Charlie Brooker’s How Video Games Changed The World Review

Seeing video games discussed on TV in any in-depth and intelligent capacity is rare, so seeing Charlie Brooker attempt to show the medium in its best light was a refreshing break from the usual moral panics and condescending jokes about gamers we’re usually exposed to.

In How Video Games Changed The World, Brooker chose 25 influential games from history, deliberately chosen to reflect the breadth and depth of the gaming medium, and, with the help of an unnecessarily large group of contributors, explains what made them so influential. With slick production, an admirable focus on the actual content of the games, and Brooker’s wit, it was hugely entertaining.

The choice of games discussed cannot be faulted in any major capacity, though given the target audience was adults (judging by the jokes and graphic content in the games), was it really necessary to explain what a huge phenomenon Space Invaders was? However, it is clear that Charlie was just trying to be thorough, taking us right from the early days of the medium to the modern classics.

The show did a good job of choosing games from a wide variety of genres and markets — strategy games, shooting games, fighting games, casual games, indie games, eSports, big blockbuster games, and all sorts. It was very clear throughout that Charlie is a passionate, enthusiastic, and knowledgable gamer.

While most bases were covered, there were some omissions that felt conspicuous, though that is a natural part of having such a broad medium reduced to 25 examples. Maybe in the future, we’ll see Top 100 Games features in the same way every few years we get a Top 100 Movies program on TV.

Games that seemed strange to miss were Final Fantasy VII, the game that effectively sold the PS1, introduced Western Audiences to Japanese Role Playing Games, spawned multiple spin-offs and films, and had one of the most heart wrenching moments in gaming ever; Mario 64, the progenitor of 3d platforming (though forgivable since a Mario title already featured); Half-Life, which made great leaps in story telling in games; Deus Ex with its truly free-form gameplay and genuinely meaningful plot decisions that was way ahead of its time; Portal, which I feel does not need me to justify it; and Halo, which virtually laid the blueprint for the console FPS, with its perfect controls, gorgeous world, and numerous gameplay innovations (melee button, shield regen, grenade button, 2 weapons only). Still, that’s just a geek’s wishlist, and one that is admittedly a little FPS heavy. 

Other welcome discussions were rational discussion about the portrayal of women in games, and violence in games. The stance the show took is that actually, while games probably don’t make peaceful people violent, some games probably are too violent to be considered in any way tasteful, and then proved its point using an example. A ‘fatality’ death animation from Mortal Kombat 9, in which a male fighter throws his scantily clad female opponent to the floor and then runs a circular saw up between her legs, cleaving her clean in two down the middle in an orgy of gore and screaming, before holding up her two bleeding halves above his head. I don’t know whether this animation also plays for male/male fights, but out of context, it was not only obscenely violent but had obvious overtones of rape. Charlie is probably right with this one — do we really need games to be that disgustingly violent? Is the game actually saying anything of value other than being shocking?

Also mentioned were video game cultural problems, such as the awful death and rape threats received by feminist blogger Anita Sarkeesian for daring to suggest that women could be better portrayed in games, and the utter bile spouted by angry screaming teenagers in COD online games. Violence in games is old news. It doesn’t seem to cause real-life violence, and parents can generally monitor the level of violence in the games their child is playing. Attitudes to women, and angry COD culture are much more relevant to any discussion on the state of video game culture, and are worthy targets for consciousness raising, especially among parents.

My main criticism is I’m not sure who it was really targeted at. I can’t imagine a programme about video games appealing to anyone who is not a gamer, but the show seemed constantly be trying to ‘sell’ the concept of video games to non-gamers, and explain things about games that are obvious to anyone familiar with the medium. For instance, he felt the need to explain that Street Fighter is not a mindless game, but actually requires skill and tactics. Do gamers need reminding of this fact?

My partner reminded me, however, that this show was given a very good slot where there was a good chance that non-gamers were watching, and then I considered that parents might be watching this show along with their video game loving teenaged children, so it’s not such a big criticism. I’d rather prefer if Charlie could do a series dealing with a different in-depth video game topic each time, for instance, a whole episode dedicated to indie games, a whole episode for eSports, etc. I’d love that. I loved Charlie’s humour throughout, and I’d like to see him do more television about games in the future.