I went with my father (the star of many of my #TBT posts) to go watch Adam Sandler’s new movie Pixels in which aliens misread a video of an arcade video game championship from the 1980s as a declaration of war. Sandler as Sam Brenner and his friends (and a former rival) must use their expert gaming knowledge to defeat the invaders and save the Earth.
Of course, I have plenty of thoughts about the movie. I’ll start with the positives.
Don’t worry it wont’ take long.
- We went to the 3D show and the special effects were really quite beautiful
- I adore chiptunes music and retro video game soundtracks and both were spot on
- Speaking of music, the classic rock soundtrack was excellent
- I did laugh out loud at the use of 80s pop culture icons like Madonna and Hall and Oates (and the guys from Fantasy Island!) to deliver the aliens’ proclamations
And now on to the bad:
Pixels perfectly captures the sexist, homophobic posturing that takes place in gaming culture (particular competitive gaming culture). However, they oddly do a substandard job of capturing the details of classic games themselves.
The game is filled to the brim with masculine posturing as the gamer geeks and the military tough guys form an uneasy alliance. Like many movies in this genre (for the ultimate, see 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds), Sandler’s friend Ludlow Lamonsoff, played by Josh Gad, tries his hand at performing a more traditional form of masculinity only to fail time and time again. Sandler is a lower-class tech support guy who believes that his glory days were over when he lost the arcade tournament as a child because video games are supposedly an archaic worthless skill like blacksmithing (never mind that the military men Sandler and his crew train to fight the aliens have likely been working with remote controlled drones). And Peter Dinklage’s character Eddie Plant aka Fireblaster (who is obviously modeled on the villainous Billy Mitchel from The King of Kong) might be accompanied by hot women due to his gaming fame, but he is also a cheater whose boisterous attitude can be read as overcompensation for a lack of physical masculine prowess (I think the casting decision to hire the world’s most famous little person actor was not a coincidence here). In the end, the offbeat techno masculinity of our unlikely heroes is the only thing that saves the world from annihilation. As their reward, they each win a woman (or two) as a prize. In Lamonsoff’s case, she is literally a “trophy” that the aliens bestow on him after the final battle.
Except… that isn’t really what happens.
Our heroes are never actually shown hacking into computers or beating the aliens at Settlers of Catan or Tetris or the like. Their heroic “geek” activities include:
- Running around in real life shooting off awesome lazer guns
- Drift racing cars around a city and crashing into a monster Pac-Man to kill it
- Defeating Donkey Kong by actually climbing around on a life-size version of the first level of the arcade game that looks like the set of American Ninja Warrior and killing him by throwing a hammer at him
Of course, as any retro game fan knows, this is not how you beat Donkey Kong. You don’t use the hammer on the big guy at all.
There are other major errors that are integral to the main plot. For example: how does Dinklage’s Eddie Plant input a “cheat code” into his real life battle in the Pac-Man maze? For that matter, how did he input one into the original Donkey Kong?
It is easy to conclude that Sandler and his production company Happy Madison were more interested in making a quick buck off of the current wave of 1980s nostalgia than in actually paying homage to these classic games.
However, there is one ingredient to this movie’s reception that is missing.
Why is no one out there complaining that Sandler is a fake geek guy?
Female celebrities get accused of “pandering” to a geeky audience to boost their careers all the time. For example, Aisha Tyler is a stand-up comedienne and actress who hosted game developer Ubisoft’s Electronic Entertainment Expo press conference in 2012 and 2013 after attending the convention for years as a spectator. Olivia Munn co-hosted a talk show called Attack of the Show on the gaming oriented G4 network and wrote a memoir titled Suck It Wonder Woman!: The Misadventures of a Hollywood Geek. And Felicia Day is the creator, writer, and star of the webseries The Guild. Day has also done work as a voice actor in several games including major releases like Guild Wars 2 and Fallout: New Vegas, and she runs a popular YouTube channel called Geek and Sundry.
And yet, all three of these women regularly face questions about whether their interest in geeky gamer culture is legitimate or whether they are simply cynically exploiting nerd culture to create a niche for themselves in the entertainment industry. Tyler reported receiving several messages following her Ubisoft gig assuming she knows little about games and accusing her of doing the show for the money (check out her epic response here), and Munn and Day are often referred to as “booth babes,” the models who serve as eye candy at conventions who are presumed to have no actual tech knowledge or interest in games or geeks.
Now it is impossible to really know whether or not these three women are gamers “in their heart of hearts,” but I think is important to note here is that they are being subjected to a level of scrutiny about the veracity of their “geek credentials” that geeky male performers like, say, Wil Wheaton or Pattton Oswalt, do not have to endure. Famous male geeks are cheered for making content directed at the geeky set, while female performers are dismissed as carpetbaggers who must be motivated only by money and not by a true affection for geek culture.
Oddly enough, female professional gamers face the same problem. All-female teams like the Frag Dolls, professional gamers and spokeswomen for Ubisoft, face fake geek girl accusations as well. Joe Peacock called out the Frag Dolls as “models-cum-geeks” only out to make a buck off gamer culture. And as I’ve written in the past, pro-Hearthstone player MagicAmy was driven from the scene when she was accused of colluding with a male pro in a scheme to swindle donations out of those who watched her stream on Twitch.tv.
All-male and mixed-gender professional gaming teams, even those who are corporately-sponsored and who act as ambassadors for e-sports just like the recently retired Ubisoft Frag Dolls, are not commonly criticized as fakes or sellouts. Rather, they are lionized as heroes, gamers who turned their hobbies into their dream jobs. This suggests that it is not the act of professionalizing play in and of itself that gamer culture finds objectionable. Instead it is the supposedly “incongruous” combination of gamer skill with feminine presentation that requires surveillance and discipline. The Frag Dolls must be mere shills, paid to pretend to love games to sell products to unsuspecting gamers. Otherwise, the carefully-constructed worldview that categorizes gaming as a masculine-coded performance comes under question.
Sandler might be getting called out by film critics but he isn’t facing a mob on social media accusing him of secretly laughing at all the nerds while taking their money for a shoddy product. I wonder why he is getting treated so differently than those female actresses?…
Just kidding. We know exactly why.