Sunday, January 13, 2013

Video Games in TV: Criminal Minds

"Some TV shows just don't get it." Part of a periodical series: Video Games in TV

In this season eight episode of Criminal Minds, "The Wheels on the Bus..." two gamer addicts abduct a bus full of high school students so they can reenact their favorite video game, Gods of Combat, after getting banned from online play. They strap 10 of their victims up with shock collars and bluetooth earpieces, divide them into teams, and send them out to kill each other one-against-one while the kidnappers watch and issue commands to their respective subordinates. 

Compared to other episodes I've watched, this episode of Criminal Minds actually doesn't offend me too much. It doesn't get very much overtly wrong and manages not to stereotype gamers as some kind of comically absurd caricature. There are just a few inconsistencies and hiccups that bother me, and these come more from a screenplay standpoint than a gaming standpoint. Continue reading for the rest of my breakdown.

After the opening teaser depicts two suspects wearing gas masks board a school bus, shoot the driver, and take the students hostage, the crew at the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit get to work investigating the case. With some conventional detective work, they track down the location of the school bus and find 14 of the missing students. From the students' eyewitness reports, they learn that the two suspects (referred to as "unsubs" within the show, short for "unknown subjects") took turns selecting a total of 10 students, strapped shock collars onto them, and took them to another location.

It's at this moment that the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place for detective Mantegna: hijacking a bus, gas masks, shock collars, picking teams. He says "this sounds a lot like Gods of Combat. [dramatic pause while everyone stares at him with confused looks on their faces, patiently waiting for him to elaborate] This is a video game." Mantegna reveals that he may have played the game once or twice, and explains the premise: apparently the point of the game is to hijack some method of transportation (such as a bus or subway car) to acquire hostages. The hostages get put onto teams, and the player then has to "destroy as many of your opponents as possible." 

Assorted screenshots from Gods of Combat

At this point the police chief (I presume) asks the BAU for details to make a statement to the public, and the BAU team goes into a long, well-choreographed monologue with different people butting in to complete sentences or supplement what someone else just said:
"Based on the unsubs' behavior at this point we believe they suffer from an extreme gaming addiction. They're avid gamers involved in the multi-user online first-person shooter game Gods of Combat. Like any addiction this took over their lives and became an obsession. We think this video game aggravated a pre-existing affinity for violence, then something blurred the line between fantasy violence and real violence. They've managed to de-personailze these kids as a way to rationalize their body count. Playing this game taught them to be methodical and dangerously strategic. 
The fact that they're mimicking specific and unique elements of this particular game will help us predict their behavior. They probably met online. We think these unsubs picked these particular kids because they displayed certain traits that matched the characters from the game. These kids are motivated and positive when the game goes the way that they want it to. On the other hand, if the game doesn't go as well, they will be the opposite -- blinded with utter rage."
It's really convenient that someone at the BAU happened to be familiar with Gods of Combat to be able to jump straight to the conclusion, without any investigation or fact-checking, that these kids are reenacting content from that particular game. It's so convenient you might even say it's implausible. But whatever. 

Notice that they specifically brand Gods of Combat as a first-person shooter, and that they acknowledge the video game likely didn't cause these kids to become violent psychopaths, but merely served as a catalyst for pre-existing dispositions. It's a fair, rational hypothesis that I can support because they're not attacking the actual game or video games in general -- they're putting the blame on the unsubs. 

The two unsubs playing Gods of Combat in their younger days. Notice how it says "Gods of Combat" in the lower right hand of the HUD. *eye roll*

Penelope calls the producers of Gods of Combat and reports to the team that the game has over six million players worldwide with 40,000 located in the DC area. With this newfound knowledge that they're dealing with gamers, Spencer asks if the unsubs are this violent in real life, if they'd see evidence of it in their gaming history. They consult the "Universal Online Gaming Code of Conduct" (they make it sound like a regulation enforced in all online games) meant to protect users against and punish perpetrators for threats, harassment, and bullying, hoping to narrow their search down to players who were banned from the game for their hostile, antisocial behavior.

