Hollywood feature films dominate virtually every discussion about video game movies. For better for or worse, it’s the high budget studio projects that attract all the attention with their flashy visuals and famous faces. But there’s a whole different type of movie that, arguably, represents the true culture of video game and gaming far better than Hollywood ever could: gaming documentaries. This list features the best video game documentaries you can watch right now.
Entries on this list differ greatly and focus on wide-ranging facets of gaming. There’s a critically acclaimed story of a lifelong competition, a tale of talented game makers succeeding against the odds and sparking a revolution. a contemplative exploration of the depths of addiction, a motivational flick about esports superstars and a trip down memory lane of arcade gaming. As different as these stories are, they all share a common thread. They all focus on their characters and through that manage to capture the humanity behind video games. Whether you’re looking for some video game themed entertainment for yourself or trying to introduce someone to your passion for gaming, you’d be hard pressed to find better video game documentaries than these. And if you need them, here are the best video game movies that (kinda) get games right.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
If you’re only going to watch one movie from this list, make it The King of Kong. Seth Gordon’s movie has all the makings of a great documentary. There’s a conflict centered on a long-standing high score in Donkey Kong. There’s tension, because the parties vying for the record aren’t too fond of each other. There’s passion, since no one is willing to spend years of their life mastering a video game without it. And then there is perhaps the most important ingredient: memorable characters, such as the likeable challenger Steve Wiebe, the father of competitive gaming Walter Day and the disgraced enfant terrible of the arcade era, Billy Mitchell. Sparks will fly.
Whether you see the lifelong quest for the perfect game of Donkey Kong as a waste of time or a noble striving for perfection, you shouldn’t miss this movie. And you don’t have to trust just us: The King of Kong garnered critical acclaim like no other video game movie that came before it. Or after, for that matter. Variety and Empire magazine included it in their lists of the Best Movies of 2007.
Watch it on: Amazon Prime Video
Indie Game: The Movie (2012)
Indie Game: The Movie features four game makers whose subsequent games gained them acclaim, fame and, in one case, notoriety. Jonathan Blow working on Braid, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes working on Super Meat Boy, and Phil Fish working on Fez invited a camera crew to accompany them on a road to create their games. Their paths to release (and success) are wildly different, perhaps best illustrated by the zen-like calm of Blow in contrast to Fish’s volatile persona. The four creators face unique, distinct obstacles, but the movie does a great job of highlighting the commonalities between them, such as passion, drive and the internal struggle every creative can relate to.
Indie Game: The Movie captures one of gaming’s turning points: the explosion in popularity of independent games. But it also helped in cementing it, back in 2012. The movie’s treatment of its subjects brings a wonderful humanity to the process of making a video game. It teaches us to associate names and faces with video games, which is something that years of swelling team sizes and development costs practically eradicated in the AAA game business. Indie Game: The Movie plays its part in ushering in the new era of video game personalities, sure, but it’s also a great little story about people taking huge risks in pursuit of their dreams.
Watch it on: Indie Game: The Movie
Second Skin (2008)
Every upcoming video game movie for 2018 and beyond
Second Skin focuses on seven people whose lives were changed by the advent of Massively Multiplayer Online video games. Among them are a couple brought together by their mutual love of EverQuest 2, a group of housemates struggling to juggle their everyday lives and raids in World of Warcraft, and a gamer who seemingly lost it all to video game addiction and set out to find help. The documentarians behind Second Skin argue that to truly understand the grip MMO games have on their players one has to experience their darkest corners.
Video games have changed a lot since the movie’s premiere in 2008, but Second Skin still remains as relevant as ever, because of its focus on people and not the games they play... and eventually fall victim to. Second Skin doesn’t attempt to explain what makes MMOs addictive: instead, the movie offers an intimate peak into real lives that blur too closely with virtual ones. The gaming world is very different today, but the issue of players getting hooked on games persists and, arguably, is now more evident than ever. Second Skin is far from a complete work on the sensitive subject, but it gets up close to it like no other movie.
Watch it on: Snag Films
Free to Play (2014)
Like the great sports documentary it is, Free to Play follows three international DOTA 2 players rising to the top through their hard work, dedication and natural predisposition. It also takes time to ponder the price of success at the highest level of competitive gaming and the phenomenon of esports as a whole. Not bad for a little movie made by Valve to capture and validate the popularity of DOTA 2.
It would be easy to discredit a movie made by Valve by calling it an advertisement for DOTA 2. It would also be wrong. If anything, Free to Play is an advertisement for a new form of spectator entertainment. And in four years since its release, the movie’s message only got stronger as esports grew bigger and more popular. If you want to celebrate or understand the phenomenon that, in few short years, moved professional gamers out of darkened basements and to the center stages of huge arenas, Free to Play is perhaps the best place to start.
Watch it on: Valve's YouTube Channel
Chasing Ghosts: Beyond The Arcade (2007)
If King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters leaves you wanting more, Chasing Ghosts is another great retro documentary about the charm of '80s arcade games. It was released around the same time as King of Kong and features some of the same characters (the ever-polarizing mullet aficionado Billy Mitchell and the paternal Walter Day) but, unlike the competing movie, Chasing Ghosts focuses entirely on the golden age of arcade gaming in the '80s.
The movie tells the story of Video Game World Championship games held in Iowa in 1982 through interviews with some of the tournament’s most talented and most colorful participants. It’s fair to say that pretty much every aspect of the competitive gaming scene has evolved in the three decades since. The games on display, the scope of the tournaments and the money involved in esports in 2018 would no doubt mesmerize the kids playing Pac-Man at the Twin Galaxies arcade back in 1982. But Chasing Ghosts makes a great argument that the most important thing about esports remains the same: it’s all about the players. As with any other sport, it’s the players, and not the games they play, that make us tune in to spectate and live vicariously through their successes.
Watch it on: Amazon Prime video