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JR, Starsky and Hutch, McGyver or Tony Micelli had nothing to do with video games. But times have changed a lot, and today, they are omnipresent in American TV series. To characterize a character, to divert its rules and its aesthetics or, even very often, to underline in a way a little touting the risks that this demonic medium poses to youth.

In American TV series, video games have become almost a regular activity. Product placement is one of the first explanations for its growing visibility. When the profile of fans of a series meets that of game enthusiasts, console manufacturers and publishers no longer hesitate to take out the chequebook so that their creations are visible. Invite our favourite sitcom heroes to the living room. The evolution is also generational: there is nothing very astonishing to perceive. At the turn of an episode of How I Met Your Mother, Barney and Marshall challenge each other on an Xbox 360.

What would have been surprising, given the age of the characters (a little under 30 at the start of the series, a little older today), is that ‘There is never any question of video games. However, all is not won on the road to respectability, and caricature visions remain numerous, particularly in detective series. Not to mention a few small formal mistakes that will always make the gamer jump.

So with those scenes, frequent, where someone, supposed to be playing, hammers the buttons of his controller unusually. Or images of make-believe games in which the point of view on the action (the hero is head-on, the sequence is cut out like a film) appear hardly compatible with an interactive experience. Some series writers don’t know what a video game looks like. But, there, we may be looking for the little beast.

Geek power

In recent years, geeks have taken over. Well, maybe not entirely done yet, but behind the scenes, they have moved to the periphery of particular series, then downright to the centre. And their passion for video games has followed the same path. Each teen series has its magnificent geek (s). In Newport Beach, this role falls to Seth Cohen. Gamer but also a fan of cinema, comics and indie rock, he is one of the most touching characters in the series. And a big fan of GTA or Dynasty Warriors – which, the proof is made of it, can bewitch the sensitive boys too. 

The Big Bang Theory takes things further, but from a comedic angle. From one episode to another, we can see his heroes playing world of Warcraft or Mario Kart Wii, to embark on a trio of a cover of a song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers on Rock Band, to challenge themselves at Wii Bowling or to congratulate themselves that the mother of one of them sent him his old Nintendo 64, which will allow him to resume the adventures of Mario where he left them in 1999. And when a burglary takes place in the apartment, the list of consoles and games missing that they draw up to a police officer seems endless.

GTA game

Chuck (which, like Newport Beach, is the work of Joss Schwartz) is another example of a genuinely geeky series. Its apparent playful fixation: Call of Duty 4 – with a bit of Black Ops, by the way, for an interrogation scene from Season 4. In Chuck Versus the First Date ( Spies Despite Everything, 2008), Morgan, the best friend of the hero torn between his life as a king of computer salesman and that of a secret agent since a precious database was implanted in his brain, establishes an unstoppable battle plan for a game of Modern Warfare.


Chuck will be inspired by it to get out of a bad situation. More than the idea that video games teach us valuable things in real life, it is the reciprocal contamination of reality and fun, their fusion in a shared imagination, that is exalted here with a good dose of irony. That, perhaps, was shown by the creators of Community when they decided to baptize Modern Warfare, the brilliant episode of season 1 (2010) in which a paintball competition degenerates at the university.

The same sitcom will go again in its season 3 with the episode Digital Estate Planning crammed with video game references ( Zelda, Mario, Mega Man…) And taking place almost entirely in a multiplayer RPG with an 8-bit-16-bit aesthetic in which the characters steer their pixelated doubles.

But gamers aren’t just new stars. Sometimes they also turn out to be real heroes. Timothy McGee, aka “King of the Elves” in his favourite MMORPG, regularly shares his computer skills with the team in NCIS. A somewhat naive character, he will have the opportunity, in the Kill Screen episode ( Game Over, 2011), to meet one of his “fellows”: a queen of online games. “You hold practically all the records,” it gushes in front of the blonde Maxine.

The plot, based on a pirate program hidden in the code of the game Fear Tower 3 and intended to hack the Pentagon, will culminate in the infiltration of a building by Gibbs, head of NCIS, that McGee will guide thanks to the site plan with the false air of a Pac-Man painting that he scrutinizes on a giant screen.

The future, the past

When X-Files was interested in video games, it was not halfway. To write First Person Shooter ( Maitreya, 2000), producer Chris Carter, the director, called on William Gibson and Tom Maddox, masters of the SF cyberpunk novel. Coming to investigate the death of a player in the midst of testing a virtual reality game (equipped with glasses and moving “for real”, the player believes he is evolving in another world) under development, Mulder is there. Sucked in by the game – his very body is gone.

Fortunately, Scully will come to his aid and, after a few exchanges of gunfire (including against a tank in a western village), the FBI agents will be able to return to their real-life not without having unravelled the mystery of the apparition in the game of a seductive slayer who had nothing to do with it. Suppose he allows himself a few borrowings from the imagery and logic of video games.