Meanwhile, another one of the techies says "When I downloaded the TPF file I was able to extract the source code and generate an outpost based on blacklisted Hell Mod players." Someone else asks him to translate his techno-jargon into English, and he explains that "Mod levels are hacked modifications to the game. They were not part of the original game design. They're secret levels." For starters, modded levels aren't necessarily "hacked" into the game. Secondly, they say the mod levels aren't part of the original game design, and then immediately make it sound like they're hidden easter eggs. Thirdly, they make it sound like "Hell Mods" are a common thing in games by specifying "the Hell Mod in this game does so and so" when in fact there is no such thing as a universal standard for "hell mods" (whatever that may be) in gaming. 

With all of their detective work, the BAU agents are able to make an educated guess as to who their unsubs are and then use some more detective work to track the signal they're using for their "game." And what have the unsubs been doing all this time that the detectives are hard at work?

Apparently these two guys, who were obsessed with Gods of Combat, got banned from the game and tried to continue playing in real life rather than move on to a new game or start from scratch with new profiles (apparently they'd been playing the game for "thousands of hours, dating back to 2000 -- a hell of a long time for an online game to stay active). They've already established that Gods of Combat is a FPS, and yet the recreation these guys are doing has zero gameplay elements of a FPS -- they're playing it more like a god-sim or an RTS, watching their minions and issuing commands, trying to get their minion to kill the other "player's" minion.  

An unsub watching his minion's first-person head-cam

You'd think if the game were actually an FPS, and that these guys are indeed supposed to be reenacting it, they'd have guns in their hands and be navigating the abandoned factory to get in on the action themselves, like playing an FPS. Instead, this "gameplay" is more like something out of a Saw movie than any video game. Eventually, the one guy (call him "A") convinces his minion to kill the other guy's ("B") by threatening to bring her little brother into the "game." Having lost the first round, "B" summons his next minion -- a scared, weeping girl -- and one of the other students tries to take her place, at which point "A" goes in and shoots the girl dead. "B" is upset but makes no protest, and the "game" continues on as normal, when "B" should be raging at the other guy for cheating and getting a free kill. 

What I really don't understand is why the victims are actually playing along with these guys' mind games. I understand that they have the shock collars on, and maybe they'd be convinced to shoot their classmate to stop the excruciating pain, but the episode only shows them getting shocked once or twice at the beginning, and then never again, so I'm not convinced they were in any serious amount of pain. If I were in their shoes, and my kidnappers had deliberately guided me to a loaded gun, I'd try shooting the large, bulky device on the shock collar and then maybe shoot out the cameras, rather than immediately succumb to their little game. 

When the FBI finally shows up on the scene, they arrest "B," rescue the kids, and have to shoot "A" to put him down before he could kill someone else. As "B" is being taken into custody, he realizes "A" (whom it's been revealed was his brother, and that the two made a promise to always be together after their parents divorced, "us against the world") is dead and says in the most heartless, detached voice: "Guess I won." That line is totally inconsistent with what we know of these brothers' relationship and commitment to one another, and only goes to serve as a final reminder to the audience that "hey, we're dealing with deluded psychotic gamers!"

And that's "The Wheels on the Bus..." There was some pretty stupid stuff going on in this episode, but I wasn't offended by the way it chose to incorporate video games. The detectives weren't doing anything dumb like playing the game to figure out what the killers were going to do next and instead stuck to pretty logical and effective police work, while the gamers weren't making cliched comments about points or high scores or extra lives, or any other anachronistic references these episodes tend to make. I was just annoyed that their FPS reenactment wasn't actually a first-person shooter. 


  1. Finally got round to watching this episode last night and, as I am actually writing a thesis on gaming, I was a little surprised to hear them talk about a Universal Code of Conduct as a totally overarching thing when I had never heard of one. A little google later and I found this post. Love it. Made me laugh. Gotta love a little gamer rage at misrepresentations. I was raging at my hubby about it while we watched the show. Seems we have similar mind sets haha. Thanks for the post.