The Gamechangers And Showing Creativity

On Tuesday night, the BBC aired The Gamechangers, their one-off drama about the making of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the court cases brought against Rockstar Games by US lawyer Jack Thompson. This seems like rich subject matter, but the results proved a disappointment in nearly every way.

Other people have already written accurate reviews and rounded up what Rockstar and former GTA developers thought of it, so I’m not going to do either of those things. Instead I want to talk about the film’s failure to offer insight – or even to attempt to depict – the game development process. Mostly I’m going to talk about James L. Brooks’ 1987 movie Broadcast News.

Dramatising the creative process is difficult, because there’s little that’s active or exciting about the reality of making things. It would be hard to endure long scenes of people sitting, thinking, hunched over a computer or a piece of paper, as I am now while I write this. The creative process is perhaps even harder to depict in videogames, given that the process isn’t leading towards any kind of performance. Where biopics about musicians have the thrill of an eventual music performance to add levity and motion to their stories, an international team building a videogame leads only towards more people, in their homes, hunched over computers to play it.

Yet still I think dramatising that process is possible, and Broadcast News is part of the reason why. The film stars Holly Hunter, Al Brooks and William Hurt as television news reporters, and while there is performance involved, the film also depicts the mechanisms of production, including writing, shooting, producing and editing. The Gamechangers shunts any equivalent activities entirely off-screen, whereas Broadcast News not only puts them on-screen, it uses them to convey character and to develop personal relationships.

Here’s a scene in which Holly Hunter and Al Brooks are recording and making final edits to a story minutes before it’s due to be broadcast.

Not only does the scene show actual editing and recording happening, it also tells you about Holly Hunter’s character’s obsessive attention to detail and her stubborn commitment to quality. It’s tense and exciting. There’s reaction shots which establish more about William Hurt’s character than the entirety of Gamechangers told me about Sam Houser. Better yet, the scene is funny.

Broadcast News is full of moments like these. Scenes which find ways to elevate the creative process, which move beyond that figure hunched over a desk even while still remaining or feeling authentic. These moments aren’t just set dressing either. They serve to humanise the characters by letting us see their fears, their desires, and all the other stuff that makes for compelling characters and stories.

By comparison, The Gamechangers seems afraid to deal with the details of game production. That hurts not only the authenticity of the story, but there’s also nothing put in its place. Its characters seem idle and uninteresting because what’s active and interesting about them has been removed, leaving only the broad strokes: Sam Houser has a beard, Sam Houser likes ping pong, Sam Houser wears Rockstar branded clothing in case you forget what he does for a living because there’s no other evidence of it on screen.

Here’s another scene from Broadcast News. I could embed the whole movie this way:

The same again: drama, humour, revealing of character, and it moves the relationship along between Hurt and Hunter’s characters, and all while doing the work.

I can think of plenty of other films and television shows that succeed just as well, mostly by heightening reality to some extent, such that the creative act at its core works as a metaphor or example for whatever else the show is trying to say. Sam Seaborn’s obsessive commitment to writing a birthday message on The West Wing, even after he finds out it was given to him to do as a lark, exemplifies not just the character but the show’s whole romantic portrait of public service.

The Gamechangers tells us nothing about process and, as a result, tells us less about people than it should. Even if you put aside that it’s not set in Edinburgh, where much of the graft happens, there’s still no scene to show, for example, the writing process. One moment they’re in an office talking about taking it “to the next level,” the next they’re setting their game amid Los Angeles’ gangs. One moment they’re in a restaurant talking about wanting to do something more than a film pastiche, and the next moment CJ is their main character. How were these decisions made, or why, and what does that have to do with the characters, the story, or anything? It’s never clear. We’re told that Sam Houser is a genius, because that’s what other characters call him, but he only ever speaks in general and naive clichés.

Admittedly half the film – the marginally better half – is concerned with depicting Jack Thompson’s perspective as a lawyer who believes violent videogames are corrupting the young. Thompson’s rougher edges seem ignored, but at least you understand his motivation, and there’s a procedural rhythm, albeit truncated, to the court actions he pursues. You almost root for him.

Gamechangers was commissioned as part of the BBC’s Make It Digital campaign, which is designed to inspire young people to become interested in coding. Given that, it’s terribly disappointing that the film embraces the myth of the ‘ideas man’: the creative visionary with no apparent technical skills who makes demands until the work magically appears. Even though Sam Houser presumably did write an email that read “I’d like to see: Full sex.” – Houser’s emails from the period are about the only thing from Rockstar that the BBC had access to – it’s a shame the story didn’t focus elsewhere.

