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 victory—the 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.