One of the things that continues to fascinate me about videogames is that they are thoroughly mainstream. . .and yet they aren’t. They are mainstream in the sense of being massively popular and the preferred leisure activity of a large and increasingly diverse segment of the population. But they are not mainstream in the sense that our culture still doesn’t really “get” games. This is not, I hasten to add, a woes-me complaint that mommy and daddy culture don’t really understand us (sniff). Hell, most gamers I’ve met don’t really “get” games. They do all the things that the non-gaming sections of our culture do, either through inclination or force of habit: they approach games in a pure consumerist frenzy, they see them as simple outgrowths of other media and activities or, alternately, as something supposedly so radically different that they can’t be compared to anything else and hence none of the rules apply.
A major reason why games are mainstream but not is because on the cultural stage the conversations are controlled by people who by and large are not videogame players: Concerned Parents, professional rabble-rousers, politicians, moral crusaders and, sadly, not a few opportunistic scholars (although the number of game studies “scholars” who have a limited experience with games has certainly diminished compared with when I entered the field). Again, however, it is important not to let game players and the game industry off the hook. All too many players and developers have taken themselves out of the conversation through their belief that games themselves are capable of saying little more than “play me and leave me.”
Maybe that is starting to change. Enter The Fellows Hip: Rise of the Gamers, an indie film currently in post-production. Produced by Opening Act Productions with some additional help from Synn Studios (part of the team behind the web series Mind’s Eye), The Fellows Hip is finally seeing the light of day after the kind of logistical and financial setbacks that will be all too familiar to those trying to work outside the mainstream studio system (the creative team maintains a blog that discusses their experience and offers advice to other prospective film makers). The film involves a group of friends, avid players of the Lord of the Rings Online, who enter an online gaming competition that takes them on a journey that gradually takes on the appearance of the Lord of the Rings story.
Now this all looks appallingly geeky, which is probably why I’m drawn to it! But before we conclude that this film is the straight version of the MMORPG universe that the (in)famous “Make Love, Not Warcraft” South Park episode parodied so mercilessly and effectively, take another look at the trailer and think about the difference between what this movie seems to be emphasizing and most of the big budget gaming movies you’ve either seen or have seen advertised.
Our culture is obsessed with games as an individualistic encounter session. Individuals plays games and become addicted. Individuals play games and shoot up schools. Individuals play games and stop going to class. This emphasis on videogames as an individualistic space is reflected in the best movies about games (and by this I do not mean Doom and Mortal Kombat). Films like Wargames, Tron, and The Last Starfighter (a game that is as attentive to one of the fantasy underpinnings of many gamers lives as the film Galaxy Quest was about sci-fi fans) are all about a lone gamer who plays (or is played). This trend has continued with more recent films like Gamer and Surrogates.
These more recent films are also representative of another larger trend: films about gaming tend to be thinly veiled meditations on Christian theology. Yes, that might surprise anyone who has actually seen Gamer. But current movies with their focus on avatars and surrogacy remain true to the basic pattern laid down by Wargames and especially Tron. These films are all about games either as a mechanism for reveling in a supposedly deep-seated need to play god, or a meditation on our relationship with a god. This isn’t to say some of these films aren’t smart about this. The original Tron, in fact, flirts interestingly with polytheism through its vision of distant, abstract, and unreachable “users” who control the destinies of the “real” programs within the mainframe. Tron, of course, is the great-grandaddy of the film that took this niche sci-fi obsession mainstream, The Matrix. The Wachowski brothers made the boundaries between game and reality both fuzzy and more permeable and where the game world becomes a domain of (non)consensual illusion, but it is exploring very similar ground to Tron. More recent films that have become fixated on the idea of avatars and our ability to manipulate them have similarly worked this idea as either a veiled or thinly disguised meditation on our relationship with god as the ultimate gamer. Moreover, in The Matrix as in the recent “avatar-game” films, the story remains firmly fixed on the struggles of the lone individual. Neo is, after all, “the one.”
As a profoundly superficial (sorry Andy!) and devoutly non-spiritual person, I find this all gets a little old after a while. Mainly because so many of these films end up sliding into the easy spirituality upon which the vast majority of people are so emotionally dependent: God is, in the final analysis, pretty much an average guy like you or me. This holds true, surprisingly, even in those films that take place in a universe characterized by violence, corporate malfeasance, betrayal and even more violence: god-the-gamer seems as confused by this as any average gamer, and since he, like them, doesn’t take the time to RTFM, he’s making it up as he goes along. Moreover, these films while purporting to be about gaming universes in some sense, or inspired by ideas in the world of gaming, really aren’t about gaming at all and in their claim to be extrapolating a current trend into a future reality (the mechanism of all good sci-fi) they are frustratingly clueless about the real appeal of the current generation of videogames.
By contrast, look at what is going on in the trailer for The Fellows Hip. It is, first of all, one of a very few films to explicitly align itself with the MMORPG universe. By contrast, most other films have essentially relied on gaming metaphors that are all derived from Counterstrike or Halo deathmatches. Second, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, it is a film about gaming as the basis for friendships. It is attentive to the fact that many forms of online gaming now are about socializing as much as they are about blowing shit up with big guns and arcane magic; they are also about the kinds of communities that extend beyond the gaming moment, into web forums, fansites, etc. Lastly, it is about gaming as, in part, a refuge for nerds and geeks, but as a non-pathologized space.
Obviously I have no idea if the film will deliver on the promise of the trailer. They have plans for a theatrical release but it is notoriously difficult for indie films to achieve this. Even in the best-case scenario it is unlikely you’ll see this title plastered across the marquee at your local megaplex anytime soon. It will, however, be available on DVD, and for all kinds of reason it may be worth a look.