Special Topics In Gameology

Are You Afraid Of The Dark?

Games Go To Hollywood: Are You Afraid Of The Dark?, “The Tale Of The Pinball Wizard”

Nickelodeon tells a tale of game addiction at the height of the D.A.R.E. era.

By Steve Heisler • October 25, 2012

Special Topics In Gameology is an in-depth look at a specific corner of the gaming world, in miniseries form. For this edition of the feature—Games Go To Hollywood—we examine the terror prevalent in classic TV episodes about gaming. The first installment followed the travails of the Tanner family on Full House. In this edition, we look at Are You Afraid Of The Dark? and “The Tale Of The Pinball Wizard.”

When I was growing up, drugs weren’t merely bad. They were vilified. My elementary and middle schools were routinely paid visits by representatives of D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education)—“specialists” who indoctrinated kids with catchy phrases like, “You booze, you lose” and “Crack is whack.” They were clowns, literally: Students had the distinct pleasure of watching concerned neighborhood moms don makeup and curly rainbow wigs to extol the virtues of remaining drug-free. As I got older, the terror took the form of “Officer Friendly”, aka some cop who presented cold, hard facts, scaring me into submission. At the time, drug education hadn’t evolved past the simple procedure of “1. Instill horror. 2. ????? 3. Profit.”

But fear is fleeting. No matter how many times we were drilled about the dangers of drug abuse—always using the vague catchall “drugs”—some of my classmates inevitably gave in and tried the forbidden fruit. So my high school adopted a different tack, hiring an acting troupe to speak to us on our level. They’d perform skits where teens talked openly about “smoking some of those drugs” and the “good guy” would counter with, “No way man! That stuff makes you messed up, yo! AND YOU BETTER BE MONDO ABOUT MY DECISION!” It had all the realism and ease of notable drunkard and beer enthusiast Mitt Romney sitting on a bar stool at the recent town hall debate.

“The Tale Of The Pinball Wizard,” a first-season episode of the Nickelodeon campfire-story show, Are You Afraid Of The Dark?, is cut from the same cloth. It’s a cautionary tale from 1992, targeted at kids who might misdirect their energy into video games when they could be productive members of society. (Perhaps if it weren’t for Mortal Kombat, these children would design the next hydroelectric car, or cure cancer, or develop a hydroelectric cure for cancer.) Viewing this at the time, the episode’s message took hold, at least briefly. I may have been a novice when it came to drug use, but I had spent countless hours in front of the NES in the basement. Games were important to me, and thus this episode was a sucker punch of dread.

“Pinball Wizard” kicks off with a ubiquitous fantasy: Ross, a roughly 12-year-old boy, is offered the chance to play a real-life version of the games he so cherishes, as if Mario showed up one day and handed you a fire flower. Judging by the fragments of Ross’ real life that we see, he desperately needs this escape. He obsessively circles the mall looking for stray quarters in pay phones and fountains, praying for a forgotten coin to toss in a pinball machine. If Ross has friends outside of this little welfare existence he’s created, we never see them.

That figures: In the age of D.A.R.E., addiction is all-consuming, and it heightens at a Sonic The Hedgehog pace. As much as possible, Ross blocks out all sensory input aside from the arcade games themselves—ignoring the warnings of the music-box repairman with a special pinball machine that must not be played, under any circumstances. He’s even unaffected the longing eyes of a 14-year-old beauty (as salacious as basic cable kids’ programming can get). Even teenage hormones have been subdued by the overwhelming itch in Ross’ trigger fingers.

Much as drug education often comes from those who have never sniffed a joint in their lives, the details of Ross’ travails into the gaming world are a patchwork of gaming tropes, likely pieced together from the writers’ cursory experiences and educated guesses. Knights. Witches. The sounds of a calculator. Living mannequins in suits and sunglasses. A princess. A nefarious something-or-other villain. Crowns and thrones. Water guns. Yeah, sure, why not? This is pinball, after all.

Ross willingly allows himself to ignore the game’s insane leaps in logic. Escalators transport him from one level to the next, and they only activate when enemies are splashed with fountain water. Sure, unmoving escalators are also known as “stairs” and are equally climbable. But Ross has lost his ability to separate the laws of reality from those dictated by his new master.

