From The Games Mistress to Cyberzone – How Games and Telly used to be friends
If games and television had a romantic relationship, it would no doubt be labelled under the “it’s complicated” category. Particularly here in the UK, television has had a love/hate relationship, with mainstream news programs blaming games for everything from teen suicide to schoolyard violence, all the while gobbling up advertising money for games consoles and games. As a youngster of the 90’s, I was desperate to see my hobby legitimised on TV, and it was usually the ads that got me my gaming fix on the big telly (and by that I mean the big telly in the living room that was NEVER to be used for games).
I used to love the UK TV show “Knightmare”. It was part of a whole series of TV shows that took elements of videogames and pen and paper RPG’s and tried to open them up to a TV audience. Games were in their infancy and often anything that masqueraded as computer graphics was actually practical effects and trickery. The first Tron movie was about people stuck in a computer, but it was far cheaper and easier for them to stick reflective tape and use fancy lighting to achieve most of the effects in the film than render the virtual world in the very primitive and inefficient software they had at the time.
Similarly, the TV character Max Headroom was a nightmarish vision of what computerized characters would be like, achieved with prosthetics and camera tricks.
More “advanced” game shows like CyberZone combined bulky, primitive VR headsets and treadmills with a (now) hilarious version of what we thought the future would look like back in the 90’s (Awooga!). With Craig Charles at the helm leveraging his sci fi cred from the cult comedy series Red Dwarf, Cyberzone was an example of everything brilliant and brilliantly naff about games and television at the time.
Along with The Crystal Maze, these game shows combined fantasy and sci fi themes into original and exciting tv concepts, offering the sort of escapism that games weren’t yet capable of replicating. They also had great characters too; while Craig Charles could only be appreciated ironically, Richard O’Brien was a camp, captivating presence with a quick wit that was cutting, but never cruel.
Similarly, Dunegon Master Treguard on Knightmare – played by Hugo Myatt – had a gravitas and Shakespearian delivery that made everything he said sound foreboding but paternal at the same time. He was an electrifying screen presence, and I read a whole series of Knightmare paperback novels which depicted him as a kind of Arthurian Knight, solving wizard’s riddles and slaying orcs and goblins. It was complete trash, but it got me into reading and was a gateway to Tolkein.
While all these tv shows were influenced by (and had influence upon) games of the time, the actual shows dedicated to videogames were an odd bunch. There was Games Master of course, and that was by far the largest and most well-known. It featured all of the most popular writers from the games magazines of the day, and while some flourished on the screen (sometimes via a gimmick like a certain infamous bandana), others came across very poorly, lending the series an amateurish but endearing quality. Hosted by Dominik Diamond, it’s fair the first few years were all a little too serious and poorly produced, but eventually it grew into its own skin.
As Diamond developed his persona and perfected his patter, he became a sarcastic, occasionally cruel host who brought a kind of late 90’s cynicism to the show. There were a lot of laughs along the way, but towards the end of Games Masters run it was just a series of childish double entendres. It was hilarious at the time to me and my fifteen year old friends, but the jokes sailed over the head of the younger audience and it appeared childish and puerile to our parents, who already had a pretty low opinion of games anyway.
The show was fantastically popular for a while, so much so that the fledgling satellite TV network Sky created their own version, substituting quality with quantity. Games World was broadcast five days a week, with differently themed half hour episodes each day. While some nights the focus would be on competition between awkward young boys playing street fighter or Sonic (or more commonly terrible games of the time like Heimdal or Clay Fighters), there was a cheats and tips episode on a Thursday night. This served as a showcase for amateur comics and comedians to develop game themed characters like Big Boy Barry and The Games Mistress.
It’s where a few established modern performers got their start though, with David Walliams playing a whole bunch of weird gamer stereotypes, all of which were remarkable in how staggeringly unfunny they were. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Games Mistress (played by “Jet” from Gladiators) went from being an arguably inappropriate sexy-but-strict schoolteacher, to a definitely inappropriate rubber dress wearing dominatrix. And all at 6pm on a school night! Suffice it to say I thought it was the greatest show ever made.
And if Games World wasn’t awful enough for you, there was the embarrassingly named “Bad Influence!”. It was an especially inaccurate name for a show that was always a bit too stuffy and dry, lacking Games Masters production values and humour and Games Worlds seedy trashiness. Bad Influence! was hosted by Violet Berlin and Andy Crane; both reputable and capable tv hosts, but both of whom had a cool detachment from the subject matter. Berlin seemed like more of a gamer, but Crane seemed to be running a news report on a subject he knew nothing about. It bored me to tears, but I still watched every episode. There was no internet back then.
The relationship between TV and games has always been a tumultuous one. TV execs saw games as a threat, stealing their audience and hogging the big box in the living room that should be firing adverts into passive sofa dwellers eye holes. As a result, there was no real impetus to make great TV about games, and no audience crying out for it either. Gamers mostly want to use the TV to game on. It was in music that games would find acceptance and a kind of synergy.
During the 90’s games culture crossed over into music in a big way. The same weird dystopia we see in CyberZone is present in most 90’s techno music. In Snaps! Rhythm is A Dancer, we get perhaps the most fully formed version of a future everyone thought was just around the corner. There was only one outcome ahead of us all, and it was industrial and full of steaming pipes, rockets and people in unitards and dark glasses holding big balls up in the air . A bit like Blade Runner, but with shinier clothes.
It wasn’t until music and games became best buds that things really changed, and that was when the Sony PlayStation came along. When you started to play Wip3out and realized the CD you popped in also had The Prodigy on it, everything changed. Wipeout’s vision of the future felt fresh, and listening to crystal clear CD quality music while you played was a revelation.
Now games and music were best friends, and they’ve been pretty tight ever since, leaving TV out in the cold.
It’s my own home land “Beyond the Wall” (Scotland) that’s been producing some of the best TV about games, albeit always on a budget. Rab Florence and Ryan Macleod grew their internet series Consolevania into a fully-fledged TV show called Videogaiden on BBC 2 Scotland. It succeeded because it never looked down on games or the people who played them, instead showing the genuine love and enthusiasm of the show’s hosts for the hobby.
South of the border, former games writer Charlie Brooker continues to fly the flag for games to the mainstream audience he’s garnered. Made with help from floppy haired games video superstar Matt Lees, last year’s show on the best games of all time was controversial for including Twitter as an entry. Nonetheless it managed to cross over into the hilariously backwards world of mainstream news, where Brooker made an uncomfortable Jon Snow hold a controller like it was some kind of alien antenna used to communicate with a mother ship.
So will there ever be a reconciliation between TV and games? I suspect not. Television as a concept is under threat, with on-demand and the internet stealing far more of its audience than games ever did. With more people watching “Lets Plays” of games on the internet than actually playing the games, television has become somewhat of an irrelevance. Let’s play’s like this one we made!
I don’t have a cable receiver plugged into my telly any more. Why? Well nothing on the terrestrial channels in this country interests me. How did they lose me completely? Probably because they never made a really great TV show about games. I would still watch that.
It wouldn’t take much to get me back. Even an average TV show about games would make me watch. With so many amazing YouTube channels out there, why aren’t TV execs tripping over themselves to give these creative young potential stars with inbuilt audience and content a show of their own? I want to see Bit Socket on my telly screen. Can’t some telly person make that happen? If you do, I’ll let you fill my eye holes with all those ads that you love so much. You know, the ones for personal injury cover, online bingo and dodgy internet from that Northern bloke who thinks me and him are “mates”.