In that case, the episode is entertaining to confront Mulder and Scully with the problems of matrix released in theatres the year before and inspired by Gibson’s novels. This astonishing First Person Shooter also has a “historical” interest: what it stages is the future of video games as one could imagine it in the year 2000 – or, to be honest, can. – rather be a little earlier.

In the series, however, the video game is sometimes something that comes back from the past to caress the nostalgic fibre (and awaken old obsessions) in the thirty-something characters. Friends and Seinfeld have both tried it and, oddly enough, the same accessory: the 1980s arcade machine. For Friends, it’s Ms Pac-Man who suddenly appears in the middle of Chandler’s living room and Monica in a season 12 episode, The One Where Joey Dates Rachel ( The One Who Spent An Evening With Rachel, 2002). And if the surprise was intended for the young woman whose favourite game was once, Chandler will be the one to excel at it.


After eight hours of Ms Pac-Manand, at the cost of a disturbing clenching of his hands, he replaces all the names on the scoreboard with a fine collection of rudeness. That we absolutely must make disappear before the arrival in the apartment of Ross’s son. And since the leaderboard does not go away when you unplug the terminal, the only solution is to beat Chandler’s records enough times – the story’s downfall, which will not reveal here, is quite stinging.

It is strangely with a similar problem that George Costanza finds himself confronted in the ninth and final season of Seinfeld ( The Frogger, La Grenouille, 1998). Except that the goal is precisely the opposite: to preserve the traces of the past exploits of said George on Frogger whereas he has just, many years later, found and bought the terminal on which he had spent so much time.

How to move it without risking making disappear its initials which still occupy the first place of the classification? A battery system – because, here, unplugging the machine could be fatal – if used for a result, Seinfeldobliges, obviously catastrophic. But it is above all the sequence showing an attempt to cross the street by pushing the terminal that will remember. Aerial view, colourful cars, jerky movements and a recognizable soundtrack: the very neurotic George has become Frogger’s frog. The video game becomes a formal model in addition to a scenario spring. “Game over” will be Jerry Seinfeld’s last words.

Deviations and decadence

The practice of video games is often a sign of a deviation from social norms in a comic or dramatic register. How to interpret the fact that, in Weeds, the mother, who is also a weed dealer, occasionally spends time on her Nintendo DS in season 1 of the series, then on PS2 in the next? Could this be a symptom of his difficulty in fulfilling his supposed role? In My Uncle Charlie, the consoles also make regular appearances and, if it’s young Jake who appreciates them (even eating his morning cereal without his hands so as not to let go of his laptop), shouldn’t we also link with the immaturity of his alcoholic and erotomaniac uncle?

In 30 Rock, in any case, things are clear. “At one time, my husband was playing Halo,” explained Tina Fey, screenwriter and leading actress of the series, to the IGN site in 2007. He brought in a whole bunch of writers from Saturday Night Live. They had this thing where they hooked up three or four TVs in my apartment, on trolley tables, and they played. And guess what happened? I had a baby. It stopped everything.

In the first season of 30 Rock, Halo 3 is the game that engages the boyfriend disgusting Liz Lemon (Tina Fey alias) in the evening when she comes home from work – it will sleep without interrupting its part. In the last episode of season 5, Respawn (Funny normality, 2011) places Halo Reach. The TV show writers that are the centre of the series decide to start their vacation with a giant deathmatch. The first to be killed loses. Suddenly, all prefer to commit suicide and be reborn. The game never seems to end. The secret to never letting go: wear a diaper.


A high-level gamer uses the same not a very glorious little trick in season 11 of CSI: Las VegasHitting for the Cycle ( Quarté winner, 2011). It is the obese victim, follower of MMORPGs (except that on the screen, it would be rather a TPS) and electronic sports at home as in overheated nightclubs. It would be irresponsible to waste precious minutes on a wee break at his level. The hypothesis of death after a violent epileptic seizure caused by explosions of grenades on the screen will rule out: the origin of the drama lies in a banal story of female rivalry. A sick gamer is an object of desire – at least, new.

But there is more sordid. One of the worst player representations to date can find in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit season 12, at the start of the Bullseye episode ( Compromissions, 2010). “Leave us alone; we are at level 20!” “the overweight man and woman with questionable hygiene scream, sprawled in their respective armchairs, to the cops who have come to question them about their daughter, the victim of rape. The lovely couple has lost all touch with reality.

Moreover, at the mention of their child, it is the one they have in their favourite online game that the unworthy father thinks. For once, the writers do not turn out to be much more nuanced than the character they invented and whose, out of this grotesque scene, they did not know what to do. We will no longer hear about the monstrous couple throughout the episode.

