On Tuesday September 15th 2015 the BBC broadcast a drama entitled “Game Changers” about the release of GTA San Andreas and Rockstar Games fight with (spoiler) now disgraced and disbarred lawyer and infamous moral/religious crusader Jack Thompson.
The first many of heard of the drama was the fact that Rockstar Games was taking legal action via parent company Take Two interactive, claiming it had no involvement with the project, did not endorse it and that the BBC didn’t have the right to use their branding and trademarked properties. This was back in May and, despite the case never being resolved, the BBC announced at the beginning of this month it would press ahead with the release of the drama.
But let’s put the off-screen drama and legal action aside, the on-screen drama is what we’re here to talk about. The show opens with the rise of the plucky British studio to a major player in the international games market and the rise of the GTA series, settling on the development cycle of GTA San Andreas. It stars Daniel Radcliffe’s unconvincing beard as Rockstar co-founder Sam Houser delivering lots of very earnest and deliberately slow dialogue and exposition. I know it’s not Radcliffe’s fault but he still looks to me like an 18-year-old in a comedy beard. I know he’s 26 now but he just doesn’t work as someone who runs a company, even one as unconventional as Rockstar Games, kind of like casting. The supporting cast feels a lot more convincing as British game developers.
Jack Thompson, portrayed by Bill Paxton, is by contrast far less interesting, less unhinged but all together more charismatic than his real counterpart, even if his appeals to God make you snicker with the slight hamminess. He doesn’t capture Thompson’s air of the snake-oil salesman that made him so instantly unlikable. They captured some of his deranged outbursts and grand-standing but there was more of a mission to humanize but that never went as far as making him three dimensional.
The episode makes important points about how videogames are still under greater attack than books or movies without lecturing one way or the other but it generally gets lost in the regular trappings of TV drama. That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable ‑despite knowing the flaws I still found myself enjoying watching. It’s still kind of surreal seeing Game Developers being even a little lionized or portrayed as pioneers. All of the schlock trappings don’t dampen the fun and some of the predictable false jeopardy. There is something slightly giddy about watching the BBC attempt this and have it go slightly sideways but still kind of hold together, Harry Potter has stolen a homeless man’s beard and is pretending to make a GTA game –you can’t completely hate that.
The biggest problem with the episode is that, with Rockstar pushing against its creation, it’s clear there was little to no access to accounts from Rockstar staff. Some claiming to be former Rockstar employees have taken to social media to express how unrealistic the TV special was. I would have to agree, but quite frankly this is fiction based on fact; like most dramatizations of this type. I never expected it to be an as true to life as possible account of events and neither should you going into this.
The one-off special was slick and visually well-constructed but its careful balance and unease with talking on the specifics of the videogame debate left it feeling somewhat muddled and inconclusive. It also gave out some misleading information: Hilary and Schwarzenegger lost their battle to limit violent games “like alcohol, tobacco and pornography.” What became Brown vs. EMA was a resounding victory for videogames as an artform and a form of protected speech in the USA. It was humorous seeing Hillary Clinton on-screen as fictional Jack Thompson slimed at her words promising to restrict videogames. Unintentionally topical, I think.
Despite the clunky dialogue, forced exposition and painfully TV-style acting, I think game changers is a mark of the times: videogames are now better understood by those in the TV world even if we must sometimes endure unintentionally hilarious fare like Law and Order SVU’s Imitation Game. Games are no longer the bad guy and, as much as they wanted to portray a ‘no sides win’ situation, Jack really was the antagonist in the situation. The fact we have an hour and a half on prime BBC Two real estate dedicated to this subject at all is far more interesting than the episode itself. I can’t help wondering if, in ten years’ time, we might have a drama where Anita Sarkeesian is the antagonist against the games industry. Just a thought.
But does the drama stand on its own? As a look inside the games industry, nope, not even close. As a distracting piece of melodrama? Absolutely, it’s a bit naff but ultimately not unwatchable. Approach it for what it is: a TV movie. Nothing more, nothing less. Radcliffe, facial hair excluded, does give the role an admirable amount of effort despite in my view being slightly miscast. He delivers some of the dialogue about artistic expression passionately and those are his best moments on-screen.
As we march into an age where the games industry and especially the gaming press seems to have welcomed the new Jack Thompsons’ into their midst, I think it is best to leave you with the final on-screen words from the show:
“There is still no conclusive evidence games make people violent. The debate continues.”
At the time of writing Game Changers is available on demand to all UK licence-fee payers via the BBC iPlayer. It is unclear if the program will be broadcast internationally on any of the BBC’s other services.
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