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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.

John SweeneyTVBBC,Game Changers,TVOn 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…
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John Sweeney
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in engi­neer­ing. He writes long-form edi­to­ri­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games media and inter­net cul­ture. He also does the occa­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly column about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our inter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven media and sus­pi­cious of unac­cou­table author­i­ty but always hope­ful for change.