc ... time marches on ...

Many games are featured thereafter, throughout the program, and somewhere near the beginning Peter Molyneaux makes the point that "there are a huge number of computer games that are set around boyhood fantasies ... we've always wanted to go out there with the biggest possible gun ..." Thus we see lots and lots of combat game sequences with big gun barrels in the foreground and game characters expiring, robots with big guns, big, mean alien creatures, space vehicles in spectacular battles, planes dropping bombs, and characters in hand to hand combat displaying fancy acrobatic manoeuvres. Added to this there are glimpses of 'sports' titles too ... football, ice hockey, golf, skateboarding and car racing (a lot of it!). All sorts of familiar and futuristic cars speeding around race tracks, there's even some colourful speeders for the kids and some cars speeding against the police, this time in Grand Theft Auto, a game about robberies rather than racing for sport.

Amongst all this high 'action' entertainment there is a brief peek at Pokemon and, if you're quick, you'll see a flash of tennis, and The Sims gets some attention too. But these are departures from the real action, the Sims seemingly included because it is too popular to ignore. The high point is the news that the US Army has commissioned a combat game to be part of army training. Fortunately this game will also be adapted for general distribution so everyone can enjoy 'authentic' military training.

Despite saying that everyone plays computer games (especially in the Sims section) the message is loud and clear ... computer games are made for boys. And allied to this the program carries the strong message that only boys play because the overwhelming image presented is of males having fun. There are interviews with ecstatic clan males sharing their game playing experiences, and with (male) magazine editors and (male) designers. Even though you do catch sight of a female or two in the crowd, and there are a couple interviews with female players, with the emphasis on multiplayer competitions and LAN (Local Area Network) meetings we see rooms full of male faces including a Dad playing along with his young son. Oh, and there is one Mum there too, but she's just supporting her son and clearly makes the point that she doesn't 'really play computer games'!

What it doesn't tell us
Need I say it! There is a glaring omission in all this fanfare about computer games. Apart from the Sims there is not a single image of a computer game that doesn't involve fighting in some form, or speeding cars, or sporting action. Even the potted history of computer games jumps an era. No mention at all is made of the first mainframe text adventures that migrated to home computers or of the era of the adventure game that consumed the 80s and early 90s.

Thus, never once is there a puzzle-based or adventure game image, or non-action game featured. This means that the image of computer games presented is wholly fast-paced or frenetic action. Just a Game even elaborates on the skills needed ... hand eye co-ordination, concentration, strategy, etc. But no mention of problem solving that might be associated with puzzle or adventure games.

And, of course, no women are featured to speak of, one or two amongst hundreds hardly counts! Despite claims to the contrary, the images presented by Just a Game make the point clearly that computer games aren't really for females. Well, as noted above, there are glimpses of women but overwhelmingly as spectators or supporters of their sons and partners. In fact the images of women are extremely poor. One of the two females interviewed simply gets to show her inexperience in a shooting game (not a 'real' gamer of course) and the other shares her sad story of addiction to Everquest. This latter segment is significant given the suggested ratio of male to female players. With so many more males filmed in the production surely there was one male 'addict' to interview? Not so it seems. Seemingly none of the dozens of males featured who habitually played computer games qualified to be addicted but one of the two women did! A message here, maybe ... women can't handle computer games? Oh, and you do see the compulsory bathing beauties or booth babes at a competition event, but not one positive image of a female game player.

Well, in the interests of fairness I should mention that there is an exception in the Sims excerpt. This sequence with two young girls discussing designing a house is probably the one cooperative and interactive scene shown between two players outside of a competitive environment. This kind of cooperation was not followed up at all!

Final comments
Just a Game presents a strong picture that computer game playing is a male pastime, in essence it warns females off the turf. With the exception of The Sims it clearly shows that computer games are all about boys' fantasies. For the viewers with little or no knowledge of computer games this show merely reinforces the usual media myths and misconceptions.

So it certainly makes a case that computer games are fun, but not fun for everyone ... once again only males need apply! It is, indeed quite an interesting exercise in justifying action games but it remains an enigma that if the computer games industry wants to 'legitimise' games as a 'community activity' then why not invite everyone to play? And, more to the point, when such an issue is at stake (computer games and violence) why not feature games that are inherently non-violent? If I were making a case that films weren't necessarily violent and harmful then I'd cite some non-violent films to support my argument! This idea of allowing a non action or non violent game into the 'fold' nearly happened with the coverage of The Sims ... but, sadly, the finale showed a woman being electrocuted in the Jacuzzi ... oops, another reminder that computer games can be violent ...

Copyright © Rosemary Young 2004. All rights reserved.