I had high hopes for the BBC’s Grand Theft Auto docudrama, The Gamechangers, which aired last night (and is now available on iPlayer to UK viewers). Here was the BBC spending what looks like quite a lot of money on a film about video games, and getting people who really knew about the games industry to advise on it; there was every reason to believe that it wouldn’t be a total embarrassment.
I really thought, for the first half-hour or so, that this was finally going to be a TV production that didn’t unnecessarily demonise games or the people who make and play them, but it did. It just also made a useless attempt to “balance” it by simultaneously showing Grand Theft Auto’s creators as human beings. The film’s portrayal of the battle between infamous moral crusader Jack Thompson and Rockstar Games from around 2002-2008 attempts to humanise the games industry, to an extent, but it still just can’t let go of the notion that games are dangerous. Meanwhile, Jack Thompson - a disbarred lawyer whose behaviour throughout his career, as evidenced in court documents, his own letters and much else, suggests that he is quite the vicious character - is portrayed as a sympathetic family man who becomes consumed by his crusade. It’s actually made me quite angry.
Yeah, no shit.
The Gamechangers begins the day after the release of GTA: Vice City, showing Daniel Radcliffe as Sam Houser cycling to work to discover that they’ve sold a million copies in a day. It then switches to Jack Thompson, portrayed by a sympathetic Bill Paxton, having dinner with his family. Then, we see 18-year-old Devin Moore absorbed inGrand Theft Auto before going on to kill three policemen, escaping in a cop car. This case, which sparked the beginning of Jack Thompson’s crusade against Rockstar Games and the games industry at large, is the focal point of the first half of the film.
It quickly moves on to the creation of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the discovery of the sex scenes hidden on the disc, the content that started the Hot Coffee scandal, Rockstar’s biggest legal headache to date. As the scandal progresses, Thompson feels vindicated in his pursuit of Rockstar Games, and Sam Houser descends into a spiral of despair, abusing his colleagues and shouting at his lawyers.
There are some embarrassing scenes, such as when Houser and friends make some friends in the ‘hood whilst apparently researching GTA: San Andreas. I was surprised to find out that some of the more outlandish things that happen in the film actually did happen in real life - people really did stand outside Rockstar Games’ offices shouting “Hey hey! Ho ho! Rockstar Games has got to go!”, although not with Jack Thompson and not over Grand Theft Auto (they were protestingBully). The actual details of game creation are purposefully glossed over, because they are not interesting to watch: we get a lot of Sam Houser shouting at underlings, arguments about things like character customisation, and one long montage of “game creation” that ends up with GTA: San Andreas being essentially willed into existence.
Oh, and while we’re here, why does a film about the making of GTA made by BBC Scotland completely ignore the fact that these games were, you know, made IN Scotland?
Speaking of Sam Houser, Radcliffe clearly does his best here, but the script’s entire portrait of Houser himself seems to be based on this one image (left) and the Hot Coffee court documents, so it is not surprising that the character is not exactly nuanced. He has absolutely no life outside of his office and we get nothing about his background or his motivations. Instead we mostly get him yelling, either about Thompson or about shit screenshots or about how games should be as respected as books or movies. He comes across as destructive and one-dimensional, attacking everyone around him.
Meanwhile, Jack Thompson is (as mentioned above) a sympathetic family man consumed by his worthy moral crusade. The film does mention Thompson’s various transgressions, and shows the whole process that led to his being disbarred, but the impression that it gives is that this lawyer was just “too real”, too passionate in his pursuit of what he saw as moral justice. There’s a scene where Jack verbally self-flagellates on a golf course, asking God whether he should continue his righteous crusade and showing a lot more humility than the real life JT appears to have had.
His actual words and actions paint a very different picture.
At one point in the film he is confronted about his infamous “Pearl Harbour” comments (the actual quote: “Oh, and certain regional governments in Japan have banned the sale of the Grand Theft Auto games to minors, but Japan’s Sony has no problem whatsoever dumping this garbage into American kids’ brains. Looks like Pearl Harbor 2 by Sony/Take-Two”). In the scene, he appears vaguely ashamed. In real life, he doubled down, saying: “What the Japanese are doing to our kids is insensitive and racist. The Japanese have for a very long time dumped pornography into this country in a fashion they would not tolerate in their own country. It is another version of Pearl Harbor. [...] As for the offensiveness of the Pearl Harbor comment, it’s accurate and it’s needed.”
This is not the nice, caring family man on a mission that the film portrays. I could go on about this at length, but the history of Thompson’s career speaks for itself.
What upsets me most about this film is that there is a very strong inference that video games do cause violent behaviour. We’re shown Jack Thompson gathering evidence from neurologists and the US army, in scenes that go on at length about how games are murder simulators that make killing a “conditioned response”, and how violent images have especially bad effects on teenagers. All we get as a counterpoint to that is Daniel Radcliffe’s Sam Houser yelling that it’s ridiculous. The film, in my opinion, strongly implies that Grand Theft Auto: Vice City DID drive Devin Moore to kill three police officers. I think we all know the intention of scenes like this:
The unblinking stare, the glazed eyes, the vaguely murderous expression: this here is the classic “dangerous gamer” stereotype. It’s echoed later on in the film, too, when Patrick Wildenborg is shown playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas before diving into the game’s code and uncovering the scenes that would be at the centre of the Hot Coffee scandal.
These are pretty much the only images of anyone actually playing a video game in the whole film.
We’re all adults here. I think we can all agree that it isn’t helpful to outright dismiss the possibility that violent games might have effects on the brain, even if most studies have shown no correlation between violent media and violent behaviour. I also think it’s clear that kids play a lot of games they shouldn’t, and there’s still a lot of work to be done on educating parents and, perhaps, if it’s warranted, introducing better restrictions on kids’ access to inappropriate content. But I’m so, so sick of this being the ONLY point of discussion around video games in the wider world. Are we not past this yet? There are so many more conversations we could be having, and so many other types of game to talk about.
The Gamechangers does nothing to move the conversation about video games forward. It doesn’t even touch upon most of the truly interesting things about Grand Theft Auto, its making or its cultural impact, instead going for a paper-thin consideration of video game violence. It should have been so much more than it is.