Perhaps instead it could have focused upon Dave Jones, an apprentice engineer who followed his interest in programming when he used his £3,000 redundancy package from a watch factory to take software engineering classes and co-found a games company called DMA Design with friends from Dundee’s Kingsway Amateur Computer Club.

This feature was originally published as part of, and thanks to, The RPS Supporter Program.

15 Comments

  1. caff says:

    I can’t believe I’m the first person to comment on this excellent article.

    In my view, no TV show about games is bad. Younger people need to be engaged with technology in our country – it’s a huge economy that can improve all our lives. And a lot of the themes in the film – such as the fantastical revenues that the GTA series has generated, and Rockstar’s desire for games to catch up with movies in terms of adult themes and emotional attachment – seemed particularly appropriate, given the trailblazing quality of their output.

    The BBC attempted a film about games, and for this I applaud them. Whilst clumsily written and lacking depth, it is far better than a feeling of ignorance by the press/mainstream media. I’m sure that as an employee or director, I’d be offended or at least annoyed about its inaccuracies and tabloid-esque sensationalism.

    I only wish more developers would open their doors, as Double-Fine have done with the excellent 2 Player Productions, and put their own story across to the world. I’d love to know more about the creative thought processes and ambitions behind games, beyond what I read in a Kickstarter post.

    • SMGreer says:

      I disagree with your sentiment that no TV show about games is bad BUT I totally agree that games as a medium could benefit from more insight into the development process. We see tid bits about some stuff in a game’s marketing campaign before relase but we seldom see in depth behind the scenes stuff like you got with say Lord of the Rings. To see a games development and creative process broken down by the makers, all the various layers involved, would be enthralling.

      What Double-Fine did was excellent and I wish more game studios would attempt the same.

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      Grizzly says:

      I can’t believe I’m the first person to comment on this excellent article.

      Well, there’s not much to add! It’s a damn fine article.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      But this movie did nothing to engage people with games, let alone technology. (Games are entertainment, not technology. That’s something else that the BBC doesn’t understand. Technology is used to produce them and to consume them but the same is true of movies and TV) There isn’t anything in this movie that connects with the process of games development. If you watch the documentary and imagine they’re producing a movie or a TV series, rather than a game, it makes almost no difference.

  2. Canazza says:

    I’d definitely agree about the DMA thing. Those guys left a legacy behind them in Dundee. Today that city is filled with Game developers, both student and professional. Not everyone succeeds mind you (see Real Time Worlds), and many of them end up doing mobile games, but even so there’s more game dev in Dundee than anywhere else in the country. (Though that’s probably got something to do with Abertay University pumping out new Game Devs every year)

  3. TillEulenspiegel says:

    Not only does the scene show actual editing and recording happening

    TV producers know how TV production works. Likewise, the early seasons of the West Wing are largely a writer’s story about writing.

    Understanding videogame development would require actual research for those who haven’t already worked in the industry.

  4. NephilimNexus says:

    I just can’t stop laughing at the picture. It’s like a bunch of hipsters decided to go as sports bros for Halloween.

    • WJonathan says:

      From the review, it sounds like that picture is a perfect caricature of the production.

  5. macka1080 says:

    As already mentioned, a wonderful article! I’ll second the recommendation of the Double Fine Adventure Documentary as an authentic representation of the development process, without being limp or dry. In terms of dramas, I also have to bring up Halt and Catch Fire, the AMC show that depicts the early days of the personal computer. Technical accuracy is faithfully maintained while ensuring that the characters go through compelling arcs and express sympathetic faults and desires. If a similar series could be produced on video games, it’d be perfect.

  6. Universal Quitter says:

    At the very least, I now have an 80s movie to track down and watch at some point.

  7. nervouspete says:

    And now I have to see this Broadcast News of which you speak. Indeed, looking at some clips online, I can safely say that it’s pretty much everything I want in a film. Man, I miss when there were films as fun as this with real characters and emotions that resonate. There’s still good films being made here and there, but too many of them are quietly soul-crushing affairs. I feel Broadcast News might have that perfect balance. Thank you so much Mr Smith for putting this film my way, never heard of it before now.

