06/08/2019

MMORPGs on TV: Dead Pixels

This past weekend I found out that there's a new-ish British television show about MMO players called "Dead Pixels". It first aired on Channel 4 this spring and was apparently successful enough that they already greenlit a second season. Since the first one is only six episodes long and available to watch online for free, I sat right down and went through all the available episodes on Sunday afternoon. I never understood why after the success of The Guild, nobody seemed to want to pick that idea up again and make it come to life somewhat more professionally, with a larger budget, to take it in front of a more mainstream audience.

One thing I immediately liked about Dead Pixels and which is probably my favourite aspect of the show is that it intersperses the actors doing their thing with animated bits showing their characters' actions in the fictional MMO "Kingdom Scrolls". One thing that always bugged me a little about the setup in The Guild was that all their avatars looked exactly like they did in real life, only with funny clothes on. Nobody practising a bit of wish-fulfilment or engaging in some experimentation? In Dead Pixels on the other hand, main character Meg plays an ugly hunchback in the game, and another character, Usman, plays a purple cat person. The animation is very simple and cartoony, but that doesn't detract from its charm.


The show is officially billed as a comedy, but the humour is... a mixed bag. There were some jokes that genuinely made me smile or even laugh, such as when Meg's co-worker Russell joins the game and the crew quickly gets exasperated with his wide-eyed sense of wonder and desire to have fun, or when Meg gets excited about watching a story cut-scene while Nicky is shown to be skipping through it all.

More often though, I simply found the jokes hugely cringe-worthy. For example in one episode, naive Russell invites a friend he made in game to his home without realising that said friend is only fourteen years old. The others joke that surely someone will call the police on him for being a child groomer - crass, but I could have lived with it as a one-off gag - but this then goes on and on, as in an increasingly unlikely sequence of events the awkwardness of the situation gets dialled up to eleven and the joke gets run into the ground. Apparently the show's creators are the same people who were responsible for Peep Show (for any British readers who might be familiar with that), so I guess I shouldn't have been entirely surprised, but I don't remember that show being quite so bad most of the time...

Anyway, I acknowledge that humour is entirely subjective, and other people might well find it hilarious throughout. At least many of the positive reviews I've come across said as much.

What ultimately left me feeling uncomfortable rather than satisfied by the end of the last episode though was the show's portrayal of gamers - which is ironic, considering that I also found an interview with the show's writer Jon Brown, in which it's stated that he wanted to demonstrate what gaming is really like and correct bad misconceptions about gamers. Unfortunately I fear that he may well have ended up doing the opposite: enforcing bad stereotypes.

Simply put, the show's main protagonist Meg is a massive asshole. (And to some extent her friend Nicky too.) I'm fine with characters having flaws and dark sides, but she genuinely just spends most of her time being horrible to people with little to no consequences, and that's a problem when we're supposed to be rooting for her. When Russell first joins the game, she and Nicky lure him into a cave where they club his character to death and steal all his stuff. She feels a little bit of remorse the next day, but this is quickly forgotten again as everyone immediately goes back to treating Russell like a nuisance.

Another episode starts with Meg stopping at a bus stop in real life to scream at a random woman for (in her eyes) looking like a fake gamer girl. She and Nicky also participate in a harassment campaign against an actor who is supposed to star in a Kingdom Scrolls movie and feel vindicated when he drops the role. In general, she keeps being horrible to Russell while also trying to use him for sex throughout. And so on and so forth...

There are moments where the characters show likeable traits and their humanity shines through in a good way, but unfortunately those are rare compared to all the bad stuff mentioned above. Mainly the show portrays gamers as angry, rude, socially inept, unable to differentiate between virtual and real world, and deeply cynical towards anyone who doesn't act like they do. Fortunately that is far removed from the reality of MMO gaming as I know it, but sadly a TV show like this is unlikely to do public perception of our geeky hobby any favours.

All that said, I'll still happily watch season two when it comes out (assuming I hear about it and actually remember to pay attention). The characters do show some growth throughout the series and I suppose one can hope that maybe in future episodes they'll actually become more likeable as a result. 

2 comments :

  1. I couldn't stand Peep Show but I've seen enough of it to know that all the negatives you're picking out from Dead Pixels are exactly why that show was so popular and successful - and influential. The underlying ethos of Peep Show, in my opinion, is that everyone is horrible, devious, untrustworthy and screwed up and that redemption is impossible so we should just get on with it. It's a very common worldview in the UK and a great source of recognition humor. I wouldn't expect much in the way of positive character growth - more likely anyone with any positivity or empathy or compassion will be ground down until they meet the abysmal standards of the rest.

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    1. I actually enjoyed Peep Show - for all the difficulty I had adjusting to the British sense of humour initially, this particular kind of "look at how horrible people are" entertainment is one we have in Austria as well.

      I just don't remember it being quite that bad, especially in the earlier episodes (though my memory might be deceiving me). Mark and Jeremy's vices were at least somewhat relatable, while Meg stopping to shout at random strangers just feels somewhat insane.

      Also, to me there's a big tonal difference between two "everymen" being portrayed as bad people and a show focusing specifically on a niche group, who are portrayed as weird to begin with, and highlighting their behaviour as particularly terrible.

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