One standout detail about House of Cards protagonist Frank Underwood is that he’s an avid gamer. While it’s not a focus of the plot, he’s occasionally shown engrossed in everything from Call of Duty to God of War, zoning out as he blasts terrorists or slaughters mythical beasts. There’s no plot beat about him lobbying Sony or trying to elicit fundraising support from Microsoft. He simply happens to enjoy something that tens of millions of people do. Based on those numbers alone, there’s no reason for this to be unique or interesting. He’s just another in a long line of people with PlayStations.
But it does stand out. It stands out because he’s not a gamer. He’s a responsible, shrewd, and handsome older man. He’s got a job, a wife, a house, and power. He should be playing squash or racquetball, making deals on fairway while a young kid in funny pants hands him a 9 iron.
He’s not a zit-faced kit who’s getting shoved in a locker, a twitchy guy with the cold look of a killer in waiting, or any of the other widely used stereotypes of a gamer. But by casually avoiding these and making gaming just another facet of his complex character, Frank Underwood might just be the most realistic vision of a “gamer” we’ve got.
Videogames carry with themselves an undeniable stigma of basements, soft drinks, violence, and stunted adulthood. It’s something that’s been reinforced by countless overweight bearded men and scrawny teenagers cast against gunfire and flickering screens, people who’ve thrown their lives away in the pursuit of virtual victory. The image is so pervasive, even the medium itself subscribes to it, with characters like Jimmy De Santa from Grand Theft Auto V having their gaming habit directly connected to their general inability to grow up.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that there’s far more to videogames than that. I don’t need to go over the myriad ways videogames can affect us – from teaching us about history to letting us come together to slay dragons – that go beyond the escapism and antisocial behavior often cast alongside Xboxes and Gameboys.
There are parents who play games with their kids, couples who run World of Warcraft guilds together, teachers and students who bond over the power of Super Smash Brothers, and even grandmothers with backlogs that put mine to shame. To be a “gamer” is to be one of a rich tapestry of people who defy definition and stereotype, just as watching a movie doesn’t make you a cinephile or viewing a painting a black turtleneck clad artiste. It’s just a hobby, nothing more and nothing less.
Where the truth of Underwood’s experience as a “gamer” comes to light during the first season is during the sixth episode, when Clare meets Peter Russo at the fundraiser and invites him over to their house for dinner with his family. Russo mentions that Frank and Kevin, his son, could talk games. Clare, taken aback, confesses that Frank normally keeps his illicit habit a secret for fear of the stigma it carries despite the casual way he mentions it to Peter during an otherwise tense scene.
It’s a familiar story to anyone whose interest in games goes beyond passing curiosity or Wii Sports. People at work or a party, seeking benign small talk, ask if you’ve got any hobbies. You know that you’ve got a raid the next day or that there’s map pack dropping in a few weeks that you’ve already pre-ordered, but to risk saying that to someone…
There’s a danger there. You may not have as much at stake as a Congressman who’s begging for donations or playing a modern-day Game of Thrones, but you’re just as likely to have the same negative stereotypes superimposed upon you. “Call of Duty? My…uhh…nephew plays that all the time. Yeah, he’s in middle school. He’s really good at it, I guess.”
Frank doesn’t evangelize gaming, nor does he try and grant it an over-wrought sense of legitimacy or artistic weight. He simply plays videogames. Like many of us, he’s got a house, a spouse, a job, and other hobbies. He doesn’t cancel meetings to kill dragons, nor does he pound Mountain Dew with reckless abandon. He’s simply a guy with a dark secret, one that we all share: he unwinds with a controller in his hands.