For Our Consideration


The Cure Is In The Cause

An episode of the British TV show Misfits turns anti-game arguments around on themselves when video games are used to stop a game-inspired killer.

By Samantha Nelson • September 9, 2013

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.

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28 Responses to “The Cure Is In The Cause”

  1. Effigy_Power says:

    I remember watching this episode when it was pretty new. (Look how cool I am.)
    This was when Misfits was still quite good, before the cast was being jumbled around constantly. The theme of other people being usually more negatively affected by the freak storm presented the vast majority of the backgrounds for villains. People who had taken their powers and were just slightly less restrained than the already ambiguous protagonists were all over the spectrum in powers, but this one was one of the strangest, next to guy who has telekinetic power over dairy.

    • Sam Huddy says:

      I’d let Virtue Girl not have sex with me anytime.

    • Enkidum says:

      Weird, I watched what I thought was every episode of the first few seasons of Misfits, but I can’t remember a damn thing about this episode. Maybe it was withheld from Canadian netflix or something.

      • SamPlays says:

        Not sure about Canada Netflix but my PVR recorded this episode when it aired on Bravo or Showcase or A&E last year. Also, I’m not sure if it will destroy your computer but there’s a Google Chrome extension offered by Media Hint that allows you to easily access US Netflix (and Hulu services) – screw you geoblocking!

        • Sam Huddy says:

          Canadian Bravo runs things other than gay minstrel shows and real housewives!?

        • SamPlays says:

          @samhuddy:disqus Bravo delivers rich, differentiated experiences. In addition to gay minstrels and housewives, they offer a distinguished array of colour-by-number cop shows. To their credit, they aired the UK series The Fall, which was quite good actually… some would say rich and differentiated.

        • Effigy_Power says:

          @SamPlays:disqus: Duuuuude. I hadn’t even heard about that Firefox extension. Thanks a billion, I owe you one. I was really bummed not to be able to use Pandora and unlock all of Netflix.

        • SamPlays says:

          @Effigy_Power:disqus I genuinely have no idea if you’re being sarcastic, such is your online persona. I lack the Internet-savvy to tell the difference. As such, you’re welcome *GIANT QUESTION MARK*.

        • Effigy_Power says:

          We are aware that our position makes us slightly unapproachable, but no, I was being serious. That Firefox extension is the shiznit and it’s cheaper than getting one of those silly Proxy Servers that rack up your latency.

    • SamPlays says:

      Wait, it’s cool to watch new TV shows now?

      • Effigy_Power says:

        Nope. I ran into it by total coincidence, I think and it did eventually disappoint exactly the way I imagined.
        The only good thing left from this show is the performance of a young Bastard of Bolton, but that’s about it.
        Actually I am being harsh, the characters weren’t bad, but the show devolved away from its premise really quickly and people started to trade and switch powers and it just became a mess. Season 1 however isn’t bad.

  2. CNightwing says:

    Misfits is a pretty good show all in all, especially when it comes to subverting tropes and feeling modern and relevant. I think it was a shame when Nathan left, and sadly that precipitated further cast losses that have made it hard to continue the narrative of the first couple of seasons.

    Still, they did later save fookin’ Hitler.

    • SamPlays says:

      I watched the vast majority of this series very quickly over several weeks and the departure of Nathan never really bothered me – it helps that the seasons are so short (something the US cable outlets have started copying over the last decade or so). He was great comic relief but he was also kind of annoying. In some ways I preferred Nathan’s replacement (Rudy). Unfortunately I haven’t seen season 4 so I’m not privy to the more substantial cast shake-ups but it was fun (?) to see Simon dismembering dicks on Game of Thrones earlier this year.

    • caspiancomic says:

       Yeah, I was sad to see Robert Sheehan go since he was my favourite character, but getting friggin’ Joe Gilgun in to replace him was a pretty ingenious move. It’s sort of a shame they wrote Rudy as such a transparent Nathan replacement rather than seriously differentiating him in any way, but I guess the show does need its comic relief character. All the other characters are just so earnest and stressed out all the time.

      (Sidenote: When is Shane Meadows going to finally finish This Is England ’90? I need another dose of Woody and the gang!)

      • Andrew says:

        He’s recently left Love/Hate too (I’m pretty sure a bullet in the back of his head means he won’t be appearing in season 4)

  3. Thants says:

    I dunno, I remember first seeing this episode and being disappointed that a hip show like Misfits didn’t do anything interesting with their video game episode. It was just the same “second-hand description of GTA” that seems to be the go-to video game for every TV show. It’s not significantly different from what you’d see on CSI: Miami.

    There’s was even an unironic “That’s what you get for playing so many violent video games” from one of the characters at then end.

    • caspiancomic says:

       I think the episode does some smart things with the whole videogame pastiche, but the actual game they made up for the show was pretty embarrassing. You can really tell the writers for these things haven’t played a game in about ten years. A GTA clone with “bonus points” and levels?

  4. Sarapen says:

    I can’t remember, which character was it who died? Since there are consequences then presumably it wasn’t the immortal one. Was it the teleporting heart transplant girl?

  5. M. Kemper Brown says:

    I haven’t seen the show, but something’s bugging me. These kids have superpowers, right? What are they, and could any possibly help with dealing with a dude with a gun? I’ll take my question off the air.

    • SamPlays says:

      In many cases, the “superpower” isn’t all that super in the traditional sense… gender-swapping, seduction, superpower brokerage, acting like a dog, turning people bald, milk manipulation, sharing STDs, etc. This makes the show sound terrible but the writers are sensible and smart with their decisions regarding how to portray superpowers.

    • Effigy_Power says:

      Yeah, the powers are really more about giving insecurities, character flaws and societal images a tangible presence. One of the replacement actors for the later seasons, who was quite good but sadly had to come in to replace someone else who was quite good, had the power to split into two versions of himself. So the “Split Personality” thing was pretty obvious there. The character who feels ignored develops invisibility, the skanky girl gains the power to seduce people, and so on.
      It’s really more social commentary about England’s youth in the 2000s than superhero pastiche.

  6. UninvitedChristopherGuest says:

    Playing video games prepares you for a life of playing video games. There’s almost no translatable skills. The Marines have stopped using video games for training because the actual, real experience of shooting and killing a person is so different than just plinking off video characters. The shock of this difference in experiences was too disorienting to the trainees – the video games created a false reality which hindered the soldiers’ ability to function effectively. However, if you’re a crazed sociopath I suppose there’s really not much difference.