To the hospital

Doctor Gregory House is. Also, it seems, a big fan of video games. As early as the third episode of the first season of his sarcastic medical adventures (Occam’s Razor, Find the Mistake, 2004), he can be seen playing Metroid Zero Mission on his GBA SP during his forced consultations. Sharing, he will lend the console to a patient.

Later in the same season, the King of Diagnosis will switch to the DS and Metroid Prime Hunters in the Mob Rules episode ( A Bulky Witness, 2005), even using it to test the reactions, thanks to its sound effects. Of a sick person who fell into a coma. Then, two seasons later, it will be the turn of a little autistic child to offer his PSP to the right doctor (Lines in the Sand, In the eyes, 2006).

House, who healed him, is the first person the child looks in the eye. Is giving up this console on which he remained clinging a symbol of his openness to the world? Or a sign that he recognized in House one of his fellows? In any case, video games are by no means presented as a fundamentally abnormal activity. Thus, in season 7, two doctors who have become roommates are happy to have a little game of FPS before going to bed.


And if, at the beginning of Dying Changes Everything ( Parle Avec Lui, 2008), we discover House in the middle of Ninja Gaiden II on an Xbox 360 apparently “stolen in paediatrics” and in the bedroom of an unconscious old man, it’s a sequence quite in line with those who presented it, earlier in the series, glued to a televised soap opera. The video game is certainly another sign of House’s eccentricity, but what first makes sense is that it is played at work and in hospitals.

Things are slightly different in the Epic Fail episode ( Like a Boss, 2009). This time, the patient is a developer whose new creation is due three months later. And whose representation, with virtual reality headset and movements for real (we roll on the ground struggling so much that the bat attack is realistic), tends to show that the idea that the series has of l The future of video games hasn’t changed much in the nearly ten years between Epic Fail and the First Person Shooter episode from X-Files.

By observing the gestures of the two doctors trying their hands at the game, we can note that the Wii has been there. The game is futuristic TPS, with an armoured monkey and a reptilian-headed humanoid as over armed heroes. Strangely, the movements of the characters’ lips in synthetic images adapt live to the players’ words – note to the actual developers: here is a track for the games of tomorrow.

But the most striking scene is the one where feverish, the sick game designer suddenly thinks himself immersed in his creation, the decorations of which “repaint” the hospital space like a “skin” that rests on reality. For him, the illusion turns out to be perfect, right down to the throwing of a goblet taken for a grenade. The effect is very successful and the benchmark, for once, in itself playful.

The GTA threat

But be careful not to forget it: video games are also terrible danger. What worse example for innocent youth than the infamous Grand Theft Auto? The series from Rockstar Games, in particular, gave ideas (short but powerful) to the writers of CSI: Miami. A bank robbery went wrong in the episode Urban Hellraisers ( Endgame, 2005). The police quickly discover that the criminals are recreating the sequences of a game inspired by the GTA but above who is given strange retro effects with attribution of points and level increases accompanied by sounds strangely reminiscent of the coins picked up by Mario.

All the clichés pass there, from the evil influence of video games approached in the most simplistic way possible (the criminal reproduces the violent scenes of the game at school) to the threat of addiction (after 70 hours of play without stopping, a boy died in front of his screen which kept repeating “You’re dead” to him). Too bad, because confronting investigators with a game in which they could find clues to upcoming crimes was not the least exciting storyline idea.

In New York: Special Victims Unit, too, GTA is wreaking havoc. Renamed Intensity in the episode Game ( Forbidden Game, 2005), the Rockstar game appears there is a very schematic form, essentially through a sequence in which the player runs over a prostitute in a car before killing her with kicks on the sidewalk and stealing his money. A scene that some have found exciting to reproduce in reality. “Many psychologists believe that there is a correlation between violent crime and violence in the media, especially in games,” said Dr Huang, the Special Victim Unit medical expert. 


“Games fill a void. (…) I don’t think that a game can push someone to commit murder”, he said later. The case is not simple, and it is the good surprise of this episode which, thanks in particular to the concept of the series which makes follow the police investigation and the trial, is less of the condemnation of the video game than of the debate, with an exchange of opposing points of view, on its possible effects. We talk about easter eggs.

It is suggested that there is a problem with children having access to games that are not intended for them. The editor seems a little cynical; an ex-programmer turned mod author seems abandoned. We discuss addiction at the helm, stressing that killing in a game and real life is not the same thing. And it doesn’t take long for the enemy to become the defence attorney who seeks to use video games’ lousy reputation to deny his clients’ responsibility. Not stupid, even if we can always quibble on the precise way the game is represented.

