This week: Television takes a look at videogames. Remains unsure
The question at the heart of both The Gamechangers, a feature-length drama about the creators of the Grand Theft Auto series of computer games, and this week’s Horizon science documentary was the same: does playing violent video games make you more violent?
For once I am able to proffer an informed opinion on the matter, as I spent most of my time between the ages of eight and 20 playing video games with names like Mortal Haemorrhage Asylum 4. As such I can say with total assurance that yes, playing violent video games did make me much more violent. Unfortunately so did losing at Monopoly. And failing my driving test. I didn’t go out on a shooting spree, granted, but I do recall chucking a ring binder across the room and unleashing a volley of invective at the cat. If an AK-47 had been to hand who knows what might have happened. Anyway, the point was it was the frustration at being rubbish, not the thing I was rubbish at, that led to the tantrums.
And there’s the rub, a salty, spicy rub that was smeared all over both The Gamechangers and Horizon. The Gamechangers came at it through the now familiar route of fictionalised facts. It was a true story subtly altered for dramatic effect, and to great dramatic effect I should add, by Rev writer James Wood. Daniel Radcliffe played Sam Houser, a British game creator who with his brother came up with Grand Theft Auto, a gratuitously violent game but a monumentally successful one (its most recent incarnation made $1bn in three days.) Bill Paxton played Jack Thompson, a self-styled fight-the-good-fight lawyer who thought Houser and his company Rock Star Games were ‘drenching our children in depravity and violence and making money out of it.’
The Gamechangers worked its way through both sides of the story, showing, in classic style, that Thompson and Houser were basically monomaniacal peas from the same pod. Both saw themselves as serving higher powers – Thompson the good Lord, Houser the artistic muse. What one thought was ‘the gravest assault on children in this country since polio,’ the other saw as a new form of immersive culture. The major difference between them was that Thompson liked golf whereas Houser liked ping pong (and by the way, unless he had a pong double Daniel Radcliffe should definitely consider pro table tennis when the fame game gets too much).
The film was set, I should have said, around 2003. This means that more than a decade on it looks distinctly as if Houser has won the argument. Horizon, the next night, helpfully chipped in to tell us that youth violence in the US has fallen by 83% in the last two decades. Grand Theft Auto and its ilk hasn’t washed away unblemished youth in a sea of depravity. Whereas undoubtedly videogames have evolved to a point where both commercially and artistically they are a match for anything you’ll see on, for example, television. A little odd, then that such an ardent defender of free speech and artistic expression as Houser and Rock Star are in the process of suing the BBC for whatever it is that they see as wrong with The Gamechangers.
They’d have done better just to have pointed any critics to the next night’s Horizon, which brought the still, strong microscope of science to bear on the question of whether computer games are messing with your children’s brains. Before I watched the show I scribbled down a synopsis of how I thought it would go, and I have to say – Level UP! – that I was right. Part one: social science. Studies have shown this, according to eminent psychologist one, but studies have also shown the opposite, according to eminent psychologist two.
Part two, bring on the neurogeeks and their functional MRI scanners, showing which bits of your brain light up when you are slaying cops on Grand Theft Auto. And then part three, the big switcheroo, in which the programme closes by asking is the thing that we all assume is bad for you actually good for you? Could today’s addicted gamers be tomorrow’s surgeons, with all of those exquisite fine motor skills? Why yes, they could. Maybe.
What struck me most in both The Gamechangers and Horizon was how little I know about what these games that we’re all supposed to be fearing or not fearing actually consist of. It reminded me of all the foofaraws about various TV programmes over the years, when politicians go on Newsnight all aghast, only to reveal they haven’t actually watched the deeply offensive item in question. There was a great scene in The Gamechangers were Paxton’s zealot lawyer sat down to play GTA, for research purposes only you understand, and then his wife came home a few hours later to find him in a state of what appeared to be borderline enjoyment. Are Video Games Bad for You? is as stupid a question as Is TV Bad for You?, or Are Puddles Deadly? It depends on the context, and on the game, and what I took out of both shows was that I really should go and play some of them to at least make an attempt to cross the culture chasm between my generation and the next. Although I’d probably get really angry.
As a coda to all this BBC4 offered up Calculating Ada, an exquisite little documentary. In both The Gamechangers and Horizon everyone was looking for someone to blame. Calculating Ada had the answer: we can all blame Ada Lovelace. Lovelace, Byron’s only legitimate daughter, no less, was basically the inventor of software, 130 years before Silicon Valley had even been named. Lovelace was the only one who saw the potential of Charles Babbage’s great room-sized mechanical computer, the Analytical Engine. Naturally, being a woman in the 19th century she was laughed out of the room and spent the rest of her life trying and failing to enchant the odds on the racetrack. But what she had seen was revolutionary: a computer is a tool that can do many amazing things, but only a human can dream up what amazing things it can do. In The Gamechangers Sam Houser had a picture of the blockbusting Hollywood producer Don Simpson on his wall. Ada Lovelace would have been a better heroine.