Oh, hell no. Fuck this. Fuck everything about this.
It’s never a good day when Wesley Goddamn Crusher shows up. Doubly so when he stars in a horrid piece of youth-hating reactionary drivel. It’s bad enough he’s back in insufferable early first season “Wesley Saves The Day by Out-Thinking the Ship Full of Trained Scientific Professionals” mode without the show then putting him in a plot reminiscent of a Bush-era After School Special.
“The Game” is about a bunch of aliens trying to hook the Enterprise crew on an addictive video game that’s really a mind control device in disguise in order to spearhead an invasion of the Federation. And in 1991, at the height of Sonic the Hedgehog mania and the dawn of the fourth console generation, there’s really only one fucking way to read that. Even though we’ve not quite arrived at the defining video game moral panic of the 1990s set in motion by Mortal Kombat and Doom, there was still mounting concern over the industry’s rapid rise to prominence throughout the Long 1980s and “video game addiction” was certainly starting to become a popular buzzword and the hip new way for moral guardians to clutch their rosary beads and fret about the poisoning of the youth. And with this episode, Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show that had a not-insignificant level of clout with kids, is throwing its lot right in with them.
Although he makes overtures to Invasion of the Body Snatchers too, even writer Brannon Braga explicitly confirms this is what this episode is about. And of course it is. Literally, what else could it be about? And while video game addiction is an actual thing (in fact, it’s probably way more of a thing now then it was in 1991), I do not want to hear the hyperconservative Long 1990s take on this issue ever again, and *certainly* not from Brannon fucking “I now write 24 and that awful fucking reboot of Cosmos” Braga. Don’t get me wrong, the man’s terribly underrated as a creator and has his talents (and we’ll get to them in another season or so), but he doesn’t make a convincing case for himself at all in his debut outing as a staff writer. Seriously, when your story makes Codename: Sailor V look progressive by contrast, something has gone irreparably off the rails somewhere along the way.
Ashley Judd is in this episode. She is good. That’s all I have to say about that.
I suppose I’d better provide some background context to all this for those reading who didn’t live through more video game hardware cycles than they’d care to admit or spend way too much of their free time in a Sisyphean endeavour to write about the industry positively and productively. The transformation of video games as both a medium and an industry over the course of the Long 1980s is an interesting one (Well, to me it is at any rate): To start out with, and I know how hard this is to believe looking at them today, but video games actually started out as a pastime for active social adults. The earliest arcade cabinets were placed in bars alongside pinball machines and were intended for short bursts of electronic entertainment. The Atari 2600, the most successful of the alums from the first two generations of home video game consoles, was expressly marketed towards adults (one memorably embarrassing interview with Atari ended with an exec making a statement that the reason they made more games then consoles to play them on was because they figured people would want a second copy for their ski lodge).
That changed when, for a myriad of complex factors including, but not limited to, a series of cataclysmically boneheaded business decisions, Atari folded in 1983. Because they had a near-monopolistic hold on the industry (while they had competitors, none of them were every really viable as such), Atari took all of home console video gaming with it. When Nintendo, who had found wild success with video games in Japan, tried to break into the US market two years later, they were cautioned that the US didn’t actually have a video game industry anymore and that they would have to take a different approach. So they positioned their Family Computer system as a hot new children’s toy, with prominent and highly publicized demo kiosks in places like Toys R Us, and renamed it the Nintendo Entertainment System for its North American release. The gambit paid off though, and Nintendo effectively took over Western pop culture and ruled over it from about 1985-1992.
(If you couldn’t tell from the implications of Nintendo’s behaviour, the Japanese video game industry was, and still is, extremely different from its counterpart in the US, and the same is true for Europe as well, actually. Neither region had a “video game industry crash” like the US did, for one, but that’s not the only reason. Doing a full cultural comparison about why the three major video game industries are so wildly disparate from each other is beyond the scope of this essay, but basically each market associates video games with different things: Video games are linked in Europe to computer hobbyism and bricolage couture, in Japan to lifestyle and fashion and in the US, thanks to what Nintendo pulled there in 1985, to children’s toys. Nowadays though the US industry seems to prefer to draw its biggest comparisons to Hollywood and the Cannes Film Festival, but that’s another rant.)
