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The BBC’s Grand Theft Auto Drama, ‘The Gamechangers’, Really Wasn’t Very Good

The BBC spectacularly blew what was their one chance to really celebrate this British-born phenomenon.

by Mike Diver
16 September 2015, 9:58am

All stills courtesy of the BBC / Moonlighting NNN Productions

The Gamechangers, broadcast last night (September 15th) on BBC Two, was supposed to be a "factual drama" telling the story of how the makers of Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar Games, and their parent company Take-Two Interactive butted heads with Florida attorney Jack Thompson over the connections between video game violence and actual acts of murder. The 90-minute film, starring Bill Paxton as Thompson and Daniel Radcliffe as Rockstar co-founder Sam Houser, centred on the case of Devin Moore, who killed three people in an Alabama police station in June 2003. Moore was a fan of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which had been released to great critical acclaim and commercial success in the autumn of 2002. On his arrest, Moore is reported to have said, "Life is a video game. Everybody's got to die, sometime."

So far, so accurate. Devin Moore really did murder three men. Rockstar Games really did make a shitload of money off the back of Vice City, which set the company up to make what was, at the time, its crowning achievement, the three-cities-spanning open-world crime caper of 2004's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Another fact is that Rockstar Games wanted nothing to do with the production of The Gamechangers. Thompson, though, was happy for the show's writer, James Wood, to visit him at home and talk at length about how he stepped into the Moore situation, in 2005, and began to clutch at the straws connecting the young man's killings to his addiction to Vice City. Thompson went on to file a $600 million civil case against Rockstar on behalf of the victims' families. It was thrown out of court. To this day, no study has concluded that the playing of violent video games alone can influence a person to commit real-life crimes.

Again, facts. But watching The Gamechangers, even from the perspective of someone who wasn't there – at least, I don't remember ever having worked for Rockstar – it was clear that fiction had quickly enough overtaken the truth behind the tale.

Paxton as Jack Thompson

There was no mention of Thompson's previous altercations with Rockstar. The Gamechangers' story shows the disbarred attorney reading online coverage of Moore's actions (what's presented as) the day after they happened, over his breakfast, and reacting as if he's never heard of video games, let alone Grand Theft Auto. Moore wasn't charged with murder until 2005, and Thompson certainly did know about Rockstar prior to his failed civil suit. In February 2003 he'd tried to represent teenage murderer Dustin Lynch after learning that he'd been obsessed with 2001's Grand Theft Auto III. In October of the same year, he filed for $246 million in damages from Take-Two Interactive and others after two kids arrested on homicide charges claimed they'd been inspired by GTA III. The case was closed via a Notice of Voluntary Dismissal from the plaintiff's side.

The programme was aired as part of the BBC's Make It Digital campaign, encouraging kids to get into coding; but the actual making of the games was glossed over incredibly. To watch The Gamechangers as an informative insight into how video games are made would be like looking at the Leaning Tower of Pisa and concluding that every other architect had got this 90-degrees-from-the-ground thing all wrong, that this was the way to do things: pissed, botched, badly. While the notorious crunch time was shown to an extent, with employees looking shattered and stress levels running high as deadlines loomed, there was very little explanation as to how the games were actually made.

'The Gamechangers', trailer

Once the story had moved beyond the Moore case, and onto the infamous Hot Coffee debacle, Radcliffe's Houser tells his lawyers that creating video games is "a little more complicated" than they're making it out to be, and to remove the offending scene completely would have been "hard, (as) if you fiddle with the code it can have a knock-on effect on a lot of things that are very hard to predict". That's about all we get on the subject, beside a very brief scene where a new game engine is being discussed, which pops into life as if by magic, and some montages of people tapping on keyboards. Admittedly, coding is not very sexy – "Imagine someone typing algebra... for years," is how Positech Games' Cliff Harris summarised it on Twitter – but still, this was an opportunity missed to better portray the hundreds of hours that hundreds of people put into making games on a GTA scale.

And if the Hot Coffee thing passed you by at the time, allow me to briefly recap. Rockstar left code for a sex scene in retail copies of San Andreas, which wasn't accessible to players but could be revealed by modders, and very quickly was, leading to a stink at the American games rating board, the ESRB, who'd given it a Mature certificate (17+) while a graphic sex scene qualified it as a Walmart-offending Adults-Only release (18+). Footage of the scene was shared online, and shit hit fan. Copies of San Andreas were pulled from shelves at great cost to Take-Two, and an edited version of the game re-released, meeting the Mature guidelines. Watching it now, after the fantasy humping of The Witcher 3, it's amazing that it was ever a fuss in the first place. It looks like two Stickle Bricks in a wrestling match.

