Described by the BBC as a “factual drama” and by Rockstar as random, made up bollocks, let’s just agree that The Gamechangers is a landmark moment for UK gamers. Whatever the quality, here we have a 90 minute primetime BBC drama starring Daniel Radcliffe & Bill Paxton and centred around Grand Theft Auto (GTA), one of the biggest videogame series of all time. It’s a potentially fascinating multi-layered story about a controversial but critically-lauded piece of popular culture. Which makes it all the more disappointing that The Gamechangers was such a lifeless, jumbled mess.
Opening in 2002 at the launch of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City it is quickly established that although Vice City was incredibly successful, Rockstar are already focused on making the next in the series (San Andreas) even better. Having delivered another masterpiece just 1 year after GTA III, the team are exhausted but the studio leads are ambitious and full of ideas, and the publisher is keen to build on the series’ success. I was hoping for much more of this “making of” story (particularly given that the drama forms part of the BBC’s Make it Digital season designed to help encourage young people to develop digital skills) but this aspect is then given almost no further screen time.
Instead we get a brief montage introducing us to the Rockstar team, lawyer Jack Thompson and what will be the central focus on the programme – court cases, controversy and the “debate” over videogame violence. This in itself might not be a problem, it means that interesting questions of psychology, censorship, parental responsibility and US attitudes to sex and violence could be on the table. Sadly, what we get is more like a high-school debating society re-enactment – perhaps an inevitable outcome of basing things on court documents and seemingly little else.
The most troubling consequence is that some of those involved, like Devin Moore, seem to be written as legal arguments rather than people. As the “kid” at the centre of the civil case (who was, incidentally, 18 at the time of the murders) we meet Devin playing GTA and wearing the dead-eyed stare of a maniac. Apart from then witnessing his crimes, we learn literally nothing else about him – the drama seems just as disinterested in exploring his other influences as Thompson and his team. Other people are given more screentime but left to spout case arguments as dialogue, leaving good actors sounding like Basil Exposition and scenes that feel jarring and poorly-connected. We are given little to understand how or why their characters came to take the positions they did.
But it’s also unclear what The Gamechangers wanted to be. As a record of events it would have surely worked better as a documentary, where the argument and counter-argument would have felt more natural and where experts in the field would have been able to play a greater role. As a drama it just wasn’t that interesting and seemed to lack any sense of direction or narrative coherence – this was no Erin Brockovich. In fact, the civil case made up a fair proportion of the running time but was thrown out by the court which was “entirely unpursuaded” by Thompson’s argument.
Was this vindication for Rockstar and creative freedom or a travesty for the right-thinking parents of the world? In The Gamechangers there was little more than a quick acknowledgement, making the proceeding 45 minutes feel redundant. The subsequent “Hot Coffee” scandal at least had a conclusion but was still shown to have very little consequence for anyone involved. Did Jack achieve anything at the cost of his ability to practice? Was there any connection to Hilary Clinton passing the Family Entertainment Protection Act? Did Rockstar or the games industry learn anything of any significance from these events? Did we?
Aside from this, the broadness with which the characters are painted also really bothered me. In the red corner we have “the Rockstars” who are all about excess, hip-hop, and swears. Sam’s apparent life mantra is what would Don Simpson do? which seems quite a strong position to take based on some flimsy information from “friends” that Sam really liked Simpson’s movies. Whereas, in the blue corner we have Jack Thompson aka “good Christian family man” / “lunatic nutjob type” depending on your view of creation. Jack set out his crusader agenda immediately with talk of the media “training our kids to be killers”, appropriating the term “murder simulators” from a fellow loony and, later on, describing the release of GTA as “effectively Pearl Harbour 2”. Neither side is remotely sympathetic or interesting and it often felt like the writer was afraid to favour one side or the other so they simply omitted any redeeming qualities from everyone.
So did I like anything about it? Well, as I started by saying, the fact it exists and made it onto BBC2 should be celebrated. It also showed a few stylish flourishes – for example having Sam see wireframes as he travelled into work through real world New York. Similarly, the way Devin’s rampage was filmed to reference GTA’s point of view was nicely done although, I would argue, rather tonally and morally dubious. But these visual flourishes also gave us what was surely the worst part of the film, it’s ending. Following a reconciliation of sorts, Sam leaves his colleague Jamie’s apartment (in the real world) stops and jacks a car (in a-sort-of-real-sort-of-game world) and speeds off being chased by the cops (in game world). It made no sense at all in the context of the story and (presumably!) never even remotely happened – which rather sums up a factual drama that completely failed on both counts.
As a gamer for nearly 30 years, I’ve waited a long time to see a grown-up mainstream drama about a hobby I love. Sadly, the wait goes on.
The Gamechangers is available on the BBC iPlayer until 15 October 2015 http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b06ccjn9/the-gamechangers
Picture Shows: Sam Houser (DANIEL RADCLIFFE) – (C) BBC Scotland © 2015; Moonlighting NNN Productions (Pty) Limited: African Photographic C.C. – Photographer: Joe Alblas