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The Simpsons and Console Culture

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Top 5 Best Uses of Video Games on Screen:

1.The Last Starfighter. Obviously, if every pre-adolescent boy could articulate his deepest fantasy, this would be it. You are so good at video games that aliens pick you up, give you a spaceship, and tell you to kill other aliens. As if anything could top that.

2.The Holo-Chess games from Star Wars. Yes, they have a PC version of it, but it really isn’t the same if you can’t play against Chewbacca.

3.Ricky Schroeder’s standup arcade games from Silver Spoons. They always made the old Atari look, well, silly…

4.Tron. Come on, it’s Tron. It’s a classic. It’s boring as hell, but it’s a classic…

5.The Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Frogger and Q-bert cartoons. I haven’t seen any of them for almost fifteen years, so I could be wrong about this…


1.That movie with Emilio Estevez where he is a video game junkie ruining his life on something called "Bishop of Battle" or some damn thing. Yes, it is funny to watch Emilio Estevez in action—I especially like the part where he pretends that he’s acting. But trust me, this will rot your brain, worse than…

2.The Wizard. What else can I say? Fred Savage. It’s no Rainman. (It is kind of nice to see Ninja Gaiden and Trojan on the big screen, but it’s a luxury I can easily live without if the cost is so high).

3.The Super Mario Brothers TV show/movie. The low point of product spinoff entertainment. Easily as bad as the Garbage Pail Kids movie.

4.Every movie (Mallrats comes immediately to mind) where they play a Sega Genesis instead of a Super Nintendo. Sorry, that’s a personal bias.

5.Joysticks. Okay, this movie is actually a lot more entertaining than the other "worst’s," but it still isn’t any good. It is an early eighties "Porky’s" meets Pac-man deal. You can just imagine. Or maybe you can’t…

Perhaps you missed last Sunday’s episode of "The Simpsons," which, as well as being one of the best episodes to date (enough to make a person forget about last season’s crap-a-thon), also featured the show’s first new generation video game spot. Of course you shouldn’t worry; syndication will take care of that problem, but, for those of you who did manage to catch it, the time for discussion is at hand.

Video games have appeared on the show in one form or other for most of its ten-year life, starting (I believe) with the 8-bit Nintendo styled Boxing game that Homer pays an eight-year old to train him at so that he can defeat Bart sometime in season 1 or 2, and culminating (so far) in this season’s third episode, where Bart, get ready…uses a dual shock analog controller! Yes, that dual shock. Bart finally has a Playstation folks, and the era of next generation games has been ushered in, albeit a bit late, by TV’s most popular and intelligent media satire.

Video games on the Simpsons serve one of two discursive functions: they are conceptual gags that use the video game format to critique any number of things (think the Electric Chair game, the Looter game), or they are parodies of actual games that use the format to critique itself. Of the latter category, the episode in which Bart steals the Mortal Kombat style game, "Bonestorm," (where both fighters look like Goro or Sheeva) is undoubtedly the best example. The show begins with the in your face, over-the-top advertising one more often associates with tractor-pulls, but which serves to prove the point well enough—games are sold on hype as often as they are on merit. The game is presented as hyper-violent, and most of the screenshots are fatality-like excesses. As soon as Bart gets the game, everyone else is already bored of it—another occasionally true bit of wisdom. But that’s it. The show then drops the entire video game motif and takes up important family togetherness/ moral instruction/ thin liberal ethos issues that have nothing to do with the console games at all. My point in bringing this up is that even though it did deal with a recognizable game, it was 1. horribly reductive about it, 2. esoteric in its hardware specs, and 3. cheaply unfinished. The thin game-specific critique did have its moments and its insights, but primarily stayed within the comfortable area of ridiculing violence, rather than anything new or interesting, two traits The Simpsons have proven even when dealing with such hackneyed satires as local news. Bart appeared to be using a two button joystick controller, which of course did not exist for any system that MK ever came out on. This lack of specificity further undermined the satire’s effectiveness. And, of course, it turned out to be merely a plot element, rather than a plot.

Certainly last week’s episode did not take up the issue even to the extent of the show outlined above, but it was in some ways a great deal more satisfying. Basically, Bart is diagnosed with ADD and given a prescription for "focusin," a Ritalin type tranquilizer, which causes him to become a neurotic supergenius. In a scene before he is given the drug, but after he has been diagnosed, Bart is pictured on the couch with his dual shock analog controller playing the best video game satire to date in the Simpsons canon. The controller is unmistakably a Sony—it certainly isn’t a gaudy Dreamcast or Nintendo monstrosity—which effectively brings currency and relevance to the show’s underdeveloped video game savvy. I mean, The Simpsons has always been a broad media satire, taking on every facet of mass communication imaginable: newspapers, town meetings, billboards, magazines, the telephone, supermarket PA systems, etc. It has been specifically concerned with electronic media—as a recent article on "anti-family sitcoms" points out, it is one of the few TV shows that not only portrays a family watching television, but also lets the audience join in the viewing. For such a media-savvy show, anything else would be cheap. The media satire that is the heart of the show at one level has obviously general ramifications; its critique of local news shows, action movies, etc. can be taken as a generic (genre-specific) critique of the "media" as a whole. But that critique also has its own hermetic significance within the confines of the show’s discursive universe. Because its newscasters (Kent Brockman) local celebrities (Krusty) and other media icons are grafted into the Simpsons sociocosm as individuals who serve specific discursive functions (e.g. Kent Brockman is a profiteering, upward climbing, not so effectively educated local kingfish trying to escape his Jewish heritage for political and economic reasons), their role as participants in the media criticism leveled by the show is at the very least complicated.

In this instance, Bart, whose role is multiple and complex, provides an interesting read of the PlayStation cum Simpsons. Bart serves the roles of ultra-modern malcontent, perpetual consumer, overactive child, anti-intellectual, and dozens of others. The juxtaposition of Bart’s PlayStation and his recent diagnosis either establishes a satirical causal link between video games and ADD, or it serves as a reinforcement of the fact that the two go well together. Because Bart’s character is fairly well-established and familiar, the juxtaposition is not accidental. In fact, the relevance and humor of the game itself depends upon it.

The game in question is a sort of snowboarding/shooter/action/adventure/space fighter, etc. etc. etc. with hammy voice-overs and a chaotic arrangement of graphical elements. Unlike Bonestorm, this one actually makes a meaningful critique of the video game industry, rather than an easily recognizable media-inspired stereotype. The satire demonstrates a working knowledge of current trends in video games: more is better (more graphics, extras, etc. of course, not more depth, e.g. Expendable, Mortal Kombat Gold), genre blending is rampant (Rising Zan), and "twitch" gameplay is twitchier than ever (R-Force Delta). Although the treatment of the gaming industry is by no means thorough or entirely accurate, it does signal a new era in a show that is years behind its own standard of excellence. As a media critique, The Simpsons has generally dealt with video games as easily as possible. This nod toward actual hardware (the PSX) and software at least gives hope that the show will finally extend its brilliance into a much underused and too often exploited genre.

--Brandon Hall