Every new film that is at least tangentially about digital technology should open with a title card proclaiming: “At least it’s not yet another Steve Jobs movie.” So, here is the trailer for The Gamechangers, BBC Two’s film about the development of Grand Theft Auto and its accompanying moral panic. At least it’s not yet another Steve Jobs movie.
Some other “at least” disclaimers, while we’re at it: at least it’s not Hitman Agent 47; at least it’s not PIXELS; at least it’s not another Steve Jobs movie. Look, it’s been a bad little while for movies about technology and the dudes who make technology. In the movies, it’s ALWAYS the dudes who make technology. So, what’s different in The Gamechangers?
Well, this time there’s a different dude making the technology. It’s Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter (and The F-Word) fame, as GTA designer Sam Houser. He’s bearded and wearing urban-ish clothing, as if his geeky-cool “Alphabet Aerobics” rap on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon had metastasized into a full persona. He’s a visionary! We know this because he proclaims, “We’re going to create the world’s first truly adaptable hero!” See? Visionary! But every visionary must have people who don’t believe in his dream, and so we have Bill Paxton playing attorney/scold Jack Thompson, who spent years trying to protect children from the scourge of GTA. Again: at least it’s not yet another Steve Jobs movie.
The fastest-selling entertainment product in history comes not from Silicon Valley, but is driven by a bunch of British game designers. Friends since their school days, they are led by the game’s mastermind-designer, Sam Houser. By 2002, Sam and his creative team have constructed for their fans a vast virtual world, teeming with a high-octane mix of criminal characters, lethal weapons and outrageous storylines. Here you can even shape and sculpt your avatar, crafting their character and appearance to your personal preference.
Within this fantasy landscape, some players choose to take part in a series of dangerous missions, while others become immersed in a sprawling criminal underworld, killing cops, hijacking cars and running over pedestrians. And it’s this that increasingly drives opposition to GTA. Because the game’s violent gameplay leads to fierce opposition: from parents worried about its impact on children; from politicians, fearful of its influence; and, above all, from campaigners fighting to prevent the game being played by minors.
We have yet to escape the GTA morality debate. Maybe we never will. It is present in every new academic paper about violence in videogames and the subsequent rounds of aggregation that seek to confirm preexisting views about videogames as a medium. It is present in every cycle of outrage about a newly released videogame with problematic examples. In that respect The Gamechangers may not be the didactic videogame movie we need, but it could be the didactic videogame movie we deserve. At least it’s not yet another Steve Jobs movie.