How the Netflix Docuseries ‘High Score’ Is Reigniting Major Gaming Controversies

September 1, 2020

All gamers should check out the recently-released Netflix docuseries High Score. It offers a fun (if a bit fluffy) look at early gaming history. And even if you know a lot about the early days of gaming, you’re sure to learn some fascinating trivia.

However, High Score is likely to reignite some major controversies in the gaming community. These controversies range from the importance of representation all the way to who won the original console wars.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the major gaming controversies reignited by High Score.

Who is the real father of the modern game console?

Who do you think is the real father of the modern game console?

It’s easy to think of someone like Mario guru Shigeru Myamoto.  However, we wouldn’t have had the Nintendo Entertainment System without the Atari 2600. And we wouldn’t have the Atari without Jerry Lawson.

High Score helps to shine a light on Lawson, a man whose gaming reputation is typically overshadowed. But he is responsible for pioneering the first cartridge-based games for the failed system known as Channel F.

Because of that system’s failure, Lawson’s legacy is often hidden. But without his engineering breakthroughs, we may never have had home consoles that could play more than just built-in games.

Who really won the console wars?

What is the oldest debate in gaming? For many players, the original “console wars” are still a subject of much debate.

This refers to the initial rivalry between Nintendo and their upstart competitor Sega. For a while, the SNES and the Sega Genesis were very close in sales. And each company fought fiercely for the young gamer demographic.

In the fullness of time, Nintendo effectively won because Sega eventually imploded. But High Score ends its Sega-centric fourth episode “This is War” by implying that Sega had defeated Mario and the SNES in popularity in the 16-bit gaming era.

So, who really won that knockdown, drag-out fight between consoles? In my opinion, the jury is still out on that.

The importance of representation in gaming

In the wake of GamerGate, one of the big controversies in gaming centered on diversity and representation. Proponents of GamerGate often decried women and people of color in games as a sign of “forced diversity.” In their eyes, such representation somehow got in the way of the video game’s narrative.

However, High Score makes it clear that diversity and representation were an important component of games since the very beginning. In episode #1, Rebecca Heineman, a major game designer, discusses how much she loved Space Invaders because she could imagine a female pilot for the player’s ship instead of a male protagonist.

In episode #4, Gordon Bellamy, a major game programmer, discusses how awkward it often felt to be both black and gay. He saw video games as a great equalizer. That’s because the playing field was level regardless of someone’s race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.

Eventually, Bellamy became the primary force behind adding black characters to the Madden series, and he cited the importance of having serious representation onscreen.

Both Bellamy and Heineman made major contributions to the field of gaming. And they might never have done so if they weren’t motivated by representation, diversity, and inclusiveness in games.

The controversy about women in gaming

Women in games and in gaming remains a weirdly hot topic. After all, much of the GamerGate controversy centered around incorrect accusations about game developer Zoe Quinn’s personal and professional relationships.

More recently, many players flipped their lids when they encountered Abby, a super-buff young female protagonist in The Last of Us Part II. Simply put, plenty of people had trouble wrapping their minds around Abby’s muscularity.

The undercurrent of these criticisms is simple: men pushing back against women in gaming, a space they traditionally saw as male. But High Score shows us that this was never really a tradition at all.

For example, in episode #1, we meet the team that transformed a Pac-Man upgrade into Ms. Pac-Man, a game whose female protagonist appealed to women. In episode #5, Street Fighter II designers discuss the importance of adding Chun-Li (a strong, female protagonist) as a way to lure in female gamers.

Long story short? The desire to bring women into gaming (and thus make more money from games) has been a part of the industry since the very beginning.

Did the failed E.T. game really lead to the downfall of Atari 2600?

Sometimes, High Score delves into incidents that border on mythology. And this includes the spectacular failure of the Atari 2600 E.T. game and the subsequent failure of the system itself.

In the show, they play up the rise and fall of Howard Scott Warshaw. He created the E.T. game in five weeks (in time for the holiday season) and even got director Steven Spielberg’s seal of approval. 

But as we all know, the E.T. game ended up being a huge flop. It preceded the death of the Atari, and countless copies ended up buried in the desert.

It all makes for a great story, and Warshaw himself has a kind of “aw, shucks” demeanor over his role in the death of a classic gaming system. However, the truth was that the video game crash of 1983 was a long time coming. Basically, players pushed back against subpar ports and disappointing games.

Even if the (admittedly terrible) E.T. game was the nail in the coffin, Atari was effectively buried in its grave before the game came out. 

Are video games too violent?

For the most part, High Score avoids moralizing or preaching at viewers. However, episode #5 “Fight!” broaches the controversy of video games and violence. It focuses on Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat.

The episode makes for a fascinating juxtaposition. We see old news clips of journalists criticizing the violence of Mortal Kombat along with series guru John Tobias and his confusion at the response. 

He considered Mortal Kombat so over-the-top and so clearly intended for older players that the “think of the children” furor around the country bewildered him.

While the games have changed, gaming in general still serves as a scapegoat for real-life incidents of violence and murder. And while the show seems to side with the “it’s just a game” attitude of Tobias, it’s clear that the debate between these two entrenched sides is far from over.

Have you watched High Score? What do you think is the biggest gaming controversy? Tell us in the comments below!

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