Got a problem? Chances are you can blame it on video games. While the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry acknowledges that some games are educational, it warns parents that playing games can lead to their kids having poor social skills, getting lower grades, becoming overweight and spending less time with their families. An Iowa State University study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics tied video game addiction in kids to depression and anxiety disorders. In the wake of the Newtown, Conn. school shooting, the National Rifle Associate used a press conference to blame violent video games like Grand Theft Auto for school shootings.
With so much ammo, it’s no surprise that games are typically demonized when they appear in other media. They’re metaphors for addiction and vehicles for an escapism that keeps characters from dealing with their real issues. Games are usually just the subject of a single episode before the characters move on to whatever important thing they do that keeps them from wasting time playing games.
But the British TV show Misfits approaches games differently, and one installment serves as an interesting case study in twisting anti-game arguments around on themselves. The fourth episode of the sci-fi dramedy’s second season, aired in 2010, starts out on the well-trod path of introducing a dire problem caused by a video game. In this case it’s a sort of NRA boogeyman: A crazy guy with a real-world gun and a fast car thinks he’s playing a game, one that strongly resembles the Grand Theft Auto series. His crime boss and his scheming girlfriend have betrayed him, and he needs to get his money back. He casts the show’s characters in the role of his antagonists—kidnapping, assaulting and threatening to torture them. Shooting and running over bystanders is worth bonus points, so he does a lot of that, too.
Misfits follows a group of juvenile delinquents who were doing community service when they encountered a freak storm that imbued them with superpowers. By this point in the series, the accidental superheroes have had to fight a woman who can turn any teen into a prude pod person just by talking to them, a murderous shape shifter, and a tattoo artist who can make his drawings affect the people he inks. But none of these superpowered foes are scary as Tim, a guy with a gun (though I guess that’s sort of a superpower in England) and no regard for human life.
Don’t ask where the police are to stop this madman. Considering the protagonists commit murder in the first episode, incompetent law enforcement is a necessity of the plot. So instead it’s up to our “heroes” to solve the problem of a real-life Nico Bellic. Luckily, they have a benefactor, a time traveler who drops off a copy of the same video game that their antagonist is living. By playing the game, the characters are able to learn the madman’s motivation, defeating him not through violence but by getting him to complete the game’s plot and just go away.
That brilliant twist is what sets this episode apart from just about every other television depiction of video games. The NRA and gun makers are fond of pointing out that guns are often innocently used for hunting or firing off rounds for fun at a shooting range. The idea is that guns are fine in the hands of a sane, safe, law-abiding citizen, and other factors—like organized crime or America’s poor ability to deal with the mentally ill—are to blame whenever guns are horribly misused.
Misfits applies that same argument to video games. Sure, you won’t hear any serious video game advocates say, “You should play games because it might someday help you stop a psycho killer.” But the Misfits episode does embrace the view that video games in moderation can build teamwork, provide new ways of thinking about the world, relieve stress, and increase productivity. The impact of a game, like a gun, is based less on the object and more on how it’s being used.
Science backs up that argument in respect to games. The American Association of Pediatrics study noted that kids and teens were more likely to become addicted to games if they already had social or mental issues, with only about 9 percent of players in the study experiencing any adverse effects. In their book on parenting and neuroscience, Nurtureshock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman point out that kids can actually use context to distinguish between fantasy and reality at a very young age. Thus, the authors argue, they aren’t likely to think that shooting someone or beating them up is okay because they saw it in a game. They’re actually more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior after watching traditional children’s programming that tries to present a lesson like “bullying is bad” because they pick up social cues from watching other kids without absorbing the message often tacked on at the end.
The protagonists of Misfits aren’t good kids. They’ve got histories of arson, murder, drug use, and drunk driving. They are generally pretty mean to each other—and to everyone else. But they, too, understand the difference between fantasy and reality enough to just play the game and enjoy it. In fact, they’re penalized for stopping before completing the game. Late in the episode, the protagonists rob an armored truck to give their delusional villain his money, but they discover too late that his next objective is to kill an undercover cop who has infiltrated the criminal organization. A character has to sacrifice himself to finally allow Tim to win the game. (Satisfied, he leaves for a bonus objective, a prison break, where he finally gets himself caught.) That character death has significant repercussions for the series, as do a number of Tim’s other misdeeds, which again sets Misfits’ story apart from other TV episodes in which games are just used for plot-of-the-week filler.
While it’s never really explained why the villain of the episode thinks he’s living in a game, the same storm that gave the protagonists their superpowers had different effects on others, sometimes granting wishes like a return to youth, and sometimes just making them insane—as appears to be the case with Tim. In Misfits, the storm’s effects on a person emerge based on who he or she was before the storm—just like the effects of playing a game.