Susto virtual worlds

But GTA is just one of the excellent video game demons. The other is the online world, MMORPG or Second Lifestyle. In the Avatar (2007) episode of Special Victims Unit, the latter takes the transparent name of “The Other Universe”. It’s an apocalypse vision, a world where art students disguise themselves as prostitutes to sell their charms to perverted men glued to their screens.


In this sequence, we can see some of them waiting less and less patiently. opening a virtual strip club says a lot about their supposed personality. One of these young women is missing. Detectives will use her Avatar to track down the man who kidnapped her. And who will turn out to be a disgusted repeat offender at the sight of his first victim, miraculously found alive:

  • Time has passed.
  • She has gained a few wrinkles and is no longer the teenager he was.
  • He assures, “fallen in love”.

Whereas, in the virtual world, young girls do not age.

At CSI: ManhattanSecond Life appears in Down the Rabbit Hole ( Virtual Investigation, 2007), an episode of season 7. The corpse of a fan of cosplay has been found. His model: a star of the famous virtual universe. “We do not run great risk in saying that this woman lived by proxy through her avatar”, notes Mac Taylor, the boss of the New York forensic science, finely.


Of a very questionable realism – a fight of gladiators standing in front of a wall where the image is projected and the meeting of a rabbit character who knows where everyone is in the online world are pretty puzzling. The episode flirts with the big nonsense. Still, it avoids the pitiful condemnation of the virtual. Here is also the place where a seriously ill young man can finally be like everyone else—a space that is both romantic and frightening, and in any case, worthy of interest.

“Don’t underestimate the complexity of the online gaming world. “Addressed to Kate Reed by his assistant, Leo, who is himself an avid fan of World of Warcraft, the board will first medium taken seriously by the former lawyer became a mediator in the series Fairly Legal (aka Facing Kate ) in the episode Ultravinyl (2011).

It must say that the two guild leaders of a famous online game that are tearing each other apart are pretty special: they only want to negotiate by video conference and through their avatars, then agree to do it in the flesh and bone but considering to come armed and finally, at the time of the face-to-face, hardly pick up their smartphones. Kate will manage to reason with them by speaking their language, addressing them by their nicknames, ordering them to return to fight proudly in the game. Between the boy in his twenties and thirties, go you will take for a virtual clash the same evening. Back to serious matters, finally.

Testers and developers

But the video game does not belong only to those who play them. And TV series are also interested in those who give birth to them—starting with the developers in the FPS episode ( Playing is not killing, 2004) of the New York Criminal Section. The duo of programmers behind the game Blood Match, in which muscular barbarian warriors clash online, is in the crosshairs of the police after the death of a player. One of them, flirting with the stereotype of the nerd with glasses, is obsessed with his “new polygons” when the other, who has lost fifty pounds, especially wants to enjoy life.

They’ve taken different paths, are no longer in sync as before when their association was the secret to their success – it’s not out of the question that the writers thought of John Romero, John Carmack and the story from id Software. Between them, too, a woman, who separates them. Like Yoko Ono for the Beatles, a cop risks, emphasizing the analogy on which the episode is based: game developers, at least in their somewhat dated representation (before excessive industrialization and big budgets), are the rock stars today. And when they blur, it makes sparks.

The episode also dares a high-tech version of the alibi: to be replaced by a bot on an online game to make believe that one is very quietly at home in front of his computer at the time of the murder. Subtle.

In an episode of season 3 of CSI: Miami called Game Over ( Game, test and death, 2005), room for testers. The body of one of them was found in a wrecked car. His face will remind gamers of something because the interpreter of this unfortunate victim with a foot amputation is none other than Tony Hawk. It is on the activities of a studio specializing in skateboard simulations that the investigation will focus on, which will soon show that the video game industry is sometimes a ruthless universe.


The testers are jealous of each other. A programmer can spend 72 hours in front of his computer to fix bugs. The receptionist sends flowers to wives and girlfriends of overwhelmed studio workers – “I see them more often than they”, she assures. It is undoubtedly a little cartoonish but not necessarily frowned upon. The best idea for the episode is to use motion capture to “see” part of the murder scene.

Equipped with sensors, the unfortunate tester (Tony Hawk, therefore) was in the studio of mocap, where he had just recorded a few tricks when he was hit with a skate. Hence a bizarre video showing only the silhouette of the victim, equipped with markers, but not that of his attacker. Video game technologies are becoming a tool that the scientific police can use – at the level of Experts, it is a consecration.

The last word belongs to the Las Vegas variant of the same series. In the episode A Little Murder ( The Secret of the Mona Lisa, 2002), a man was killed following a dispute between burglars. The weapon is ZMover, whose “Z” printed on the corpse signs the crime. Despite its name reminiscent of the Xbox, it was immediately recognized. A cubic shape, a handle to grab hold of it and effectively strike the opponent: the GameCube is unmasked. The TV series will not budge: video games are deadly.


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