Near the end, Ross confronts the final boss with a huge water gun, only to have it knocked out of his hand. But he’s ready with a spare at his hip, and this quip: “This isn’t a game, it’s real…and when it’s real, you can make up your own rules.” Despite the dubious truth of this assertion, Ross has won the game from inside the game and is surging with the thrill of solitary victorythe ultimate high before the ultimate collapse. Crystal meth, for example, is an effective drug because your body reacts positively at first, but each subsequent use chips away at your baseline. Then, one day, you need meth simply to feel normal, and the alternative is infinitely worse than when you started. Ross’ transformation from user to full-on addict is akin to those trying Heisenberg’s blue meth for the first time on Breaking Bad.

But addicts never admit they’re addicts. Even in the hyperactive echo chamber of “Pinball Wizard,” winning is a noble goal, and not one with strings attached. Hell, he got the girl. An older woman, no less! Except just as Ross wins, crowning the princess on her throne, he finds himself back on the ground floor. The owner of the shop peers down from a skylight. So Ross likes to play games? Now he can, says this god-like figure, for all of eternity. A giant pinball positions itself atop an escalator, threatening to squash Ross. We have now entered…The Twilight Zone.

Even as a member of Dark’s intended audience, by the end I could tell that I was being pandered to. Still, “Pinball Wizard” doesn’t care. It’s confident enough in its intention that it’s not worried about craft, so video games get the full funhouse-mirror treatment in the hope that some horrifying, misshapen image would stick. On the other hand, given that a LARGE LOOMING PINBALL is the kicker for the episode’s ghost story, Dark isn’t exactly oblivious to its own silliness. If only D.A.R.E. had peppered in some of that self-awareness—we’d all be driving water-cars by now.

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  • Mercenary_Security_number_4

    I like how the episode can’t even seem to tell the difference between video games and pinball machines.

    Also, I think we’ve discovered where Stephen King got the ending of “The Dark Tower” from.

    • http://thewavefunctionjunction.blogspot.com/ trilobiter

      You’ve got to take it easy on people from a certain generation.  To them, the term “video games” literally meant “games that kids waste time and quarters on.”

  • rvb1023

    Anti-gaming media has always struck me as a bit silly. I still remember watching Mazes and Monsters and loving the fact that it was obviously made by people who had no idea what they were talking about, much like most of the people who speak up against video games nowadays.

    While I was growing up my mother attempted to limit my playing time as much as possible but it didn’t help that most of my friends tended to play games a lot too. I could see her being the type at the time who would buy into a lot of the overblown tripe. The first argument I ever “won” against my mother was convincing her to let me get Diablo by telling her you spent the entire game trying to kill Satan and not people. I still had to pay for it myself but it is one of my more victorious moments.

    • Mercenary_Security_number_4

       The old pen-and-paper MERP (Middle Earth Role-Playing) was a yes because I encouraged my friends to play it instead of D&D (because, you know, they were so different) and because Tolkien knew C.S. Lewis.  So much Tolkien was let into my otherwise “fantasy-is-demonic” house only because he and Lewis were such good friends.

      • blue vodka lemonade

        “Crowley’s a cool guy, mom! He was great friends with Yeats!”

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

         It is kind of weird how uncomfortable high fantasy makes exceptionally conservative religious folks when the guy who all that stuff is aping was the guy who converted C.S. Lewis (himself a fantasist) from Atheism to Christianity.

        Then again, if you fall on the deep-enough end of the spectrum of fundamentalism, then Tolkien was a hell-bound Papist Mary-worshipper and Lewis was some devious pagan wolf-in-sheep’s clothing…

        • Fluka

          Man, between Harry Potter, Dungeons and Dragons, Halloween, and sleeping late on Sundays, right wing fundamentalists seem hell-bent (heh) on convincing kids that Satanism is AWESOME.

  • PaganPoet

    Why did every kids show in the 90s need a moral message? I even remember the horrible localized American version of Sailor Moon tacking on an awful “SAILOR MOON SAYS” segment to the end of each episode. Just…awful. I watch this show for the fabulous color-coordinated schoolgirl costumes (let’s just say I was different from other little boys) and tenuous mythology, Cartoon Network, not so I can LEARN!

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      Captain Planet was always my favorite in terms morals. I think an episode had drug dealers using dolphins to do bad stuff? I don’t remember.

      Actually, Animaniacs was best. “Wheel of Morality, turn turn turn! Tell us the lesson that we should learn!”

      • PaganPoet

        Oh god, I forgot about those Animaniacs shorts. How funny, I think I was too young at the time to recognize how clever that show was.

      • http://twitter.com/jkosmatka jkosmatka

        Yeah, but at least Cap’n Planet had the action and fire rings and blonde-or-Asian decisions that I craved as a pubescing boy.

        • PaganPoet

          All it was missing was someone in a wheelchair.

