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From Tron to Jumanji: the greatest ever movies about video games

<span>Photograph: Walt Disney/Ronald Grant Archive</span>
Photograph: Walt Disney/Ronald Grant Archive

Tron

When most people think of movies about games, they immediately recall the astonishing light-cycle chase in Steven Lisberger’s visually daring film. With its underlying themes of dehumanisation and corporate greed in the digital era, Tron was more than an action romp with pretty effects and a cool arcade setting; a fact underlined by a committed lead performance from Jeff Bridges.

Free Guy

In this comedy action movie, Guy (Ryan Reynolds) discovers that not only is he living in a video game – one that bears a not insignificant resemblance to the lawless cities of Grand Theft Auto Online – but he’s not even a hero: he’s a non-player character. This realisation sets off a chain of high-octane events inside and outside the game, as a couple of its developers try to rescue it from a money-grubbing, unethical studio head.

Scott Pilgrim vs the World

Scott Pilgrim vs the world
A prism for understanding … Scott Pilgrim vs the world. Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

This beloved Edgar Wright comic-book action comedy is saturated in video game sound, imagery and style, and structured rather like a Street Fighter campaign, as Scott (Michael Cera) faces off against the seven evil exes of his girlfriend Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Video games are a prism through which Scott understands himself and the world; the same is true for the film’s diehard millennial fans.

The Wizard

Less a movie, more a 90-minute commercial for Nintendo, The Wizard follows doe-eyed geek Jimmy Woods (a young Fred Savage of The Wonder Years fame) as he takes a road trip across the US to compete in a gaming tournament. The finale, based around Super Mario Bros 3 – which was not quite out in the US at the time – was perhaps the most brazen piece of product placement in cinema history.

WarGames

Released at the tail end of the cold war, amid a surge of profound nuclear paranoia, WarGames introduced a generation of fledgling computer users to the concepts of hacking and artificial intelligence. Matthew Broderick’s listless nerd accesses the Norad military mainframe and nearly starts a third world war when the AI system decides to react. Have the words “Shall we play a game?” ever had more sinister connotations?

The Last Starfighter

The Last Starfighter
Feelgood entertainment … The Last Starfighter. Photograph: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy

In the ultimate gamer fantasy story, talented shoot-’em-up player Alex Rogan is recruited into an alien army when they observe him gaining the high score on the eponymous Starfighter arcade game. Yes, it’s essentially a story about the abduction and militarisation of a minor, but this was the 80s and, at the time, that counted as feelgood entertainment.

eXistenZ

Bringing his delightfully slimy blend of body horror to the emerging genre of existential VR thriller, David Cronenberg gathered a stellar cast including Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Eccleston into this imaginative tale of warring tech companies and rebellious game designers battling to dominate cyberspace as reality collapses. Along with Strange Days, Virtuosity and The Matrix it got us fearing virtual worlds two decades before most of us would ever experience one.

Wreck-It Ralph/Ralph Breaks the Internet

Perhaps we are cheating by grouping these two Disney animated films together, but bear with us: where the first Wreck-It Ralph game was a fairly straightforward appeal to the nostalgia of the gamer parent generation, with its arcade machines and cameos from Pac-Man and Q-Bert, the sequel develops that premise by showing how online gaming has become a dividing line between the older gamer generation (curmudgeonly Ralph) and their kids (represented by Sarah Silverman’s character) – or a way to unite them. Together, these films tell a story about how gaming has become cross-generational.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Following the intense rivalry between gamers Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell over who is the greatest ever Donkey Kong player, The King of Kong is a fascinating and often very funny documentary about obsession and ego that still resonates today.

Indie Game: The Movie

Phil Fish in Indie Game: The Movie.
Sensitive doc … Phil Fish in Indie Game: The Movie. Photograph: Everett Collection /Alamy

James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot’s quiet, sensitive documentary effectively documents the birth of the modern indie game development scene, chatting to stars of the era Phil Fish (Fez), Jonathan Blow (Braid) and others, as they consider the financial and emotional costs of making weird games in the early 21st century.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Not a film about playing games, but a film about making them, inspired by the wild west of the British 1980s dev scene. We follow young coding-wunderkind protagonist Sam (Fionn Whitehead) as he is consumed by the process of making his first video game. Naturally, as this is Black Mirror, things get weird – and the viewer gets to choose how the story plays out at various crossroads, bringing this movie closer to the interactivity of games themselves.

Second Skin

Second Skin, 2008
Groundbreaking … Second Skin. Photograph: Everett Collection, Inc./Alamy

Produced at the dawn of the massively-multiplayer role-playing game era, this absorbing and thoughtful documentary follows players of Everquest and World of Warcraft as they carve out new identities and relationships in these formative shared digital domains. A groundbreaking work of sociocultural anthropology.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Karen Gillan, Dwayne Johnson and Jack Black in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
Zapped into the landscape … Karen Gillan, Dwayne Johnson and Jack Black in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Photograph: Frank Masi/Sony Pictures

This 2017 reimagining of the mid-90s Robin Williams film swaps the magical board-game conceit for a video game, and uses the premise of players being zapped into the ludic landscape for plenty of decent laughs plus some sly commentary on gender roles in gaming culture. The cast commit to their roles, whether that’s Karen Gillan acclimatising to her Lara Croft persona or Jack Black’s absolute male body horror.