Like most people who’ve seen it, I’m feeling that the new Netflix series on the history of the video game industry is… lackluster. The problem is that it’s a history of the industry. The major points in the story are technological paradigm shifts, legal battles, and corporate marketing strategies. These highlights are filled in with personal stories from people who enjoyed the commercial product as kids, people who are overwhelmingly white or male. But even when the series manages to highlight contributions or experiences from a more diverse group – the Black engineer who developed the cartridge system, the woman who pioneered graphic RPGs, the gay man who made a pride game in the middle of the AIDS crisis – these just feel thin, like drops in the bucket that don’t capture what made video games important. Part of the problem is the storytelling, which seems to assume that its audience is simultaneously middle aged white men who grew up playing games or programming, and young kids who know absolutely nothing about anything. But the bigger problem is one of historical discipline – video games might be an industry, but they are also a cultural phenomenon, and their history has to be a cultural one.
High Score on Netflix covers what today’s gamers might consider the Classical Age of video games, from the mid-1970s to about the year 2000, in six 40-minute episodes. These cover: Atari, Nintendo, RPGs and graphics, Sega and sports games (EA), violent fighting games, and 3D graphics and the beginnings of the internet. Just from the episode topics, it’s pretty clear how the series sees this early era of games – a bunch of big innovators and major technological advances that would gear up the industry to be the money-maker it is today. Hmmm. Why does this sound familiar? A narrative that explains the development of modern technological advancement, defined by a few major powers rising out of a – might we say – dark age? Ok, so basically the way High Score chooses to tell this story pushes my medievalist buttons and I think this sounds like a 1950s high school classroom explanation of the Middle Ages. And there’s a reason we got rid of that narrative – because it doesn’t actually convey what it was like to live in that time.
Watching even sleekly rendered 8-bit screens of Space Invaders for a few seconds at a time still gives me absolutely no idea of how these games weren’t painfully boring. And I played these games. The five minutes dedicated to Mario (which speed right through from Jump Man in Donkey Kong to Super Mario Bros) only talk about the games as a feature in Nintendo’s international strategy, a legal battle over the name “Kong”, and one of three games in a tournament (the most important of which was Tetris). For a series about video games, High Score spends almost no time explaining why people actually liked these games. The closest it gets is in explaining that women liked Pac Man because he was cute (umm…), nerds enjoyed the escapism of RPGs, and the concept art was cool. None of which explains anything. The episode on sports games gets closer, but it’s more about the love of football and translating that into a digital medium than the love of videogames.
It’s not as if explaining why people like video games is a new idea. There are entire corners of the internet dedicated to personal essays about gaming (including this blog, on occasion), not to mention reviews that focus on the enjoyability of the games, and massive conventions dedicated to celebrating every aspect of gameplay including the industry. There is even an entire museum in Oakland dedicated to the history of video games as an art form, and another one in Frisco, TX . The story of video games doesn’t have to be industry to the exclusion of the player experience. As the National Videogame Museum says in their mission statement,
The goal of the National Videogame Museum is to document, FIRST HAND, as much information about the creation and evolution of the videogame industry as possible and preserve as many physical artifacts as possible for generations to come. The vast majority of the people who created the videogame industry had no idea how enormous it would become and therefore never really saw much importance in what they were doing.http://nvmusa.org/our-mission
In fact, gamers have been doing the work of chronicling these very things for decades. So why does High Score miss it?
Gamergate. The answer is Gamergate. Yes, there’s the issue of the audience for a Netflix documentary and appealing to both older and younger generations, people who are and aren’t familiar with games or the industry. Yes, there are conventions in documentary storytelling that tend to focus on individuals and anecdotes. But none of that necessitates storytelling that is so divorced from the heart of its subject. I imagine that if you set out to tell the history of videogames, you start with gamers and the experience of gaming. And in 2020, that means that you have to contend with the yawning chasm between the stereotypical image of a gamer, jealously protected both by a certain body of internet denizens and an ignorantly reactionary set of concern trolls, and the reality that everyone plays games. And almost 10 years ago, when a bunch of women pointed out that exact fact, and tried to explain why our collective image of a gamer tends to be a young, white, socially- and physically- awkward man, the ensuing fight over that gap between perception and reality became an issue of inclusion.
Now, in the midst of the social justice movement, a documentary put out by a major media outlet couldn’t possibly ignore the issue of inclusion. Netflix couldn’t simply pretend that all gamers have always been young white men. But at the same time, Netflix probably didn’t want their feel-good gaming documentary, landing in the middle of a pandemic during which everyone is streaming constantly, to evoke any sort of social controversy. Even before “Black Lives Matter” was painted on the streets, when it was just the #MeToo era, trying to tell a videogame history that actually represents the diversity of gamers and developers, as well as the problems of gaming culture, was bound to make some of those “core gamers” upset. Instead, the documentary throws in several token nods to diversity before returning to the assumed reality that back in the day everyone was a white man.
But maybe what Netflix didn’t anticipate is that these kinds of social critiques have actually sunk in, and by trying to avoid anything “controversial”, High Score has left out a lot of what gamers came to the documentary to see. Little tidbits like the origin of Kirby’s name are fun, but they’re not the history of videogames. People who love games want to know how this amazing form of entertainment came to be – all the little steps along the way that developed Pong and text prompt into The Witcher. That development didn’t happen because of three guys selling arcade machines in their college dorm, it happened because of the people who kept putting quarters into those machines. Videogames are and have always been a matter of taste, but the gaming industry is just a reflection of that, the commodification of taste. A history of videogames has to be about the players and what they like. It has to be a social and cultural history.