        • alguien_comenta

          @PaganPoet:disqus At the last minute they decided that a wheelchair bound kid named Wheeler was too much

        • http://slydante.deviantart.com/ SlyDante

           @PaganPoet:disqus  That honor went to Extreme Ghostbusters. Because nothing says “EXTREEEEEEME!!!” like “POLITICAL CORRECTNEEESSSSS!!!”

      • HobbesMkii

        I don’t think there even was a drug dealer on Captain Planet. There was an evil garbageman (voiced by Martin Sheen) and an evil big game hunter (voiced by James Coburn) and an evil pigman (voiced by Ed Asner) and an evil mad scientist (voiced by Meg Ryan) and a ratman (voiced by Jeff Goldblum) and an evil spirit (voiced by Sting), but I don’t think there was a drug dealer. I’m sure he would have been voiced by someone amazing, had he existed, though.

        Looking through the episode list on wikipedia, it appears that the first episode of the second season is the only appearance of drugs, peddled by Jeff Goldblum’s ratman. The episode description goes thus:

        Visiting her cousin Boris in Washington, D.C., Linka finds out he is under the influence of a designer drug known as ‘Bliss’, peddled by Verminous Skumm. Boris spiked Linka’s food with Bliss, turning her into an addict, and the other Planeteers must try to help her break her addiction while also trying to stop drug-fueled riots from breaking out across the city. This is considered to be one of the darkest Captain Planet episodes, showing not only the heavy corruption of one of the series’ protagonists, but also the death of her cousin Boris.

        What a fucking great show.

        • Chum Joely

          “Verminous Skumm”?

          Glad I never watched this one.

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

          I swear there were dolphins. They were being mind controlled or something.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

           I had no idea Jeff Goldblum was involved in that show. What the fuck. I guess my respect for Captain Planet just ratcheted up from 0 to 1.

        • stakkalee

          You left off the some of the awesome villain names.  Sure, you mentioned Verminous Skumm, but there’s also Looten Plunder, Hoggish Greedley, Sly Sludge and even Duke Nukem.

    • blue vodka lemonade

       AYAOTD has moral messages, but most are so muddled as to be nearly lost. My personal favorite is something along the lines of, “be nice to old people, because probably they are vindictive ghosts looking to eat your soul if you break any promises to them.”

      • http://twitter.com/thistautology s.z.

        AYAOTD has the best muddled messages ever for a kids show.  I once made an entire tumblr devoted to fake explanations by Midnight Society members about what the messages of their stories were supposed to be.  Whee, the internet.

      • http://twitter.com/Sam_Huddy Sam Huddy

         http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SpaceWhaleAesop

    • caspiancomic

      In fairness to 90′s ham-handed moralizing, I think the only reason I’m not a strung-out basehead today is because of the Ghostwriter arc “What’s Up With Alex?”

    • behindtheblack

      Because of the Children’s Television Act of 1990 that requires a certain amount of “educational and informational” programs to be shown by broadcast channels?

      • http://www.facebook.com/corwin.haught Corwin Haught

         We’re mostly talking about cable here.

      • PaganPoet

        I actually didn’t know about that law, so, cheers for teaching me something that makes my childhood make a little more sense.

    • HobbesMkii

      That’s something of an improvement over the 80s, wherein each episode of a show contained the same message: “Hey, kids! Did you know there’s an actual physical version of this that your parents can buy for you?! Go bug them about it right now!”

      • http://twitter.com/Sam_Huddy Sam Huddy

        What’s the dynamic now? Can someone with kids tell us?

        • PaganPoet

          I occassionally watch some cartoons with my nieces and nephews. With stuff like My Little Pony and Adventure Time, children’s TV can be surprisingly tolerable for an adult. Of course, we’re talking older children here, in the 8-12 range.

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

          Adventure Time fucking owns. I dunno about what actual kids watch though.

        • http://twitter.com/Sam_Huddy Sam Huddy

          They watch covertly dirty sitcoms starring teenage girls. I think.

    • Aurora Boreanaz

      Worst offender that I specifically remember: an episode of Masters of the Universe that ended with an educational message where He-Man trips over some tools that Man-at-Arms left lying on the floor.  So kids, pick up your toys when you’re done playing with them!

      …really?  Not, “He-Man, when you’re in a repair shop, maybe watch where the hell you’re walking?”

  • PaganPoet

    *LULZ* at those kids playing a Gameboy by the campfire. THERE’S NO BACKLIGHT, LOSERS, WE ALL KNOW YOU CAN’T SEE A THING! Are we to believe this is some sort of *snort* MAGICAL Gameboy? Boy, I sure hope someone got fired for THAT gaffe.