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The Gamechangers showed the development of San Andreas primarily taking place in New York. The game, for real, was mostly made in Scotland, at Rockstar North. It was there, when the studio was still known as DMA Design and based in Dundee, that the first Grand Theft Auto was born in 1997. Original developers amongst the DMA team took to Twitter last night to comment on the show, as it aired, posting photos of the building where the magic happened, and calling out certain costume choices made in the name of entertainment. "I seriously fucking doubt anyone from Rockstar dressed up as East fucking 17 to pop out and film in Compton," posted Brian Baglow, the writer of the first game, referring to a terrible scene where Radcliffe and pals don streetwear to film in the infamous LA city. Steve Hammond, one of DMA's first employees, criticised how near enough everyone in the show's Rockstar office wore branded clothing. Others were quick to pick up on a distinct lack of Scottish accents, anywhere.

Rockstar Games' official Twitter account switched on, too – although maybe it shouldn't have, given the lingering threat of legal action based on the BBC infringing its trademarks. It posted two tweets directly to the BBC's account. The first: "@BBC This new Rentaghost isn't as good as I remember." The second: "@BBC Was Basil Brush busy? What exactly is this random, made up bollocks." They're yet to be deleted, so presumably they're legit, rather than the result of a hack, which had been suggested.

Made up bollocks would have been fine from the viewer's perspective if The Gamechangers had been entertaining. It wasn't. As a piece of drama it was wholly ineffective. Desperate to not paint either Rockstar or Thompson as the villain of the piece, the show never truly found a point or purpose, and come its climax we were left wondering what its intention had actually been. The best I can come up with is that maybe this Thompson character isn't the crackpot that gamers think he is. Maybe he was right all along, which is a pretty dangerous direction to take. Otherwise, it just veered from side to side without any weight, without inviting its audience to pick who was right and who was wholly out of touch.

Paxton did what he could with some woefully cheesy, Bible-bothering material – a scene on a putting green, where he kneels and asks God what he should do, had me in tears of disbelief. I'll always have time for Hudson, so credit where's it's due, there. Radcliffe sported an impressive beard, much like Sam Houser did at the time. He called Dan "little brother" in that way that older brothers never do their younger siblings. He threw some shit around the office and, disappointingly, didn't get his knob out once. (I was led to believe that's what he does now.) Wood's script depicted Rockstar as, effectively, just Sam, his brother Dan and a couple of close confidantes. Nothing much was made of the hundreds of other hard-working employees. Game of Thrones and Skins actor Joe Dempsie was the standout performer as another Rockstar co-founder, Jamie King, who left after San Andreas to set up 4mm Games. He smoked a cigarette really well, managed to look properly pissed off when the crunch came, and was one of the few three-dimensional characters on show, behaving like a Real Life Human Being. At one point, a single female coder was shown at work.

That is a lovely beard

The Gamechangers was corny, contrived, blissfully detached from the reality of Rockstar's history, and misleading for viewers with little previous understanding of the video games industry. At one point Radcliffe exclaims that he's going to explain how Rockstar works to the feds "because obviously they don't have a fucking clue" about gaming. The same could be said of this film's makers. It ended with on-screen text explaining what happened next. Moore remains on death row. Grand Theft Auto V became the best-selling entertainment product of all time. "There is still no conclusive evidence that video games make people violent," read the final slide, concluding: "The debate continues."

If you're Jack Thompson, perhaps it does. The rest of the world has moved on. Games don't kill people, people do. And if those people are already fucked up in the head then there's not much that the most vanilla of video games can do to distract them from going outside and doing something stupid. The Gamechangers, for me, wanted to stir that controversy again. That seemed to be its remit. It had next to nothing to do with encouraging kids to get into games making. It wanted to make Thompson out to be a crusader. "You are winning," his wife tells him, as he questions whether his efforts have all been in vain, as gentle piano keys play around the couple. "The law is changing."

Overdue change did happen in gaming in the wake of Hot Coffee – video games became better scrutinised, and sales to minors were restricted like never before, as they should have been in the first place. But that's nothing to do with Thompson. Gaming grew up. It had to, and it did, and Rockstar's titles were a massive part of that process. It's about time that television programmes and motion pictures drawing on gaming culture for dramatic inspiration did the same. Grand Theft Auto is the UK games industry's greatest success story, and the BBC spectacularly blew what was their one chance to really celebrate this British-born phenomenon.

You can watch The Gamechangers on iPlayer, if you like.

@MikeDiver

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Tagged:
Gaming
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Grand Theft Auto
San Andreas
Review
Rockstar Games
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Dan Houser
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Jamie King
Jack Thompson