‘The Gamechangers’ Changes Nothing But the Actual Events

The biased The Gamechangers, a behind-the scenes docudrama of the creation of Grand Theft Auto, only reinforces game/gamer stereotypes.

Constructed from court documents and interviews with unnamed persons, the BBC’s new factual drama, The Gamechangers professes to go behind the scenes of the development and controversial release of the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It follows the British game designers — Rockstar Games, led by a passionate and bearded Sam Houser (Daniel Radcliffe) — as they battle with the equally determined figure of Christian lawyer, Jack Thompson (Bill Paxton) in the early ’00s.

The Gamechangers is a part of the BBC’s Make It Digital season, which is elsewhere described as ‘a major UK-wide initiative to inspire a new generation to get creative with coding, programming and digital technology.’ With all that in mind then, one might ask themselves why, when the show was aired, Rockstar Games officially live-tweeted: “What exactly is this random, made-up bollocks?”

Let’s press ‘reset’ and go back to the beginning.

The Gamechangers opens in New York City, circa 2002, the day after Rockstar’s GTA: Vice City has launched. For a show that was produced by BBC Scotland with the agenda outlined above, the interesting thing to note here is that whilst the parent company was based in America, Rockstar North: the actual developer of both GTA: Vice City and the subsequent GTA: San Andreas, were — and still are — based in Scotland. If the BBC were that worried about confusing international audiences, maybe they could have just included a map – just like those Rockstar provides with their GTA games.

The location hardly matters, because as Houser rides his bike in the opening scenes, the New York landscape starts to become a polygonal game-environment. Interestingly, the story also ends with Houser pulling a driver out of a sports car whilst the world turns into a GTA-styled simulacrum replete with innocent bystander deaths and the mandatory cop-car chase. For a viewer, these bracketing flourishes might appear to suggest a number of (potentially problematic) things that resonate throughout the entire narrative.

Are we supposed to view these scenes as a play on the nature of entertainment products, with what Radcliffe’s Houser called “a world full of incredible realistic detail that evokes real emotion in the players”? Or, are the filmmakers implying that the worldview of those that work on or play videogames is corrupted and distorted? Perhaps The Gamechangers is suggesting both in equal measure, or maybe it just isn’t sure, because whilst the show is well shot and slickly presented, it is also quite schizophrenic in the ideas and arguments that it regurgitates for our pleasure.

One wonders if at some point in The Gamechangers‘ production there was a disconnection between a flawed attempt at a balanced debate by screenwriter James Wood, and an interest in visual drama over factual substance by director Owen Harris. Houser and his crew are introduced, and constantly presented, through PR sound-bite dialogue, as though Wood had a checklist of generic “Games are Art” comments to make. “This game has to be something that goes beyond film. It does something that film can’t do.” Tick. “We’re going to create the first truly adaptable hero across any art-form.” Tick. “Films and music tackle sex all the time; why can’t we?” Double Tick. “A game does not make someone a criminal.” Triple Tick. “This is a free country. We’re allowed to make the game we want to make.” Gold star.

Unfortunately, despite how well Radcliffe plays his part, most of these lines are delivered from poorly presented characters shaped by a stereotypical and spitefully selective view of gamers and the games industry.

Houser dresses like a sleepwalking Travis Bickle/Eminem stunt-double, and has to be told to put a suit on for his FTC hearing; Houser buys his friend a sports car after going to a nightclub; Houser celebrates the life of a drug addicted film producer, and so on, ad nauseam. These snapshots feel like the projected fantasies of a teenager who’s seen too many gangster films.

In not actually showing how the games that Rockstar make fulfill the artistic slogans that the staff blurt out on cue, entire arguments are unfairly undercut by the unlikeability of the characters. As per example, when a new game engine has to be constructed, months of hard graft are encompassed by one quick cut across two different locations; yet, one of the only montages that shows game developers intensely at work overlays their endeavors with a laughable, wire-framed blow-job simulation. Is this the inspiration and call-to-arms that the UK’s ‘new generation’ need, or is it one more clichéd comment on the supposedly masturbatory indulgences of introverted, basement dwelling geeks? Huzzah?

On their website, the BBC asserts that Rockstar’s game is ‘arguably the greatest British coding success since Bletchley Park’, so surely it’s worth examining in more fitting ways than this sensationalist nonsense? If The Gamechangers is for gamers, then the story is old news and out of touch (many big-budget games for adult audiences now include sex scenes); if it is for non-gamers, then all it’s going to do is reinforce negative stereotypes and incorrect assumptions about games and gamers.

