House of Cards is the best portrayal of videogames in mainstream entertainment


Netflix has made quite a splash with its House of Cards series, a $100 million swing at playing with the big boys. It’s pretty good, too. At least by the fourth episode, the characters are fun to watch and the writing is fairly snappy, (although I still think any political show should use Aaron Sorkin’s words, but that’s an argument for another time).

One of the biggest surprises of the show isn’t its success in creating a quality blockbuster series purely for digital distribution, but something much more subtle. House of Cards contains the most positive portrayal of videogames in mainstream entertainment.

From the very first moments of House of Cards we meet Frank Underwood. He’s a Democratic Congressman, the majority whip. It’s a powerful position, and Underwood is a powerful, serious man. He speaks clearly, decisively and knows exactly what he wants. And he’s not afraid to use deception and manipulation to get it. Through the first episode, we see him hatching a plan to get back at those who denied him a once-promised promotion to Secretary of State.

He’s a slightly older man, about 50 or so. He’s gained a little weight over the years, and he speaks with the slightest hint of a southern gentleman’s twang.

In one scene during the first episode, we see Underwood sitting on a couch, headphones strapped on. Light moves across his face, and in the background we hear bullets, screams and destruction. The camera turns, and we see Underwood is playing a videogame. He’s clearly capable, too, from the small glimpse shown to the audience. He’s making his way through a Call of Duty-type game. When his wife brushes him on the shoulder, asking when he’ll come to bed, she doesn’t seem surprised at this. It’s normal behavior.

This is fine enough, but a scene in the fourth episode cements House of Cards’ approach to vidoegames. Underwood visits the home of a junior congressman, with whom he’s begun some shady dealings. As he sits down on the couch, he spots a PS Vita. The conversation goes as follows:

Underwood: Is this a PS Vita?

Peter: Yeah.

Underwood: What games does he have? [Underwood is referring to the congressman's son]. 

Peter: I don’t know, all of them.

Underwood: I have a video game console at home, I play sometimes to relax. I was thinking of getting one of these for the car. [Paraphrase].

Then, as quickly as the conversation started, Underwood turns back to Russo and brings up an unrelated topic. It’s as if a grown man playing videogames is actually a normal thing that no one would find out of the ordinary.  It’s jarring. We’re so used to seeing videogames placed in the hands of kids, or teenagers, or grown men who are portrayed as unable to live in the real world. Think Joey and Chandler in Friends, or the guys in How I Met Your Mother. When they play a videogame, it’s unrealistic, too. They move their hands in a way anyone who’s played a videogame would know is just acting. It’s not real.

So why does House of Cards, a show about political deception and the temptations of power, spend its time showing us how Underwood enjoys playing videogames?

It’s a question I’ve been pondering over the past several days. To be fair, I haven’t seen the entire series yet, I’m only up to episode five, but the use of videogames seems to be either one of two things. Either David Fincher is trying to portray Underwood as a manchild, a portrayal that would be directly contradicted by his expertise in twisting reality to his will.

The second possibility seems, to me at least, more plausible. Videogames aren’t just used as a narrative tool, but more games in general. In one scene in episode five, we see Underwood move a Chess piece while talking to a colleague. An obvious ploy, but forms part of what seems to be a commentary about games in general.

Because of this, it seems Fincher isn’t trying to portray Underwood as a child in disguise, but something else entirely. But what? And why? There seems to be no explicit purpose so far. Perhaps it’s his way of suggesting Underwood is simply more in touch with the world around him than any of his colleagues. Washington is about connections and power. What are videogames if not the ultimate expression of your own power in an entire world? Perhaps Fincher is trying to draw a parallel between Underwood’s control over every aspect of his life, whether that be in reality or anything digital. He’s so hungry for domination he craves and seeks it from every crevasse. Even as he tries to relax, he can’t help but be attracted to positions of power.

Maybe. Maybe that’s just crap. But so far, at least, House of Cards has shown a grown man playing videogames, and for once, it didn’t pass judgment.