    • Fluka

      Pinball wizard did it.

  • Colonel

    “Fun” fact:  I won my 5th grade DARE short-story contest which was really just a parody of “The Night Before Christmas.”  My reward?  Reciting my bad poetry to a full auditorium while nervously stuttering.  But, to its credit, I’ve never really partaken in “drugs” mostly because of the sense-memory that went with that event.

    • Aurora Boreanaz

      Over at the AV Club, the comments sections for Cloud Atlas and the Wackowskis interview link to Lana Wachowski’s HRC speech, where she mentions being given the “privilege” of speaking at her 8th grade graduation because she was valedictorian.  Not much of a reward, is it?  I too was totally horrified of public speaking until well after high school.  Now I only tolerate it because I give slightly less of a shit about what others think.

    • http://twitter.com/Sam_Huddy Sam Huddy

      I wasn’t the least bit afraid of public speaking, but still managed to stay away from drugs, to the surprise of everyone. I wonder why I took that super-seriously where everybody else jumped off the wagon.

    • DrunkPhilatelist

       sweet jesus! i too won that very same contest when i was in 7th grade. i remember the refrain of my “poem” was ‘don’t bug me’. and the closer to the whole piece that i was forced to read in front of the entire school was, ‘don’t you get the point?/ i don’t want a joint./ so please don’t bug me.’

      yikes, i haven’t thought about that in years. the shamefulhorror associated with it did not keep me off the mary jane though. during my university career i partook early and often. contrary to what my DARE officer led me to believe, this did not end in me becoming a prostitute. i became a prostitute of my own volition.

  • Gameological Society Commenter

    It’s a cautionary tale from 1992, targeted at kids who might misdirect their energy into video games when they could be productive members of society.

    Well that’s completely ridiculous. I played a ton of Nintendo in 1992 and I turned out to be a very productive member of society!

    ::sits in underwear all day in front of computer, works feverishly on videogame blog::

    • PaganPoet

      And that, girls and boys, is the story of how I got lost on the way to Sesame Street.

    • NarcolepticPanda

      Ehhh, not as good as previous efforts.

      • Gameological Society Commenter

        ::piggybacks on better comment, gets 37 likes::

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

          Could the motive behind Gameological Society Commenter have just revealed itself?

        • NarcolepticPanda

          Ohhh…hi Citric! (P.S. neither of the comments were funny)

    • caspiancomic

       Hey, I am not in my underwear!

      • NarcolepticPanda

        I’ll have you know I’m wearing luchador patterned pajama bottoms, thank you very much.

      • AHyperkineticLagomorph

         I know, it’s a stupid stereotype. I mean, I’m home by myself. Why even wear underwear?

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      Dude, you’ve got my life all wrong.

      1) In 1992 I was too young and obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine to understand what a Nintendo was.

      2) I’m a grad student. I’m far from being a productive member of society.

      3) It’s too cold in my apartment to sit around wearing nothing but my underwear.

      • Staggering Stew Bum

        Enjoy it while it lasts, @Merve. Being a productive member of society myself, I’ll let you in to a little secret: It fucking sucks.  You have: stress of work you really don’t care about, having to pretend your career is important to you, living up to responsibilities that you never wanted (gets even worse when you get married), earning money that you can never actually spend on anything fun because of aforementioned responsibilities. You get older, gain a little weight, start finding more and more grey hairs, and begin bitterly looking back at the life you’ve actually utterly wasted. Hell, I play video games in part to escape all this shit.
         
        Sometimes I’ll be on my way home after work, thinking about all the chores and shit I have to do in order to maybe, maybe get to have an hour to myself later in the evening, still wearing horribly uncomfortable office clothes, and I’ll walk past some drug-fucked bum sitting there in trackpants happily chain smoking and frittering their life away, and I’ll think “you lucky, lucky bastard.”

        • Effigy_Power

          -Or- you do what I do, go into middle management messing with a browbeaten horde of employees and enjoy your ill-gotten position of power by spending almost as much time playing games in your office as doing actual work.
          That way you can be a productive member of society and still reap the rewards of a youth well wasted.
          PS: In 1992 I was starting to become obsessed with … well, I don’t need to tell you everything.

        • OldeFortran77

          Staggering Stew Bum, you sound like someone I’d hang out with, if it weren’t for my crippling/liberating anti-social streak!

