Perception Check: Stranger Things and Games on TV
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve become thoroughly addicted to the most recent Netflix original series Stranger Things. I love the healthy dose of 80s nostalgia the show provides. In addition to posters from prominent films of the era like The Evil Dead and The Thing, it also presents a strong central mystery combined with some loving homages to the work of Steven Spielberg. As a child of this era, I can get behind all of these things. But, while many people are talking about Stranger Things’ ode to 80s film, fewer people mention its debt to gaming. This is too bad, because while the film references are nice, they mainly serve as window dressing. Gaming, however, takes center stage, proving central to the plot of Stranger Things. That is truly remarkable.
It’s become a trope in popular culture for nerdy characters to eventually stand up to bullies and develop self-confidence. That’s a pretty classic character arc. Additionally, being geeky has slowly worked its way into the mainstream and no longer carries the stigma it once did. Despite this, for whatever reason games of all kinds remain on the margins and are singled out as extra dorky or downright dangerous. Think about it: when was that last time you saw a positive depiction of a game in a movie or on a TV show? Usually games are used to establish just how socially inept the characters are. They’re so obsessed with these fictional worlds that they can’t function properly in society. Typically, standing up to the bully and getting the girl near the end of a film or TV episode also means leaving games behind and more properly integrating with the rest of mainstream society.
Stranger Things, on the other hand, takes a different approach to its depiction of games and gamers. While games aren’t central to its plot, they do play a large role and, more importantly, they’re treated fairly. Tabletop games come into play almost right away when, after a short scene hinting at the titular stranger things at play in the show, it cuts directly to some of the main characters playing a game of what appears to be Dungeons & Dragons. It’s something straight out of E.T. (remember Elliott trying to play with his brother and friends at the beginning of the movie?) and gives us a great introduction to some of the show’s major players. We start to get a feel for who Mike, Lucas, and Dustin are as individuals through their interaction with the game. Importantly, the show also gives us just enough information about Will Byers in this scene to get us to care about him when he disappears. And it’s all centered on an RPG, which is great.
Unlike E.T., though, Stranger Things doesn’t immediately drop the D&D once the plot is in motion. It’s more than just a device to establish character and move on. Instead, Dungeons & Dragons and similar RPGs become central in building the show’s larger mythos. Important aspects of the world, such as the mirror/shadow world that becomes known as The Upside Down, are initially explained using the game and its source books. It’s a really cool way to effectively communicate information without explaining too much and ruining the mystery. We might not know what a Demogorgon is, but that opening scene with Mike and his friends lets us know that it’s pretty scary. So when Eleven refers to the otherwise unnamed monster that haunts the series as the Demogorgon, we know that it’s something to fear. Using games to explain things like this works really well for this type of show and I’m frankly surprised more movies and TV shows don’t use them in this way.
Even more than using D&D as an expository tool, though, I really like how Stranger Things portrays RPGs and their players in a positive light. Mike and his friends are nerds, sure, but they’re far from the anti-social gamers normally depicted in popular culture. In fact, the show pretty much points out that they’re all basically reflections of their D&D characters and how this is actually a positive thing. Each one has a role to play and contributes in his own way. The guys even decide to look for Will based on Will’s decision to help the party at his own personal cost in that opening scene. Even though we don’t see much of them playing D&D, that first scene echoes throughout the whole season. As their bonds of friendship are tested throughout their search for Will, the guys constantly refer back to the game, calling themselves “the party” and pointing to rules they made up about it, including one about shaking hands to make up after an argument. They know that they’re stronger together. They learned it from playing Dungeons & Dragons.
What we have here is pretty much the opposite of everything popular culture and all the hand-wringing has told us about games. In Stranger Things, games build friendships, create camaraderie, and teach us about working as a team. They don’t make us violent, anti-social loners. That’s why it’s so great that, at the very end of the season, we get a repeat of that first Dungeons & Dragons scene. Mike, Will, Lance and Dustin are all back together again. Order has been restored. They don’t need to leave games behind to become more mature. Games are what made them mature enough to make it through in the first place and help save their friend. Now the party is back together.