Anyone who has ever played a video game has wondered if those skills would transfer to real life. Super Mario Bros. made us wonder if we could squeeze ourselves through sewer pipes to save a princess. Doom made us ponder if we could fight off hordes of demons and send them back to hell. The Oregon Trail made us look at any body of water and think, “Yeah, I could caulk it!” And now Hulu’s newest series, Future Man, is taking that idea to the next level with a story about a janitor with serious gaming skills who finds himself tasked with preventing the extinction of mankind by a deadly superhuman threat. It’s the latest in a proud tradition of gamers using their hobby to save the day. So on today’s episode of The Dan Cave, we’re look at gamers who, rather than press X to pay their respects, answered the call of duty and saved the world in TV and movies.
The Last Starfighter
It’s a tale as old as time: a kid living in a trailer park is absolutely aces at an arcade game called Starfighter, which turns out to be a secret recruitment tool in an actual interstellar war between the Rylan Star League and the Ko-Dan Empire. Long before we were hoping to get our Hogwarts letters, 1984’s The Last Starfighter had a generation of nerds wishing they could put their video gaming skills to good use to save the galaxy and, you know, eventually move to a faraway planet with a cool new partner. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Hey, this sounds a lot like Ernest Cline’s Armada,” then you’re not alone. If you’re thinking this sounds way better than Ernest Cline’s Armada, then you’re one billion percent right.
“Do you want to play a game?” Such is the question that a teenaged Matthew Broderick must answer in 1983’s War Games. Except in this case, he finds himself playing against a military supercomputer in a high stakes game called “Avoid Nuclear War at All Costs.” Of course, we ultimately learn that the only winning move is not to play, but something tells me we may get a look at the alternate ending IRL pretty soon unless someone deactivates Twitter’s servers.
Going back to watch 1982’s Tron feels wild given what we know about modern technology, but its story of an arcade owner/hacker who gets sucked into a digital world where he must compete in gladiatorial games and outwit an evil artificial intelligence holds up to this day. With light cycle racing and disc fighting, Tron set the standard for what we expect from all heroic gamers going forward. Plus it stars Jeff Bridges before he seemingly got all that peanut butter stuck in his mouth, where it has been for the last decade.
Imagine if instead of a generation of kids being raised on Xboxes to make lewd comments about my mother online, they were playing increasingly difficult tactical games to eventually defend humanity from an alien armada. Such was the mind-bending reveal behind Ender’s Game, a sci-fi story that made me treat every NPC I encounter with more dignity, lest there be a real, living, breathing person on the other end. Sure, the morality of it gets a little muddy, but the best sci-fi makes us stop and question what’s happening around us. And Ender’s Game definitely made me stop and question why I was stuck learning about gerunds when I could have been training in zero gravity tactical combat instead.
Sword Art Online
Image: Aniplex of America
If you die in the game, you die in real life. That was the central conceit of Sword Art Online, the 2012 anime series that followed 10,000 players who logged in to a virtual reality massively multiplayer online role-playing game only to find that they couldn’t log out. In order to save countless lives, two expert players—Kirito and Asuna—must join forces to beat the game and uncover the sinister secrets of the game’s twisted creator. Equal parts David Cronenberg and Ready Player One, Sword Art Online is incredibly addictive and will validate all those hours you spent grinding away in World of Warcraft to get that epic mount.
What are your favorite movies and TV shows about gamers? Let us know in the comments below!—
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Dan Casey is the senior editor of Nerdist and the author of books about Star Wars and the Avengers. Follow him on Twitter (@DanCasey).
Editor’s note: Today’s episode of The Dan Cave is sponsored by Hulu’s Future Man. All episodes are available now to stream on Hulu.com.