The Gamechangers‘ focus on the seemingly salacious aspects of video gaming reaches its zenith early on in the scene where Alabama teenager, Devin Moore, kills three police officers. The story is based on real-life events, so there is a definite conversation to be had about the impact of videogames on society, but the ‘factual’ drama presents the reconstruction in the following incredibly biased way: There is an overlaid projection of GTA: Vice City being played over a montage of a teenager’s face as he stares, eyes wide open, and hypnotically transfixed as though in some modern update from A Clockwork Orange (1972). The same boy is then seen sitting in an equally zombified state in a stolen car as police approach.

Within the police station, Moore is still inarticulate, until he grabs the arresting officer’s gun, shoots him, then proceeds to carry out a shooting spree in the rest of station, with the camera elevated and fixed over his shoulder as though he were a character in a third-person game such as the GTA series. This scene not only disturbingly foreshadows and directly connects with Houser’s narrative ending, but it also implies that a videogame is somehow the only plausible reason for Moore’s actions, and that, somewhat offensively, in watching this spectacle the viewer might be in some way complicit in his actions or the activities of others in similar scenarios.

For whatever reasons, The Gamechangers appears to only pay lip service to the gaming industry. Houser consistently objects to the vilification of his industry, but he’s too abstractly incoherent, loud, and playing Ping-Pong to appear especially reasonable. In contrast, Jack Thompson the devout lawyer appears to become a martyr for all that is good and holy in the free world. Where Houser alienates those around him, Thompson is primarily concerned for his family. When he isn’t earnestly praying for the strength to keep his family safe, quoting Martin Luthor King, or helping widowed families, Thompson has heroic speeches such as: “Why do I do it? Because I’m Batman. Because for some reason, God rose this asshole up to do good” and “We’re raising a generation of kids steeped in sex and violence and no-one’s doing anything about it”.

For all of the unwarranted death threats and bullying that his family receives, Thompson is called a ‘righteous man’. Despite being permanently disbarred from practicing law due to his behavior, Thompson is shown to directly shape Hilary Clinton’s “Family Entertainment Protection Act”. When Thompson’s story ends with his being dejected at not having defeated his nemesis (who in a cross-cut scene is told that he ‘won’), Thompson’s wife also reminds him: “you are winning”.

All of Thompson’s inappropriate actions, which in reality have been widely condemned from all quarters, have been greatly toned down and make him appear as the sacrificial lamb within The Gamechangers, because not enough attempt is made to show how misguided were his actions. Imitating the same tired and flawed ‘video nasties’ debates of the ’80s and ’90s, Thompson features in scenes in which medical and military experts claim that ‘violent material produces brain activity where we store traumatic stresses in real life [….] especially in teenagers’, and that videogames can make effective ‘murder simulators’.

As so much time has been spent lingering on the theorized effects as though they were concrete outcomes with no other physiological or cultural variables and alternatives, in the end it really doesn’t matter that: a) the evidence is mostly speculative, biased, and inconclusive b) the evidence is immediately dismissed in court as it may not be relevant to Moore’s case, or c) that the evidence doesn’t address the actual issue which Thompson refuses to see – that these game were not designed for teenagers in the first place.

The Gamechangers ends with the text: “There is still no conclusive evidence that video games make people violent. The debate continues.” But rather than undo the disinformation that has been presented, the use of “still” implies, like in the phrase “we still haven’t found the body” or “we still haven’t found where those rats are coming from”, that something might soon be uncovered as “the debate continues”.

So, to return to Rockstar Games’ tweet, it’s easy to understand their response. It’s also not too difficult to comprehend why, before the show was even aired, that Rockstar Games had begun to take legal action against the BBC for trademark infringement to protect their intellectual property. What I find absolutely impossible to fathom is how The Gamechangers offers anything positive in any form to the BBC’s Make It Digital campaign or to the British game industry as a whole. I believe that after watching The Gamechangers, more of Britain’s untapped potential (I would say youth, but as with the videogames on display – this show is not for them) would rather become fanatical disbarred lawyers than work for a company like Rockstar, which is strangely at odds with the BBC’s lionizing Bletchley blurb.

Whether this started out as a balanced story that got tipped over and trodden on, a miscommunication in aims, or the result of someone’s own skewed perspective and agenda, to quote Bill Paxton from an arguably more violent movie franchise on behalf of the BBC’s relationship with gamers everywhere: “That’s it, man. Game over, man. Game over, what the fuck are we supposed to do now, huh, what are we gonna do?” Well, funnily enough, the day after The Gamechangers aired, the BBC presented damage control in the form of a factual, scientific documentary called “Horizon: Are Video Games Really That Bad?” And guess what; they aren’t really bad at all.


RATING 2 / 10