An Ode to an Empty Game Gear

This article is part of Film Week, Kill Screen’s week-long meditation on the intersection between film and videogames. Check out the other articles here. And, if you’re in NYC, grab tickets to our Film Fest at Two5Six on Friday, May 15th.


That poor, poor kid in Rumble in the Bronx. An overly cheery squirt whose defining feature is obliviousness. No idea that the diamonds are hidden in his wheelchair pillow. Unaware that it’s kind of off-putting to wiggle your eyebrows after calling your sister pretty. And to add insult to injury, his Sega Game Gear, the object that seems to bring him more joy than anything else in life, doesn’t have a game in it. He bounces in happiness, tapping buttons to what must be a blank screen.

The props department either didn’t know or didn’t care that Game Gears cannot be played without a game. This would not be an issue today, as Nintendo’s 3DS and PlayStation’s Vita have internal memory that can hold all kinds of escapism for a kid surrounded by gang wars and rampaging hovercrafts. But there it was, that Game Gear, a moment in time cemented, sending today’s audiences spiralling back to 1995 when Sega had a Game Gear and Jackie Chan movies advertised that he did his own stunts. Games are mapping a new generation’s chronology, and it’s being mapped intentionally, and unintentionally, in film.

Videogames in the ‘90s were used to illustrate the mystery of youth

It’s not the only technology that’s culturally evolved in front of the camera’s lens. Computer and online interfaces seemed to be a fantastical mystery to production staffs up until the early 2000s. Hacking a system like Nedry’s couldn’t be replicated until someone made a digital mock up of Jurassic Park’s network last year. It’s still a rare opportunity for film to document not only a medium as it establishes in the public perception, but as it evolves on its own. Seeing arcades as a standard backdrop for lonely renegade youths in Terminator and Donnie Darko. Seeing games as a source of other worldly terror in Nightmares and Brainscan. Countless short scenes of adolescents and permanent adolescents roasting in front of a PlayStation 2 until something else happens in the room. Obvious product placements of Sega hardware (I’ve heard that Sega was very proactive about this).

The Sega Game Gear had a pretty short career in Hollywood, but before retiring it also appeared in Airheads and served as an entire magical MacGuffin in Surf Ninjas. There was also a Surf Ninjas Game Gear game (who benefited most from that handshake is open to debate). For decades, these games have been props, but the entire arc leaves an interesting time stamp.

Pop culture is a tool in film— drops of The Doors and Chaplin are meant to excite the audiences that recognize them. I’m sure game fans are titillated by the sight of a Pokémon in an a non-Nintendo-made film, much as we are when when Biggie name-drops Sega Genesis. There are films about these time-stamps upfront.

Grosse Point Blank, a movie where John Cusack plays a smarmy assassin returning to his home town for a simultaneous hit and high school reunion, is threaded with ‘80s singles and references bounced against the then-contemporary ‘90s. A generation-specific yocal listens to grunge on a Walkman while playing a DOOM II arcade cabinet (which doesn’t exist) while a literally explosive gunfight occurs behind him. He, like Rumble in the Bronx’s spud, is oblivious, but intentionally done. “Ha,” snarks the movie, “kids these days!”

Video games in the ‘90s were used to illustrate the mystery of youth. The underground clubs from Hackers, where a variation of Wipeout is used to keep social hierarchies. There’s an

unbeaten 18th hole those misguided grunge-y slackers in Mr. Show can never seem to conquer.

But the ‘90s wasn’t without some soberingly normal manifestations. There’s a fairly long scene in Jon Favreau’s underdog comedy Swingers, where a gaggle of guys hang around playing NHL 94. They’re ordering food, swearing, joking. They even riff on the game franchise’s removal of fist fights, beating internet comment rhetoric to the punch by well over a decade. “I wish they still had fights in this game, so I could bitch slap Wayne (Gretzky),” says a pretty-eyed baby boy Vince Vaughn.

Games are mapping a new generation’s chronology

Those were the rarest of games on film. Grounded, uncelebratory, likely rooted by something the cast had done on break. As the people who play games become the people who make films, these moments become more regular. Reign Over Me, a film where Adam Sandler plays a 9/11 survivor, features Shadow of the Colossus, a connection that might ring truer to those familiar with the game and by no means a flimsy connection. In an interview, Jeremy Roush, an editor on the film, talked about how conscious the game’s use was, comparing the parallels between Colossus and the Twin Towers to the trauma management of his Vietnam vet father and the movie Aliens. We’d see a game similarly used as subtext in The Wrestler— an NES version of Rourke’s character from when he was a superstar— being played in a trailer on defunct AV gear. 

Many films use totems to dictate a timeline in at-times nauseating ways (a masterclass in this is the prologue to the god- awful 88 Minutes, where two women discuss Princess Diana’s death moments before dancing to the Backstreet Boys and getting murdered), and yet a story about a North American child of this latest generation must have video games or it would be inaccurate. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood has plenty of time stamps— specific pop culture annotations as well as smaller evocations, vibes of scenes from the last decade. The soundtrack can be a bit on-the-nose, but a purple Game Boy Advance, Halo and Dragon Ball Z posters on the wall—these feel sincere, completely. A pyramid of iconography that many can remember sitting around their own room, just like the Sega Genesis cartridges that likely littered Jon Favreau’s office.

Video games are part of the timeline now, just like music and comics and art and literature that have graced cinema with fewer misunderstandings. There’s still a generational gap, still a dark spot for some and a babbling marketing tool for others (the upcoming Pixels feels like the worst of both worlds). But it’s history now. We won’t see any game-less handhelds in the future. Mostly because modern ones have an internal memory, but also because the props department knows better this time. 


This article is part of Film Week, Kill Screen’s week-long meditation on the intersection between film and videogames. Check out the other articles here. And, if you’re in NYC, grab tickets to our Film Fest at Two5Six on Friday, May 15th.