Are you looking for an excuse to feel good about playing video games? If so, you should definitely try the new Netflix documentary High Score, which charts some of the early history of today’s entertainment colossus. There are inspiring stories of ordinary schlubs who made it big as video game champions. There are clever retro-graphics animations. You can see your favorite big names of the 70s, 80s, and 90s: Richard Garriott of Ultima fame in dorky D0 & D costuming, King’s Quest pioneer Roberta Williams, Space Invaders creator Tomohiro Nishikado, the creator of Pac-Man, and a surprisingly sympathetic profile of the ill-fated creator of E.T. among many, many others. And pasted over all is that the warm 80s-nostalgia borrowed directly from that other Netflix giant, Stranger Things.Game culture has been home to lots of pain, too—and that’s important because it shapes the way things are now.
I think this is why, ironically, I want to distrust the series. It’s clearly made for me. I’m the kid who grew up smack dab in the era they’re covering. I remember discovering the quarter-munching Centipede as a 6-year-old in the early 80s. My friends had Atari 2600s, and some of my fondest childhood memories consist of me and my friends hunching over our Commodore 64 or Apple IIc or Tandy playing games like Sid Meier’s Pirates. And it’s all in this documentary: the hair, the clothes, the TV clips, and, of course, a never-ending stream of the greatest hits. It makes a guy like me feel warm and fuzzy and want to break out some Bon Jovi.
But I’m also a scholar of video games. In addition to living it, I’ve read a lot of video game history. I’ve amassed a collection of hundreds of old games and dozens of systems to play them on, ranging all the way back to a Coleco Pong clone from the 70s. And I know for a fact that this series works so hard to make people feel good about games that it leaves out practically all the bad stuff. I want to distrust the series because it’s too comfortable.
Basically, High Score positions games as the scrappy, virtuous underdog of the culture industries. Games are visionary, like Atari pioneer Nolan Bushnell. Games are edgy and cool, like rockstar Doom developer John Romero. Games provide an avenue of freedom and self expression for people like Gayblade developer Ryan Best. Above all, games are non-stop fun for kids like the various tournament champions featured.
This rosy portrait of games, game history, and game culture has all kinds of blind spots. It largely ignores the widespread misogyny, racism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry (including anti-religious attitudes) that are frequently on display 30 seconds into your nightly round of Call of Duty or League of Legends. The documentary’s light and breezy tone largely undercuts any serious consideration of the problems of the gratuitous graphic violence that swamps so much of video game culture. And rolling out the graying lions of the games industry conveniently avoids any kind of reckoning with the patterns brutal mistreatment of game makers established back in the early days that continues to this very day.
In other words: video games are not just innocent, nostalgic pastimes to put on the cultural shelf with Cabbage Patch kids, the Indiana Jones VHS tape, and the Eurythmics album. They have a dark side, and you won’t see it here.
That’s why I want to distrust the series. But here’s the thing: documentaries aren’t neutral. They make a point, they make an argument—obviously or subtly. Those arguments don’t have to be balanced or nuanced. And there is room in the world for someone to celebrate video games.
The fact is, games can make the world a better place. They can tell great stories. I have been sucked deep into the giant narratives of sprawling AAA games like The Last of Us, Fallout: New Vegas, and Horizon: Zero Dawn, as well as poked, prodded and challenged by indie titles like That Dragon, Cancer, Continue987654321?, and LEGO: Builder’s Journey. Video games often provide room for people who don’t fit elsewhere: the self-proclaimed geeks and freaks that I get to hang out with when I’m playing online and maybe some of the people you chat with at LTN. And video games’ role in the culture of the 80s and 90s is often ignored by people who aren’t or weren’t into games at all. Centurion: Defender of Rome, The Secret of Monkey Island, and Skate or Die! were just as much a part of my high school experience as the TV show ALF, bad metal band Skid Row, or the blockbuster Total Recall.
So, I would encourage you to watch the series if you care about games. It’s fun. It’s breezy. It’s very well researched, with lots of little gems that surprise even critical academics like myself. And certainly don’t feel bad about being a gamer! I hope the series helps non-gamers get a little taste of the love that many of us have for games.
But when you do watch it, remember that it’s only part of the picture. Game culture has been home to lots of pain, too—and that’s important because it shapes the way things are now. The harmful labor practices, bigotry of all sorts, and problematic game themes that plague us today didn’t just appear overnight. When we acknowledge that, we’ve taken the first step to making a better gaming world today. Instead of writing out the bad stuff, we should remember it, and use that as motivation to build a video game industry and culture that welcomes, loves, and supports everyone—so that we can build warm fuzzies like High Score in another 20 years.