TV Review: Game Changers (BBC)

Review of the BBC Two special "Game Changers" which charts the rise of Rockstar games, the release of GTA San Andreas and their conflict with Jack Thompson

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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.

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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.
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