The Gamechangers raises some important points about the gaming industry, but if games aren't your thing, there's not much else to grab you.
The Gamechangers is an interesting look at the gaming industry, and at the vitriolic reaction that it has spawned in some sections of society. As thought-provoking as it may be however, the film lacks a certain sense of compulsion. If you’re interested in the broader aspects of video games you’ll enjoy it because of its subject matter. If you don’t really care about that stuff, then there’s nothing else to really grab your attention or make you want to watch.
The film follows the British made, New York based company Rockstar, in particular the company’s founder and president Sam Houser (Daniel Radcliffe). Having just released the latest installment of their Grand Theft Auto franchise, Vice City, to near universal acclaim and groundbreaking sales, Houser and Rockstar push on to start developing a bigger, better game in San Andreas. Meanwhile, in Alabama a young man brutally murders three police officers, claiming on his arrest that “life is like a video game”. This prompts a national outcry against the violence of video games and its effects on children, led by a particularly strong-willed lawyer named Jack Thompson (Bill Paxton).
Radcliffe and Paxton make the film, which is as much about their characters as it is video game violence, and the performances they turn in are definitely the best aspect of proceedings. As always, there’s a moment of uneasiness at the beginning, where all you can see is Harry Potter (sporting a great big bushy beard), but Radcliffe continues to prove that he is actually a quite talented actor –as Potter slides away in minutes to be replaced firmly by Sam Houser. To put it frankly, Houser is an asshole, and Radcliffe rises admirably to the occasion, layering the asshole-ness with the kind of energetic awkwardness that has become the norm for young tech visionaries, and letting that persona drop away when things start to get messy towards the end of the film.
Paxton too plays an asshole, but his character differs in an important way from Radcliffe’s: where Houser is kind of accidentally unlikeable as he earnestly tries to emulate his heroes, Jack Thompson goes out of his way to be a horrible person, seeming to relish the opportunity to get angry at something (the gaming industry). Paxton spends almost the entire film with a disgusting, twisted sneer across his face, but manages to refrain from ever overshooting and going from believably hate-filled, to a caricature.
Besides the acting, which remains strong throughout, The Gamechangers has a number of problems, most of which can be reduced down to a matter of consistency. The directing of the film is strong in places (the scene where the police are killed in Alabama, for instance, is creatively shot so as to resemble the third-person style of the Grand Theft Auto games, down to the way the camera trails the fleeing car), but moments of inspiration like this seem to take a back seat to historical accuracy, making the film seem like little more than a blow-by-blow recount of the various controversies and legal issues surrounding the Grand Theft Auto games, rather than the dramatic telling of an engaging story. The writing is similarly patchy, in places being funny and intelligent, but in other places seeming amateurish and uncomfortable. It is this that really holds the film back. Compare it, say, to The Social Network, which deals with a similar story (upcoming tech company/genius mired by lawsuits), but is so wonderfully compelling, even if you couldn’t care less about what in essence is a bunch of Harvard students bickering over the “finders keepers” rule. There, what draws the audience in and captivates them, is the skill with which the film is made, and the way that an interesting story is dramatized and made larger than life. In The Gamechangers, though some effort has been made to do this (see the similarities between the two main characters, and the irony that the most hateful, almost-violent character is the God-fearing lawyer attacking the video games, not the people making or playing them), it remains a film for those with a vested interest in the gaming industry.
As a film about gaming and for gamers, however, The Gamechangers does drive home an important point, and one that will (hopefully) become increasingly prevalent in society. And no, it isn’t about video game violence. Throughout the film, Houser repeatedly compares video games with films and music, bemoaning the fact that games remain relegated firmly to childish time-wasting at best, and morally licentious at worst. He says, several times, that he wants Grand Theft Auto to be revolutionary. Not in terms of gaming (or rather, as well as in terms of gaming), but in terms of society and culture as a whole. He wants games to be considered art. Art is (in a drastic oversimplification) something that can bring people together, in appreciation of a shared cultural moment. There’s a scene in the film where the Rockstar developers go to the poorer areas of L.A. to scout locations for San Andreas. They bump into a gangbanger, and tensions rise to uncomfortable levels until he learns that they’re the guys who make Grand Theft Auto – suddenly he loves them, and shows them around, talking away about the game. Art is (to continue oversimplifying) how culture changes, and how society perceives itself. The very fact that this film has been made, and the enormous fuss that has been made (and continues to be made) about video game violence, is testament to how far Rockstar, Sam Houser, and Grand Theft Auto have come in making video games an art form.
The Gamechangers was shown on BBC Two on 15th September.