The battle between gamers and those who don't understand video games is as old as it is exhausting. Given how far forward we've now come to gain some credibility and while we're still having to justify the industry's existence to critics, you can't help but wonder what the BBC's motivation was in making The Gamechangers, shown on BBC2 last night. The docu-drama aims to tell both sides of the story regarding Rockstar Games' fight to make Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas as they wanted to, and their detractors' fight for perceived justice. If it hoped to tackle a topic rarely given any attention in drama, it succeeded. If it was to give a factual analysis of how it all went down, maybe not.
In 2003, Devin Moore shot two Alabama police officers and a further member of police staff with their own weapons while in custody for stealing a car. Moore fled, but was soon recaptured and arrested. On being taken back into custody, Moore is believed to have said, "Life is like a video game. Everybody's got to die sometime." From this point onward in the case, an already present fear that video games breed copycat violence got some explosive PR, with the Rockstar game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City fingered for leading upright teenagers astray. As it turned out, video games were not allowed to be used in Moore's case and he was actually found to be suffering quietly with PTSD as the result of childhood trauma. But still, the case gave an airing to the 'video games are evil' mantra.
The Gamechangers picks up from that point, reconstructing Moore's crimes, conveniently shot like a scene from the game itself. What followed were two intersecting and combative stories, that of Rockstar founder Sam Houser, played by the ever passionate Daniel Radcliffe, and self-appointed Batman for morality, Jack Thompson, taken on by Bill Paxton. As a Christian crusading lawyer, Thompson felt himself the perfect person to bring to an end what he saw as the filth that was corroding America's youth. Despite sometimes wavering support from his bullied teenage son and a wife who could probably do without smashed living room windows of an evening, Thompson stays the course to do God's work in the courts, though he eventually finds himself losing his licence to practice. Meanwhile, Houser and his overworked but ardent army of game-making staff fight not only to prove their innocence but to push the boundaries of what games could be. Houser wanted to create emotional connection to human characters in a way that had never been done before.
The film also covers the murky event that dogged Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, that of the Hot Coffee Mod controversy, where players with an inclination to modify the game using its code to make new levels found hidden graphic sex scenes not present in the main game. Rockstar initially claimed they were entirely hacker made and then suggested the scenes had been left in the code through error. Prosecutors claimed they had been left deliberately to please fans, while avoiding the financially damaging Adult Only rating. A wink for the players and a handshake for the certification staff, as it were.
The problem with The Gamechangers is not that it was poorly acted. Radcliffe, Paxton and the majority of the cast as a whole capture both sides of that early 21st Century angst rather well. The issue isn't even that the story isn't worth telling. The law on selling video games to those under 18-years-old became stricter and more responsible regarding what children have access to, following Hilary Clinton throwing her weight behind the evidence of these developments. The entire case is a milestone in video game history. The problem is that you're constantly wondering how much of the Rockstar story especially is just TV guess-work. Rockstar didn't just refuse to get involved with the project or give it their blessing, they were so furious that it was allowed to go ahead without their consent that they plan on suing the BBC. In true Rockstar style, they responded to the airing on Twitter:
The script was constructed using court documents and pulled-together interviews by those involved. It doesn't state whether those interviews were given for the purpose of making this film or if the producers scanned through footage already available courtesy of news outlets. Sam Houser, along with his close colleagues, are notoriously private and Rockstar really do march to the beat of their own drum within the video game industry. They release games and information when they want to, how they want to and without any desire to allow people in on their thought processes or development strategies. They are unique in this sense. Their products are so hotly anticipated that the silence creates its own fever.
Few people actually know what Houser is like or what working directly with him and his brother Dan truly entails. Sam Houser's personal email correspondence was read by those involved with the Hot Coffee legal case. Maybe his personality comes across in those thousands of pages and the producers shaped who they believe him to be through that. But as a viewer, the knowledge that the film is only based on a true story and has been heavily adjusted for dramatic effect leaves you constantly questioning what to believe. With a development so important in the gaming world, it doesn't always feel worth the effort to only skim what really happened.
As a standalone piece of drama The Gamechangers isn't a bad watch at all, but it doesn't actually achieve much. It would almost have been better for the BBC to pick a side. In telling two only partially factual stories at once, neither is told properly. There are holes that don't get filled in those 90 minutes. There are, for example, regular references to those working in Rockstar's New York hipster enclave offices needing to go to Edinburgh, but nobody actually explains why Scotland plays such a key role in game production. There is a statement at the very end of the film making clear that no real evidence has ever been presented to support the claim that video games incite real life violence, but during the film itself that issue isn't really properly challenged. In fact, at one point Thompson seems to have gathered scientific support that claims the contrary and we don't get a clear indication that it's incorrect. We also rarely get that the purpose of the Grand Theft Auto series is often to lampoon and satirise modern America, rather than celebrate its violence. Anyone who's ever listened to a Weasel News report knows that.
But the biggest disappointment was the lack of applause for what Rockstar Games has actually achieved in global entertainment terms. Rockstar may have its headquarters in New York, but it's one of British innovation's most lucrative and successful achievements. Two Londoners didn't just take over video games, they took over the entire world of entertainment. Even cinema is dwarfed by its revenue. Grand Theft Auto: V made an astonishing $1billion in just its first three days of sale. When Microsoft announced it was making Backward Compatibility available, where XBox 360 games could be played on XBox One consoles via download, Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption blew every other game out of the water with the sheer number of requests it received. The Gamechangers title is an apt one. The noise Jack Thompson made eventually influenced American law, and when it comes to gaming, nobody has ever done what Rockstar do with such engrossing panache. It's not the BBC's job to offer either of them favourable promotion, nor to necessarily tell a deliberate tale of woe. It didn't need to be a party on either side because both have flaws. Rockstar still have a difficult relationship with how they present women, for example. It's just that if neither story could be told with all the facts, both end up feeling a little hollow.
The Gamechangers remains on the BBC iPlayer for 30 days from 15th September 2015.