I have an unholy interest in romcoms. I don’t think they’re objectively good, but the fact that I am the target audience never ceases to fascinate me. You want to know what’s offensive? What Hollywood execs think women want! Marriage, Cath Kidston tea towels, candles, creepily organised flat, to be white, young and beautiful, to have a gay best friend and/or black best friend to offset your problems and affirm your superiority, and last but not least, a man who cannot communicate with you…
I’ve noticed that recent romcoms are using videogames to signify a woman’s desirability to men. This is undoubtedly due to the rise of hispter culture and the fetishization of geekdom by the powers that be. Videogames have become part of the incredibly complex mating ritual that is the modern romcom. The leading lady must either embrace their inner cool or compete with a cool girl – the girl that digs comics and is a bit weird and totally love nerdy guys (it’s true they do make the best boyfriends).
The love affair between romcoms and videogames isn’t entirely new. It can be traced back at least as far as Big (1988), starring Tom Hanks. The plot is really weird and, great a film as it is, I doubt a film like this could be made today (pedophilic undertones much?).
This is an interesting place to begin – literally begin, since a videogame begins and ends the film. In Big, videogames are all part of the theme of childhood, not wanting to grow up, having to make responsible choices… the major difference now being of course, that videogames are no longer targeted to children exclusively, or even primarily.
Now let’s turn to three recent films which use videogames in a new way: to signal what (male) filmmakers want from their largely female audience:
Going the Distance (Centipede)
This film is like a adult version of one of the worst films I have ever seen, What If (2014), right down to its faux-quirky, hipster sensibilities and annoyingly artful illustrations. Going the Distance features the classic arcade game Centipede in an odd, offhand hipster sign of cultural knowledge and bourgeois cultivation. It makes the main girl Erin (Drew Barrymore) a desirable mate because getting the high score on Centipede is the modern equivalent of a male baboon flashing its red butt at a female in New York. Apparently.
As there is no footage easily available (did I mention this film is garbage?), here is a banal description from a random website. The deadpan tone here is especially apt given how dull the film in question is:
Erin is at the same bar with a friend and plays a Centipede arcade game. Garrett lines up behind her and puts a quarter on the machine to indicate that he wants the next turn. Erin brushes him off and says he’ll be waiting a long time because she won’t be done anytime soon. He blocks her view of the machine and she yells at him because she was so close to breaking the high score, held by ERL. As Garrett watches her enter her initials for the second place, he realizes that she is ERL and lets her know how much he has admired ERL from afar and has tried to break the top score. He apologizes for ruining her game and offers to buy her a beer.
Baboon butt flashing over, you can guess the rest. The way games are used here just doesn’t sit right with any real sense of videogame life and culture – it pains me to see videogames used in this way.
He’s Just Not That into You (random PS2-era NBA game)
I hate how utterly unnecessary the emphasis is in this title. What is the world coming to when the name of a film tries to dictate how to enunciate its name!? If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch something better like Apocalypse Now. Anyway, things are slightly different in this film versus Going the Distance. In that film, we saw how Erin was the proverbial top dog/baboon’s butt when it came to videogames.
In HJNTIY, the main character watches on helplessly at a party as her love interest enjoys playing some new-fangled electronic simulation of basketball – the 2012 edition, or something – with a rival young lady. As the love interest trades “game talk” with aforementioned rival who is TALL and BLONDE and FUN, the female protagonist watches on in despair. After all, the mysterious blonde girl is a player (pun-intended) and therefore too cool for your average romcom fan to identify with.
Happily this scene turns out to be of no consequence: the prospective female rival never re-appears and by the end of the film all the characters have seemingly forgotten the leggy blonde. However, this scene is oh-so cleverly evoked at the end. Notice the lack of videogames on display in the above screen grab. The central couple are now happily together, hosting a party – they are playing a board game in which participants name abbreviations (no, really). The main man tests the crowd with a real headscratcher: “What is LOL?”, he asks. “Laugh out loud!” comes the immediate lapdog response from his new squeeze. Nerd credentials proven – yes, seriously, that is how this film presents this moment – the film can safely end in the knowledge that the main character is the ideal blend of cool/nerdy enough to get the guy.
The fact that it’s in the context of a board game suggests that while gamer girls are great for flings, board game girls are for life – the kind of girl you’d take home to your mother, as they say. Notice too the high number of people involved here: real relationships aren’t about two-player split screen in annualised sports videogames. They’re about the wholesome group activities popular from days of yore.
Eagle Vs Shark (Fight Man)
This is, without doubt, the best representation of entering an awkwardly long name in an imaginary fighting game ever since Milhouse registered his name as “THRILLHO” in BoneStorm on The Simpsons. And Eagle Vs Shark has plenty more besides that – an invented Mortal Kombat style fighter with digitised actors and lame fatality-esque finishing moves. The perfect place for romance to blossom as it does here, in a fit of virtual mutilation and destruction.
I really like Eagle Vs Shark. It’s a true nerd’s romcom, and a wonderfully accurate representation of adults that never grow out of that awkward, teenage phase. The dated presentation of the generic Fight Man (bear in mind this film came out in 2007!) fits the characters to a tee. Videogames are used lovingly by the filmmakers to show the main characters as uncool outsiders. And so we’re back on familiar Big territory (hello 1988).
Arthouse/hipster sensibilities have always been part of Hollywood romcoms starting with Woody Allen, so it’s no wonder stuff like 500 Days of Summer is filled with visits to galleries and record shops. But as we’ve seen, videogames are emerging as our generation’s equivalent of shopping for vinyl. So get videogame literate if you’re looking for love, I guess. Or be stubborn and remain single forever. Ha. As always with these films, I can’t help but feel cynical about how love is presented more as a lifestyle than an event.