        • http://twitter.com/Sam_Huddy Sam Huddy

          What if the labour market is so crowded you can’t even get holiday jobs in retail, because everyone else applying (all two hundred of them) are already working four jobs and have experience?

        • DrunkPhilatelist

           this. this all over the place.

    • Krokamo

      I spent 1992 mostly playing a Link to the Past and F-Zero  on my Super Nintendo.

  • NarcolepticPanda

    It always seems to me like an anti-drug message would best be delivered by dropping children off in the middle of a terrible neighborhood and having them find their way home, but the superintendent says I can’t do that anymore.

    Really though, I sure am glad my childhood skirted this era. I can’t imagine how many kid’s passions were ruined by adults saying “reading more than average can only lead to pimping yourself for heroin money by junior high”.

    • STOP_RIGHT_THERE_CRIMINAL_SCUM

      anti-drug propaganda really was insufferable in the 90′s and I find it fucking hilarious that it didn’t do diddly squat, drugs are as popular as they’ve ever been

      you just can’t stop certain people from wanting to escape their miserable little lives by getting fucked up on drugs and let them, says I, if someone wants to turn themselves into a  Goddamned redneck zombie by smoking meth how is it any skin off my nose? so long as they stay out of my sight that is

      • NarcolepticPanda

        I’ve always said (sardonically) that the legalization of all drugs would help the economy AND curb population.

      • http://twitter.com/Sam_Huddy Sam Huddy

        So, like I said above, why did it totally work on some of us?

        • Asinus

          Those people probably wouldn’t have done drugs anyway, not to any significant degree, and these bizarre messages just gave their anxiety a voice of sorts. It’s sort of on the opposite end of the spectrum of the person who does something violent and wraps it in a pop culture motif. It’s not that piece of pop culture’s fault, that person would have shot all of those people anyway. 

        • http://twitter.com/Sam_Huddy Sam Huddy

          I’d suspected the first part, but never the second. Sound theory!

      • AHyperkineticLagomorph

        I think what made it so insufferable was how one dimensional all the propaganda was. ALL DRUGS ARE BAD, ALL THE TIME, YOU DO ANY OF THEM, EVEN ONCE, AND NEXT THING YOU KNOW, YOU’RE GIVING HANDJOBS FOR CRACK BEHIND THE LOCAL BURGER KING.

        It’s just bullshit. Drugs aren’t really great for you, but someone who smokes a joint or two every now and then isn’t really in any danger. It won’t even stop you from winning more gold medals than anyone ever in the Olympics! Someone who drinks a beer or a glass of wine with dinner is fine. Crack? Heroine? Not quite as harmless.

        Why can’t people just be honest with kids?

    • Everlasting_Godstabber

      Plus, they don’t like it when you go into the the bad neighborhoods and take kids, either. It’s like, make up your mind people!

  • caspiancomic

    Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society: Are You Afraid Of The Dark’s opening credit sequence was a hundred times scarier than any episode of the actual show.

    • http://thewavefunctionjunction.blogspot.com/ trilobiter

       I seem to recall an episode with a vampire in a hospital that freaked me the hell out.  But I scare easy.

    • double_hawk

      I recall one that featured ghosts at a lake house.  If I remember correctly it was one of the ones that didn’t have a happy ending.  Freaked me the hell out

    • http://twitter.com/ShaggE21 Robert Seale

      I’m not ashamed to admit that, even as a lifelong and jaded horror fanatic, the AYAOTD intro STILL creeps me the hell out. Like, legitimate chills. 

  • Effigy_Power

    Okay… Two Max Headrooms dressed as the Blues Brothers are bringing the Princess Bride to the Warlock without a Face, while his BDSM boytoy looks on. All filmed in a garden in Encino, California.
    Yupp, it’s the early 90s alright. Now I remember why I started smoking so early.

    • NarcolepticPanda

      My favorite part is when someone types furiously for 30 seconds and than says “we’ve determined the subject’s hair color”. Soon to become my favorite, the new trend of swiping and tapping once on a iPad and saying “we’ve hacked his overarching server router internal security technological iNetwork.”

      Also hilarious, when people on television go into contortionist fits and mash the face buttons repetitively while holding a 360 controller. It’s like they’re all inexperienced 3D fighter players.

      • Effigy_Power

        Yeah, someone else, I can’t remember who, mentioned that it’s the equivalent of actors jerking the steering wheel left and right while sitting in a stationary car, as if that’s what driving looks like.

        • NarcolepticPanda

          I wish actors read books by maniacally flipping through pages, glaring intensely, and noticably mumbling under their breath.

        • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp David Dalrymple

          @NarcolepticPanda:disqus : I’ve known a few actors. That’s how they read in real life.

        • Asinus

          Me watching Jurassic Park for the first time: “Whoa! That’s what UNIX looks like?!”
          Me seeing UNIX for the first time: “That’s what UNIX looks like?” 

      • Asinus

        If things were realistic: 
        “I’ll just use this brute force password generator to crack into his system!” 
        Three Days Later
        “I’m in!”

    • PaganPoet

      Were I some sort of evil dictator, I would certainly have a scantily clad bodybuilder as my bodyguard too.

  • STOP_RIGHT_THERE_CRIMINAL_SCUM

    hey, I remember this episode, I also remember the D.A.R.E cops
    my elementary school’s D.A.R.E officer was a pretty cool guy, from what I remember, but I remember as a kid feeling ridiculous during his lectures thinking to myself “dude, I’m a fucking little kid, my pastimes include watching Nickelodeon and playing with my toys, how in the flying fuck am I ever gonna find myself in the situation where I can smoke weed or crack?”    

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

       I’m sure the DARE program at my school likewise introduced an awful lot of fifth-graders who had never really heard of or seen any drugs before to a wide array of drugs and their apparently extremely seductive qualities. It seems like the sort of thing that was likely to backfire.

      • NarcolepticPanda

        “Hey kids! There’s these things called drugs. They have fancy names like cocaine and heroin. When you take them, you feel AMAZING. SO. AMAZING. It would blow your mind if you know how INCREDIBLE and AWESOME and WONDERFUL drugs are. And if you sell these drugs to other people, you get money, friends, and pretty women. Even though we’re in a rich white suburb where you would never ever get exposed to these drugs, we thought we should tell you about how AMAZING they are anyway. You should never ever do drugs though. BECAUSE WE SAY SO.”

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky
        • caspiancomic

           @Douchetoevsky:disqus That movie is so much funnier than it has any right to be. I put it up there with Super Troopers on my list of “movies I should be, but am not, embarrassed to love.”

        • Asinus

          I bought Walk Hard at a folding up Block Buster, put it away with all of the other moves I bought, and never watched any of them. THis clip has given me the motivation I need (I stopped it as to not over-spoil). 

    • zebbart

      I was totally taken in by the D.A.R.E., to the extent that when I found evidence that my dad smoked pot on occasion I had nightmares about him abusing me since pot is drugs and drugs makes you go crazy. Didn’t stop me from trying stuff as a teenager though.

      • Effigy_Power

        Drug education is pretty much a joke across the board. The tone is generally ambiguous and the level of sincerity is close to the “Be abstinent or the devil will burn your penis”… or better yet, the “masturbation makes you go blind” crap.
        All that silliness and bureaucratic nonsense stands in the way of getting kids to be careful with drugs. What 7th grader is going to take advice from some stuffy official pretending to speak in their language? At best they are a laughing stock, at their worst an encouragement.
        “Hey, if I take drugs, I probably won’t turn out like Officer HipHop over there.”

        • Asinus

          The Devil will burn my penis?! 

      • Chum Joely

        My wife and I are daily smokers. My kids are getting old enough (the older one is 6 and a half) that I have to think about how to handle this issue.  My assumption has always been that I would have to just hide this from them– not because I care about it as an issue within our family, but because I don’t want them to make a casual comment about it at school etc. that will turn into a huge issue for us (there were always news stories about this when I was younger).

        But now I’m wondering… our neighbor is a huge stoner and she simply explained to her 8-year-old a while back that this is an herb which helps people to relax.  She swears to me that since we are in Canada (notably Montreal, where possession under 1 ounce is a $100 fine on the order of a parking ticket), nobody at the school would care anyway if they heard the kids say something etc.

        Then again, given my own up-and-down experiences with different drugs, I’m not sure I want to completely normalize it for the kids when they are this young, either.  That goes for alcohol too, though. Hmm.

        • http://twitter.com/Sam_Huddy Sam Huddy

          The trick is to be good at hiding it. Kids are a sneaky bunch.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

         Believe me, I was taken in, too. None of my friends in high school did drugs, either, so the first time I encountered drugs was in college.

        The first time my freshman roommate smoked marijuana I “kept cool” by internally freaking out and calmly heading to the common area of the dorm so I wouldn’t be implicated when the DEA inevitably broke down the door and arrested everyone in the room. Later that year (April 20th, natch) I discovered at a party that a bunch of my new college friends (art school, natch) smoked pot regularly and genuinely had a night or two of internal crisis where I tried to rectify my knowledge of my friends as smart, kind, talented people with a hobby I had been convinced was the exclusive domain of idiots and criminals. It was difficult, but WAY more learning occurred in that situation than in years of “Just Say No” DARE classes.

