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How 'House of Cards' broke new ground for video games in pop culture

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Netflix

When history looks back on pop culture, House of Cards will be remembered for the quiet way it gave us the first US President who played video games on television. Sure, the show will also be remembered as some sort of game changer for how we consume serial narratives, but that’s small potatoes. Inventing new paradigms for entertainment consumption? Easy peasy. Standing in opposition to longstanding cultural stereotypes about video games? That’s some ballsy stuff. 

Granted, Frank Underwood doesn’t game as much as he used to—ever since he became Vice President in season 2, he was forced to stash his console and give up shooters—but season 3 makes it clear that video games are still very much on his mind. 

Frank’s sole pastime makes its first season 3 appearance in the fifth episode. Late one night, the President lays down with his iPad and starts playing a game. It’s called Monument Valley, although viewers who’ve never played it firsthand wouldn’t know this until later, when Underwood asks his staff if they’ve ever played it.

But seeing it mentioned like that still feels strange, yes? Much like it did when, in Cards’ second episode, Frank picked up a PlayStation controller and started playing a military shooter?

According to the latest statistics, this shouldn’t be strange at all. Video games are now played by men and women of all ages—but they’re often still relegated to a narrow stereotype in movies and television, the domain of basement-dwelling youths and emotionally stunted adults. 

For all of its tendency to play hilariously fast and loose with its ideas about politics, House of Cards may have given us one of the most accurate portrayals of video games as a part of adult life. That Frank is a fan of online shooters makes perfect sense—they require little investment, rely heavily on muscle memory, and are equally satisfying over a few minutes or a few hours. As intimidating and overwhelming as they may seem to newcomers, once you’ve learned your way around a shooter, it’s not hard to relax with one. 

There’s one more video game scene in House of Cards‘ third season. It’s in the seventh episode—Frank and video game reviewer/novelist/presidential biographer Thomas Yates are up late having drinks, and Thomas made Frank check out another game: The Stanley Parable. The Stanley Parable isn’t your usual game—it’s more of an interactive story experience; a meditation on the rigidity of video game rules. Underwood is frustrated by it, and he’s supposed to be. 

The sort of experience a person can have in playing The Stanley Parable, or something like it, is a relatively new sort of pop culture experience. Although we play them solo, games demand to be shared, shown, debated over drinks. In the White House or in your living room.