Daniel Radcliffe shines in this controversial retelling of the Grand Theft Auto story
“I want to create a completely real world for grown ups so that people talk about video games the way they talk about films and music.” That was the mission statement of Sam Houser, a British game designer played by Daniel Radcliffe, in The Gamechangers, a feature length drama about the making of the bestselling videogame Grand Theft Auto.
Well, he got his wish – Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, released in 2004, got people talking about video games. The trouble was they were talking about Grand Theft Auto in the same way they talked about A Clockwork Orange or the Sex Pistols – as a corrosive influence on youth that might even lead them to copy the game’s extravagant violence. Certainly that was the proposition of Jack Thompson (Bill Paxton) a crusading, self-styled Batman of an attorney who made it his mission to rid America of Houser’s company RockStar and the filth they were peddling, after a young boy in Alabama weaned on GTA went on a killing spree and blamed the game.
The Gamechangers focused on the legal battle that followed, cutting between Thompson and Houser’s stories and deftly highlighting the similarities between two zealots who on the face of it were diametrically opposed. Both Radcliffe and Paxton were excellent, with Radcliffe particularly beguiling as a young man both brittle and brilliant. It dealt with the moral issues with a balance and assuredness born of hindsight – the fact is that a decade on, the world hasn’t gone to hell in a handcart and video games haven’t led to a total moral meltdown. The handwringing over some schlock pixelated violence in games looks a little overblown now.
Nevertheless, The Gamechangers wasn’t glib in its analysis, re-enacting, in a particularly brilliant scene, the Alabama shooting filmed from behind the gunman’s head, the perspective swiveling exactly as it does in games like Grand Theft Auto, showing the extent to which gaming, film-making and real life have coalesced in modern culture. It portrayed Houser as a Steve Jobs figure – brilliant at times but impossible to live with and often blind to the workings of a culture he claimed to understand implicitly. This might be why RockStar say they are to sue the BBC for showing The Gamechangers at all (a move that has the happy side effect of making a company founded on being the coolest cats in the room look mightily uncool.)
When and if RockStar and their lawyers come to watch The Gamechangers, they’ll see that actually, Houser comes out of it looking like an errant sage, petulant and conceited but, in the final analysis, right. After all, this was a mainstream television drama telling the story of a video game, and here we are talking about it: the game has changed.