        I’ve still never been inebriated, but I came to recognize that that’s a symptom of my own control-freakiness and personal tastes, rather than some moral high ground that falsely casts almost everyone else as some kind of wasteoid.

        • NarcolepticPanda

          You went to an art college without expecting people to smoke?! And you went to an art college without ever getting chopped?!

          I gotta admit, that’s impressive. In a “Sobriety Rocks!” after school club kinda way :)

        • Aurora Boreanaz

          Sounds a lot like me.  Had friends who smoked pot and drank profusely in high school and afterward.  I even dated a stoner for six months, and didn’t know she was until she told me, about a month before we broke up.

          Didn’t try pot until my 30s, and decided it was mostly harmless recreationally.  I could never be a regular user simply because I’m already a fairly lazy person, and that gets amplified tenfold.  (Like, unable to get off the couch to get another slice of pizza amplified.)

        • PaganPoet

          It was like your own little personal Full House-style conflict climax:

          “Deej, this is Stephanie. I told Dad I was going to stay the night at Tiffany’s, but instead I came to a party. There are people here MAKING OUT!”

          “Oh my god, Steph, STAY CALM! I’ll be there to pick you up as soon as I can!”

        • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp David Dalrymple

          This is how I know you’re not my real Dad.

        • http://twitter.com/Sam_Huddy Sam Huddy

          One of my family members is a massive lifelong stoner, and my high school girlfriend hate hate hated stoners, so I shied the fuck away. Going to college was hell on earth.

        • AHyperkineticLagomorph

          I’ve honestly never encountered anyone using any drugs other than tobacco or alcohol (though I have some not-so-great memories of the latter which may have influenced my decisions to not drink) in 25 years so I can’t really say I’ve been in the same situation, but I’ve similarly also never been inebriated.

          To me, the idea itself feels wrong. I don’t particularly find the idea of lowering my inhibitions to be a good thing. I mean, there’s a reason most inhibitions are there to begin with. That and it also costs money. Money that can go towards more games.

      • http://twitter.com/Sam_Huddy Sam Huddy

        Holy shit, that is exactly what happened to me, except I never tried. Are you my sister?

        • zebbart

          No but let’s start a class action lawsuit against D.A.R.E. for implanting these dreams during the height of the repressed memory craze of the 80′s!

  • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

     Heisler showed some amazing restraint in hot pointing out the inherent hypocrisy of a crummy, pandering Nickelodeon TV show accusing another kids’ entertainment medium of being a brain-melting waste of time.

    • double_hawk

       hey remember they also had Pete and Pete around the same time so it wasn’t all brain melting!

      • Effigy_Power

         There were certain turd-flowers, but as a whole Nickelodeon was a brainwashing disaster area.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

         Pete & Pete was amazing; one of my favorite shows ever, for kids or adults. If it had done an episode about video games, it would have been coming from a position of actual quality, mitigating hypocrisy, and because of that quality, the “message” or whatever would have been less boneheaded, if there was one. In the end, P&P’s “addiction” episode centered around a fictional frozen beverage and a baseball team, and was fantastic.

        Are You Afraid of the Dark? however, can’t claim any moral or artistic high ground versus 90s-era video games. I can pretty much guarantee any 30-minute span of playing Super Mario Bros. is more challenging, engaging, and thought-provoking than any 30-minute episode of that cheesy show.

      • stakkalee

        Hoo, Pete & Pete, talk about guest stars!  LL Cool J, Gordon Gano, Debbie Harry, David Johansen, Kate Pierson, Iggy Pop, Michael Stipe, and the inestimable Adam West.  That’s practically the soundtrack to my life.

    • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp David Dalrymple

      I would love to see a kid’s show do an episode where the message was “Learn how to discriminate between good and bad entertainment.”

      I wish someone had taught me that lesson as a kid. Then I wouldn’t have spent so much time playing “Muppet Adventure: Chaos at the Carnival” for NES.

      • http://twitter.com/Sam_Huddy Sam Huddy

        I wouldn’t have agonized over violent scenes in certain movies if I’d known I just didn’t like them.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

         I remember I once saw an episode of Ben Jones’s kid show “Problem Solverz,” where the characters were sucked into a video game and ultimately had to combat this evil AI entity that lived in the game, and one of the characters announced that the only way to beat him was “not to be entertained.” Because the game entity’s prime directive was to entertain, electing not to be entertained by it freed them from the game and allowed them to escape.

