In season three of the Netflix series House of Cards, President Frank Underwood (played superbly by Kevin Spacey) reads a review of a game. The strength of the review compels Underwood to buy the game, which in turn makes him think that if someone can be so persuasive in their writing to compel them to buy a game, then perhaps that writer could be great enough to write a memoir to help sell a difficult piece of legislation that the President is trying to push through Congress. The game in question is Monument Valley.
At surface level, Monument Valley is about quite simply that – a valley full of monuments and one person’s goal to navigate through them and reach the top. On surface level, that is exactly what Washington is all about. A city of political monuments – the Washington monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial, and most prominently of all, the greatest monument of politics in America, the White House.
It’s the review he reads about the lonely dunce-capped person in Monument Valley that makes Underwood realise that he is reading about himself. It’s no wonder that the producers of House of Cards decided to use Monument Valley as an analogy for Frank Underwood’s rise to the role of Presidency. Through the real-life Escher world of Washington, which is full of misleading paths through Congress that double back on themselves or end on a precipice of nothing, Frank Underwood carefully manipulates and deceives his way to the top. A perfect game to create a perfect analogy.
This is not the first time that House of Cards has shown the President of the free world playing video games. In fact, in season two when Frank Underwood becomes the Vice President of America, one of his first questions is whether he can keep his Playstation 3 for online play. Another scene at a later stage has him discuss the Playstation Vita. Now, the usual cynical side of me would say “oh this is product placement gone too far!” but in fact it’s quite the opposite. The writers behind House of Cards have managed to work in the fact that the President is a gamer into the series quite well.
The reason they’ve managed to do this is because of the desire to create a modern analogy. It’s all well and good to have a President who reads Tolstoy, who quotes Yates, who listens to Bob Dylan, and so on, but we’ve seen that many times before and it eventually becomes tired and uninteresting. However, throw in an analogy with video games and that’s something new and fresh. Some of the viewers of House of Cards may have no idea what Monument Valley is, but those that do have the added benefit of having a deeper understanding into what the writers were trying to achieve.
Take season one, for example, where Underwood sits down after a long day of trying to manipulate and conquer Congress to play God of War: Ascension. At that point in the series, he is the whip for the government – the man who goes around and tries to organise parliament to vote on certain actions. He is the Grand Manipulator. He is the decider of fates. During season one, he is plotting his steps to becoming the Vice President, quite literally becoming the God of War, ascending to the top. It’s an analogy in title alone, but the analogy is there and it’s well used.
Later he is seen playing Killzone 3. Here, the analogy is even more wonderfully enforced, as by this stage Underwood himself has quite simply turned into a murderer. Again, one could call this blatant product placement, but it’s to the writers credit that the product placement works to aid the story, rather than being a short one-minute ad for a Sony product.
There is one more wonderful analogy that House of Cards has implemented, which I’ll get to a bit later on, but for now let’s explore some other films and TV shows that have used video games as an analogy and why it’s important that this is happening.
For too long, video games have been displayed in films and television as being something that teen boys play in their bedroom in the dark. Usually they’re playing a shooter, mindlessly mowing down harmless people ala the ‘No Russian’ stage in Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2. Alternatively, shooters have been used to demonstrate a possible trigger for post-traumatic stress in war veterans. Both aren’t entirely incorrect presentations of video games, but they certainly are often displayed as negative. It’s important that games are presented in relatable ways in both film and television so that the negative stigma that still sometimes hangs over games can be lifted.
Take Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children, for example. In one of the character arcs, a recently divorced dad becomes concerned about his sons addiction to World of Warcraft. For a moment, it looks like the dad will take interest in his son’s hobby when he sits down to play a round in an effort to find out what occupies his son’s time. Instead, what he discovers is his son’s online friends throwing around slurs and abuse about his mum. It’s one step forward, two steps backwards. Yes, online abuse does exist in video games and it’s definitely an issue that should be discussed. However, the social aspects of gaming that help with grief could also have been explored, with the son using World of Warcraft as an avenue to deal with the divorce of his parents.
A different Adam Sandler film throws up quite possibly the best use of a video game as an analogy in the greatly underappreciated Reign Over Me. Sandler’s character Charlie lost his wife and child in the September 11 attacks, and lives with that pain every day. Eventually becoming reclusive, Charlie finds some kind of solace in playing Shadows of the Colossus. Here, each downed colossi is seen as another barrier being broken down on the road to Charlie’s recovery. It’s a powerful use of a video game to enforce the mood and theme of the film, whilst also being a wonderful metaphor.
Finally, we return to House of Cards with their superb use of The Stanley Parable. Frank Underwood and the reviewer he’s hired sit down to play the game. Confounded by it, Underwood asks, “what is the point?” To which his reviewer friend replies, “that is the point.” After getting kicked back to the start, Underwood asks what happens if he follows the rules? “Chaos ensues, randomness” the reviewer says. Again, a wonderful analogy for the role of President of the United States – if he follows the rules then chaos reigns, if he goes off script then he’s kicked back to the start again never getting anywhere.
After all of this though, why is it important for video games to be shown in this light? Isn’t it enough that we, as gamers, enjoy them and love them for what they are? Who really cares if Adam Sandler plays Shadow of the Colossus in a film? Just like literature or music is used in films and television to emphasise a point, create an analogy, or simply provide a mood for a piece, video games can do that just as well. For years, the social stigma against video games was that they cause massacres (thanks to Grand Theft Auto) or cause kids to rack up massive bills on their parents credit cards (thanks to Candy Crush Saga). Ideally, the integration of games into films and television in these ways will help bring the world of video games that one step closer to being recognised as meaningful works of art.