“Boyhood” Is The First Movie To Ever Get Video Games Totally Right

Richard Linklater’s 12-year epic reminds us how games measure time.

Last night I saw Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s new film, and like everyone else I know who’s been, I was deeply moved by it. By now, you likely know about the movie’s much-discussed making: Linklater filmed Boyhood over the course of 12 years, using the same central cast the entire time, and incorporated details from their lives into the script. You also probably know that the movie has no conventional plot. That’s not to say that nothing happens — rather that it is nearly impossible to separate the movie’s story from its structure. The fascination of the film doesn’t come from a series of conflicts contrived in order to be resolved, but from the hundreds of changes, large and small, we witness during its nearly three-hour running time. It’s a lot to take in, and I think that’s why people are going to see it several times.

I got home from the theater at midnight, and though I ought to have been tired, I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake, sifting through little treasures from the movie like Mason, Boyhood’s main character, turns over the arrowheads he’s sieved out of riverbank sediment. All I’d done was sit in a movie for three hours, but I felt exhilarated: My brain was doing…something! And I don’t think I was alone. In this week’s New Yorker, Anthony Lane writes that the great accomplishment of Boyhood is to present the viewer with a wealth of close observation and ask him or her to savor those that feel truest to life:

The profuse pleasures of “Boyhood” spring not from amazement but from recognition—from saying, Yes, that’s true, and that feels right, or that’s how it was for me, too.

Of all the small truths in Boyhood, the ones that I kept coming back to were the ones about gaming. When I write about video games, I try to focus on how actual people — not obsessives — interact with and make meaning out of the medium. For that reason alone (and because I have played games ever since my sister stuck an NES controller in my grubby 5-year-old hands), Boyhood, with its quasi-documentary feel, brims with significance. In the first half of the movie, Linklater’s camera pays consistent, and nonjudgmental, attention to the games Mason plays. Right away we see Mason wailing away on a Gameboy Advance, in its iconic clamshell iteration. Soon after, a teacher struggles to pull Mason away from The Oregon Trail on a school computer. Then comes (incongruously?) a Tamagotchi, an Xbox (with Halo), and Wii Sports.

Considered purely as a time capsule, these references are fascinating (as is, perhaps less pleasurably, our sense that technology throughout the movie increasingly encroaches on the characters’ lives). They’re also, with the distance of time, funny. But the way Boyhood presents games, changing and becoming more sophisticated alongside Mason, asks us to consider not just the way time measures games, but the way games measure time. That’s an unexplored relationship, and I think it’s fairly profound. Gamers, especially kid gamers, use games to mark and organize their lives. Ask anyone who grew up with games, and they’ll remember what was going on in their lives when they owned a given system or when they played a specific game. It’s not a coincidence, I don’t think, that gamers focus so specifically on the concept of the console “generation”: 8-bit, 16-bit, 32-bit, and so on. As much as birthdays and presidents, eras in gaming are rings on the tree of my generation.

But the way Boyhood treats Mason’s game life goes deeper than mile-marking. In several scenes, we see Mason playing games in the midst of extraordinary emotional upheaval. Right after Mason’s mother marries for the second time, blending two families, Mason and his new stepbrother play split-screen Halo on the original Xbox. It’s a bonding activity, sure, but its also a competition, a fight, and a socially acceptable one at that. Later, immediately after Mason’s mother leaves the same man for physically abusing her, we see Mason absorbed in a motion-controlled game of Wii Sports Boxing, literally punching the air. The suggestion in each case is that games are a safe place for children to re-enact, and perhaps come to terms with, the emotional and physical trauma they see in their lives. Games are often figured as a way for children to avoid reality, or worse, an echo chamber of aggression. Far from depicting games as a way children escape from the pain of life, Boyhood shows games as a method for children to deal with and make sense of it.

What’s even more impressive than the sophistication with which Boyhood treats games is that this nuance happens in a movie at all. While the broader culture will generally pay lip service to the notion of games as a worthwhile medium, most movies — perhaps to reassure themselves of their own seriousness — treat gaming as a shorthand for regression/a lack of ambition, or as the illicit pastime of the irredeemably nerdy. Think of Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen calling each other gay while playing Mortal Kombat in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

To be sure, I don’t think Richard Linklater set out to say anything in particular about games when he made Boyhood. I think he set out to make a very closely observed, very patient, very naturalistic film about 21st-century American childhood, and that the process yielded the smartest and truest portrayal of the way humans make meaning out of games ever put to non-documentary film. Linklater’s method may be unique, but his guiding principle is ancient: If you rigorously observe and listen in good faith to human beings, they will make the reasons for their behavior clear, and that revelation will feel electric. That’s the promise of fiction, that shiver of recognition.

And that’s what happens in Boyhood. Finally, we have a movie about a human who plays games that listens instead of talking, that watches instead of judging. Finally, we have a movie in which people who play games will see themselves and say, That’s true, that feels right, that is how it was for me, too.

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