So what you end up with, at least in the United States, is a situation where an entire multi-billion dollar industry has been poised as something needing always to be in the interests of “the children”. And in 1991, you had the unfortunate synchronicity of the industry needing a generational hardware shift while being intensely scrutinized by an audience who had no idea how the industry worked or why generational shifts are a necessity. I, uh, should probably explain that too, huh? Alright, so home console hardware runs on a five-year cycle, and every time that cycle comes up manufacturers basically *need* to release a new machine. This isn’t because they’re evil and greedy and want us to throw out perfectly good computers to buy something new and shiny, or at least it isn’t just because of that (and anyway, a true video game connoisseur never parts with hardware-They know that each and every console is special, unique and historically important and offers experiences no other console will ever be able to).
The real reason console manufacturers do this is because of the mess Atari made of the US market in 1983. If there had been other viable competitors to pick up the slack and inherit Atari’s audience when the 2600 wore out its welcome and went belly-up, the industry wouldn’t have collapsed. Indeed, if Atari had managed to release *viable successor* to the 2600 themselves, they wouldn’t have had that problem (they made halfhearted attempts at this with the Atari 5200 and the Atari 7800, but have *you* ever heard of the Atari 5200 and the Atari 7800?). Because of that, console manufacturers began to reason that each machine has about five years of life and goodwill in it before it starts to feel long in the tooth. At that point, they release a new console that is closer in spec to what the newer personal computers have to offer so the industry and the medium will, hopefully, continue to grow and evolve. And this is reasoning that still holds true to this day.
In 1991, we were at the transition point from the third console generation to the fourth. SEGA had thrown its hat in the ring early in 1989 with the Mega Drive (known in the US as the Genesis) and was making quite a lot of waves, especially with the aforementioned Sonic the Hedgehog, which released in 1991 and promptly proceeded to take over the world. Nintendo followed suit the same year with the Super Famicom, A.K.A. the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The problem was that with the new video game industry the NES had created, the average consumer didn’t know what was going on. As far as they were concerned, Nintendo were trying to brainwash and fleece kids by making their parents buy a frivolous and unnecessary upgrade to a machine they’d already bought. And then there were the think pieces. Good Prophets were there ever think pieces.
Funny you don’t hear that sort of talk anymore these days about all those Apple products, which, unlike video game consoles, *actually are* made with planned obsolescence in mind.
So this is the climate “The Game” is coming into, and it’s every bit as ignorant and paranoid as all the rest of the public discourse about video games at the time. I’m not even going to dignify its stabs at critiquing “video game addiction” with a real response, because it basically doesn’t. It is true that a certain kind of arcade game template does feed on addiction cycles: The idea is, after all, to get players hooked so they’ll keep pumping fistful after fistful of quarters into the cabinet, and a strong case could be made that this is where video game difficulty comes from. And don’t get me started on exploitative “free-to-play” mobile apps, browser games and massively-multiplayer online role playing games that encourage gold farming, though none of those are things Brannon Braga could have been aware of in 1991. Hell, I doubt he was aware of actual home console games of the time.
There is a criticism to be made about that sort of thing, as well as the mindset it preys on. But “The Game” absolutely doesn’t do that. If you want an actually intelligent and thoughtful examination of compulsive gaming and how addiction cycles can be used as a form of social control, I cannot recommend Haruka Takachiho’s “And So, Nobody’s Doing It Anymore”, which is Episode 5 of Original Dirty Pair, highly enough. Check it out. It’s brilliant, it’s hilarious and it has Mughi cosplaying an off-brand Super Mario.