        I thought it was kind of ballsy for a kids’ show to have as its moral essentially the message that being entertained was being enslaved.

  • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp David Dalrymple

    To be fair to its creators, this episode is a pretty accurate portrayal of anything by American Laser Games or Digital Pictures.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

       Trapped in an FMV game for eternity! Talk about a Twilight-Zone esque nightmare!

  • zoubadou

     http://xvr.in/qyb

  • http://twitter.com/tapirman Kyle O’Reilly

    BRB gonna drop acid and watch Are You Afraid of the Dark on youtube.

    • DogForbid

       I do love how so many Are You Afraid Of The Dark episodes basically end with “And then the child realized they were locked into a hellish nightmare, forever”. ROLL THE LUCKY CHARMS COMMERCIAL.

      • HobbesMkii

        The Lucky Charms commercials were pretty down to earth compared to the trippy worlds the Trix Rabbit and Toucan Sam seemed to inhabit.

        • http://twitter.com/Sam_Huddy Sam Huddy

          Why didn’t they ever let the rabbit eat the Trix!? Is it poisonous to him?

      • Citric

        ’90s spooky kids entertainment was freaking dark. I remember a Goosebumps about someone slowly turning into a bird, and it ended with them eating worms. It was kind of messed up.

        • http://twitter.com/Sam_Huddy Sam Huddy

          Transformation horror is big with kids of all eras.

        • caspiancomic

           I remember one about a cursed doll… that came with free frogurt…

        • Citric

          @caspiancomic:disqus  Was the frogurt also cursed?

        • PaganPoet

          @caspiancomic:disqus @Citric:disqus As long as the frogurt toppings don’t contain potassium benzoate, I’m fine with cursed dolls and frogurt.

      • http://www.facebook.com/callie.ballard.790 Callie Ballard

         I remember one about a cursed doll… that came with free frogurt…is shingles contagious

  • SparkyMunroe

    This has always been my favorite episode of AYAOTD. God, I loved it and didn’t give a shit that Jimmy or Bimmy or whatever the hell the kid’s name was got his ass trapped. Serves him right. If anything, this episode made me want to play games even more. I had the idea that I could be transported inside of one and it’d be kick ass. 

    That being said, D.A.R.E is so hilariously ineffective. In 4th grade, we had a D.A.R.E officer come in and tell freaking 9 year old kids not to smoke crack. He got so focused on crack that my teacher had to remind him to talk about other drugs. I think he had a vendetta against the crack rock. Curiously, he skipped weed. And that’s how I became a pot head. Thanks D.A.R.E.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      Did you become a crack head? No? THAT’S BECAUSE D.A.R.E. WORKS FLAWLESSLY! BOOM!

  • http://www.facebook.com/andy.tuttle.79 Andy Tuttle

    What I really remember about this episode is that it was the first time I thought the show was cheesy. I was in 5th or 6th grade when this came out, and I remember really liking the show and thought it was pretty scary. This was the first time I thought that maybe it was trying to soften its image, be more accessible, or that maybe they were running out of ideas. I remember seeing that pinball at the top of the escalator in the final scene and thinking how stupid it was. I’m pretty sure I didn’t watch any more episodes after that.

  • http://playingthecanon.wordpress.com/ Joel of Arc

    Whenever “Hey, remember that one Are You Afraid of the Dark episode?” comes up with my group of friends, I always mention this one and how insane and goofy its logic was even by 1990s Nickelodeon standards. No one else ever seems to remember it when I bring it up, and I always forget to consult Google by the time I get home, so thank you for proving to me that I’m not insane.

    I’d love to see a Gameological retrospective on Nick Arcade. It could even go along with this piece’s D.A.R.E. analogy, because if there was ever anything that would turn kids off the horror of video game addiction, it’s watching those poor souls flail through those awfully green-screened 16-bit nightmares.

  • jerkheadface

    When I first saw this episode, I had such a crush on the girl who played Sophie. Somehow this was brought up a few months ago during one of those nostalgia-driven conversations with friends about old shows and according to imbd, she was played by Polly Shannon, who went on to star in some, let’s say, far more salacious roles than this one. Good to know.

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  • OldeFortran77

    I’m not sure if I can express this thought coherently, but, the top photograph for this story?  Well, not only does it look like they can’t act, it doesn’t even look like a photograph of actors. They can’t even stand there and look like actors. On some level, they not only cannot convey their characters, they can’t even convey that they are actors portraying characters. Does that make sense?