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The Top Five Documentaries About Video Games

Quickly: Name the most critically acclaimed video game movie of all time. If you thought of a movie based on an existing game like Hitman or Mortal Kombat, then you’re you’re wrong. The real winner is actually a documentary about two middle-aged dudes playing Donkey Kong. Video game docs open the door to the weird, wonderful and ridiculous world of gamers, and (unlike many fictional video game adaptations) usually end up striking a chord with critics and gamers alike. Here are the five best — finally, a list of video game movies I can actually recommend you watch.

5. Frag (2007)
Take the backroom dealings and corruption of Wall Street, then combine it with the fun of watching dudes play CounterStrike and you’ve got Frag, a warts-and-all examination of today’s pro gamers; guys with handles like “LoSt_CaUzE” and “Fatal1ty” who make serious cash just by being good at pounding controllers. But professional gaming isn’t all glitz and glamor: The doc delves into the internal politics, corruption, drugs and emotional toll the “job” entails. Granted, the movie occasionally dives into the unintentionally laughable — a fair few of the pro gamers are just plain unlikeable — but Frag is still a remarkably interesting, relevant look at the culture of people who are paid to play.

4. Into the Night With Jason Rohrer and Chris Crawford (2009)
This documentary tracks two of the most interesting game designers from different generations as they share food, philosophy and a healthy amount of cynicism regarding the current direction of games. In an industry otherwise populated with guys looking to put as many boobs and bullets on computer screens as possible, Crawford and Rohrer have tried — and frequently failed — to elevate the medium beyond mere child’s play. To hear them be completely, almost frighteningly honest with one another regarding how limited their own skills are in relation to the problems video games now face is as depressing as it is enlightening.

3. Second Skin (2008)
Millions of gamers play massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft, spending countless hours grinding for experience points and farming imaginary gold. Who are these people, and what compels them to give up their real lives for fake ones online? Second Skin delves into these questions in a surprisingly entertaining and not at all condescending way. It’d be easy to poke fun at WoW addicts as immature man-children living in their parents’ basements — and to be fair, a few of those do show up — but Second Skin is about examining the social effect, both good and bad, that games present for those who love them. People who love MMO’s will finally see an honest, reasonable portrayal of their favorite pastime, while people who don’t know what they are might just become interested. This one is about as good a doc for explaining why people like video games as I’ve yet seen.

2. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
Put this one at the top of your “Must Watch Now” list. Like, right now. Beyond functioning as an entertaining if somewhat shallow look into the world of professional retro gamers, The King of Kong tells a downright spectacular story about the rivalry between hot sauce baron Billy Mitchell and science teacher Steve Wiebe as they struggle for ownership of the highest Donkey Kong score ever.

As Mitchell waxes poetic about World War I and Wiebe’s wife bemoans her status as the “Queen of Donkey Kong,” we’re presented with a straightforward but remarkably effective and well paced good-versus-evil tale. Not to denigrate the other movies on this list, but The King of Kong is enjoyable because it’s a documentary that doesn’t feel like one; it’s got the heroes and villains and character arcs and conflict of a “real” Hollywood movie, only all the players are much more funny-looking.

1. Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade (2007)
But when it comes to video game docs, King of Kong is a little too Hollywood. Enter Chasing Ghosts, which unpretentiously explores the history and personalities behind the Twin Galaxies organization that tracks video game world records of all varieties. Many of the same people to appear in King of Kong show up here as well, albeit in a much different context: Where King of Kong often asked us to laugh at the fact that a bunch of middle-aged guys would still be interested in playing perfect games of Pac Man, Chasing Ghosts is legitimately interested in the arcade game culture that exploded in the ’80s and died two decades later. Ultimately, the movie is equal parts love letter and eulogy to a time when quarters and 8-bit enemies and really, really awkward hairstyles were the pinnacle of pop culture.

What are your favorite video game docs? Hit the comments.


Anthony Burch is the features editor for and the co-writer and director of the video series Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’? He recently completed Runner, his first art game.

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