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. Previous entries covered ’90s Friday-night mainstay Full House, Nickelodeon spook show Are You Afraid Of The Dark?, and second-rate ’80s family sitcom Mr. Belvedere. This time, we look at Star Trek: The Next Generation’s aptly titled fifth-season episode “The Game.”
“A tuba on a checkerboard.” That’s how Star Trek: The Next Generation actor Jonathan Frakes once described the 24th-century video game depicted in the “The Game.” Frakes plays William T. Riker—a no-nonsense commander and serial space-alien fornicator—and I am not about to argue with the man himself, especially since his description is so accurate. To elaborate on his image, the game depicts one or more purple tubas of computer-animated jelly on a checkerboard, and your goal is to direct red frisbees into the tubas.
Within days, everyone on the starship Enterprise is hopelessly addicted to throwing frisbees into tubas. Of course.
In writing about “The Game,” I don’t intend to retread the work already done by my A.V. Club colleague Zack Handlen, who reviewed the episode for TV Club Classic two years ago with insight and humor. Zack summed up this installment nicely when he observed that “The Game” isn’t really a proper hour of Star Trek so much as it is a “children’s cartoon script that happened to be filmed in live action.”
I’d like to focus more on the game itself as an object of addiction. We first encounter it in the opening scene, as a vacationing Riker frolics with a sexy sex alien. (We can tell that she’s sexy because she has both a shapely pair of buttocks and a clitoris on her forehead.) She straps the contraption on Riker’s head, and it shoots some virtual reality lasers into his eyes. The alien instructs him to put the frisbee in the tuba using his mind. He does, and he receives a pulse of pleasure. It’s essentially Angry Birds if you had an orgasm every time you killed a pig.
Once Riker is back on board the ship, pretty much all he can talk about is this frisbee-tuba orgasm game, because he has no sense of propriety. And also the game has brainwashed him, compelling him to spread the addiction to others. This puts the crew of the Enterprise under the butt-clitoris-head alien’s control. The evil ploy almost works. In the end, the ship is saved by Data, an android who’s immune to the game’s charms, and Wesley Crusher, a boy wonder who can solve any problem, except puberty. So all in all, a pretty standard episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
But why a game? If you view the video game as a stand-in for addictive drugs, the episode almost works, but not entirely. After all, if the success of the alien’s body-snatching plan only depended on the device’s ability to activate pleasure centers in the player’s brain, why not just give everyone an instant-on orgasmotron and be done with it? Why bother with the costly development and lengthy play-testing cycles that surely were required to bring Frisbee Tuba 5000 to fruition?
It’s important to the fiction of “The Game” (at least early on) that the device incorporates player agency. The members of the Enterprise aren’t mere users; they’re participants. When Riker first encounters the game, after all, it doesn’t work for him until his paramour tells him how to play.
What’s more, the game’s evils derive from something more than illicit pleasures. The episode sets up an interesting hierarchy of pleasure, in fact—one that delineates which kinds of enjoyment are okay and which aren’t. Sex is fine. Riker’s bawdy horseplay is played for comic relief and only turns dark when his alien partner pulls out the titular game. Likewise, we are meant to be charmed by Wesley’s halting flirtation with Robin Lefler, a winsome ensign in engineering who has been cyber-stalking him.
Food is another acceptable indulgence by the standards of “The Game.” In one interminable scene, Counselor Troi—the ship’s psychically gifted Officer Of Cleavage—tells Riker how she eats a chocolate sundae. Mercifully shortened version: She “spoons the fudge around the rim” and performs other perorations before putting the spoonful of cold dairy ecstasy in her mouth already.
Change some of the specifics, and the Troi scene could serve as the monologue of a heroin addict rhapsodizing on the delights of the needle. But like the dalliances of Messrs. Riker and Crusher, this indulgence is viewed as natural, even wholesome. After all, Troi is a moral compass on a ship full of moral compasses, so her personal habits are implicitly beyond reproach. In its final moment, though, the scene pivots. Riker says that he has something “even better than chocolate,” and the camera pushes in to capture his snarling smile. We have crossed the line from good chocolate into bad game-playing.
The problem with the video game, according to “The Game,” is that it reprograms the brain. This is the part of game addiction that, frankly, Star Trek gets right. When you get hooked on a game, a lot of the fun comes in rewiring your own neural pathways to complement the code of the machine. Whether that’s getting a feel for the physics of Angry Birds or internalizing the geometric patterns of Super Hexagon, games have the power to shape the way we think in very specific ways. Anyone who has ever gone to bed and seen Tetris shapes falling down the back of their eyelids can attest to that.
What’s scary about video game addiction is that it can tap into a particular part of our psyches: the ambition, the goal orientation. “The Game” touches on this throughout the episode. When Riker first plays, he immediately wants to reach level two. Nurse Ogawa boasts in the turbolift that she has reached level 46.
That’s what makes the game so insidious. It doesn’t just deliver pleasure, but it also hijacks the natural desire of these go-getter Starfleet officers to solve problems and accomplish goals. It uses their own ambition against them. Once Riker and Wesley Crusher get laid, their libido will ebb. Once Troi eats that chocolate sundae, her hunger will be sated. But one of the central premises of Star Trek is that human ambition is bottomless (and sacrosanct). So the game, having exploited that jewel of the human psyche, can never end.
This inexhaustible goal fulfillment is the linchpin of the episode’s “games are scary” tension, but by the end of the episode, it falls apart. Because as it turns out, the device works even if you don’t want to play. In the climactic final moments, the bridge officers wrestle Wesley into the captain’s chair and slap one of the game devices on him. They hold his eyes open in a makeshift Clockwork Orange setup and zap him with the lasers of fun. Wesley tries to resist—his frisbee sort of dances nervously around the mouth of his tuba—but before long he “wins” and experiences his very own mental-enslavement orgasm. Then Data appears and cures everyone of their addiction with a blinking flashlight.
The trouble with this denouement is that it strips the game of all the supposed agency that the writers had, until now, invested in it. Even the most basic addictive game—a slot machine, say—creates pleasure by offering an occasional reward in exchange for some effort on the part of the player. But apparently, the game of “The Game” doesn’t require effort. You can force yourself NOT to play and still win. And that isn’t a game at all; it’s just a drug.
While its portrayal of game addiction ultimately only makes half-sense, the episode does honestly get at the heart of a society’s underlying fear of game addiction. Most of our anti-addiction rhetoric focuses on the fact that drugs, alcohol, or other vices offer artificial, unsustainable highs and ruin lives. Conversely, the high of a game could go on forever in theory—as the evil alien says, her game continues “as far as you can take it.” While other addictions subvert a good Puritan work ethic, the idealized fearsome game co-opts that ethic.
Yet that’s also the trouble for anyone building a story around supposed game addiction, as the Next Generation writers found: You have to be actively engaged to get hooked. “The Game” simply ignores that reality once it became inconvenient. I’m sure the makers of FarmVille wish it were that easy.