    As a return favour may I recommend three films back at you?

    Orlando – Probably the most weirdly beautiful historical epic Britain has ever produced. Tilda Swinton plays an Elizabethan dude who one night changes into a Regency woman. Everyone’s pretty cool about it. Brilliant because its one of the few films where the past feels right, as passing merchants and noblemen gather on the ice of the frozen Thames to chuckle at a market-woman frozen beneath the ice. Because slapstick death was appreciated as funny in a world of high mortality rates.

    Night of the Hunter – Two poor children in the deep south of the Great Depression flee from Robert Mitchum’s corrupt Preacher, who hunts them for the wealth their deceased affable bank-robbing pa left them. A pure slice of fairy-tale American-Gothic and at times very funny amidst the darkness.

    Miracle Mile – You really should go into this completely cold. It’s one of the greatest 80’s movies made; it’s weird, completely thrilling and has a fantastic propulsive score by Tangerine Dream. You really should take it on trust by me, it being much like trying to recommend Dark City to someone without giving anything away. But if you need to know a little more, well, okay……. It opens with a man arriving very late for his first date with a waitress who clocks off after midnight. He misses her, but picks up a ringing phone outside expecting it to be her returning the apologetic message he left on her answer machine. But it isn’t her. It’s a panicking man in a missile silo somewhere in the mid-west who’s trying to ring his dad to tell him that they’ve just launched a massive first strike against Russia. Can he find the girl and get out of the city? Was it a hoax or is it the real deal? Is the young man actually insane? Probably the best Twilight Zone type movie ever.

    Thang yew!

  8. JamesTheNumberless says:

    Can somebody please kickstart that Dave Jones documentary, immediately!

  9. Scrape Wander says:

    An astonishing film about approaching our work (not necessarily creative work, per se, but I think the film is anecdotally about the creative process) is The Conversation with Gene Hackman. I don’t see this film get enough love. As an amateur audio engineer, I find the approach in the film – of incrementally learning more about a tape recording the further and more closely you listen to it – echoes much about the process of coding.

  10. Muzman says:

    The unstated in this comparison, which some have alluded to, is that Brooks is a former news copywriter and has spent a decent amount of time in and around the creation of the thing Broadcast News is about. Then he’s also a creative and funny guy with a flair for storytelling.

    It seems no former games industry people who fit that description worked on Gamechangers. Or if they did, didn’t have much impact. One day maybe some person will come along who knows the business/process and can find some insightful drama in there that’s also educational.

    They might already exist though. I suspect there might be some other hurdles for such a film. Few producers and directors would be all that interested in this process or the prospect of making computer programming seem interesting to an audience. It’s a prejudice that’s pretty deeply held. Which brings me to point 2: this is because so few people understand it and the industry isn’t that interested in helping people along there. The games industry is still mainly a black box containing a tangle of NDAs. Which, it is assumed, if unraveled would reveal astonishingly boring things.

    As mentioned it is starting to change and open up a little bit. Chiefly through indies, but it’s a start. So hopefully somone will have a crack at this all again soon.

    • Sblahful says:

      Having read a fair few reviews of Gamechangers I have to say this has been the most insightful. Broadcast News looks brilliant!

      It’s a tough challenge to take something with the demands and frustrations of other creative processes, yet with an end result that’s as personal and unique an experience as reading a book. (Actually, can anyone recommend a film that shows the ‘performance’ of a book well?).

      That aside, it’s still painfully obvious that the writer & producers have no knowledge of coding, and only a passing knowledge of the game itself.

      Yet a good bit of finger-wagging should go to Rockstar IMO; they chose not to be involved and went so far as to file a lawsuit in an attempt to prevent it from being broadcast. Hardly helping the cause of coding and balance. And whilst their help would’nt have made up for such a naff script, it could have addressed the key complaint of most folk: that the film didn’t show how games were made.

      Mind you, there’s no guarantee that the production team would’ve used Rockstar’s input to have improved that side of the film at all.

      The key problem really seems to be that the film was commissioned on the basis of a book by David Kushner, Jacked, and not on the actual making of the game. Kushner couldn’t get access, and nor could the BBC. If they’d have changed it into an actual documentary, maybe they might have.

      (Jacked, by the way, also sounds terribly written, looking at Eurogamer’s 2012 review.)

      So Gamechangers was never intended to be about the making of GTA, or an insight into how games are made, or to look at why GTA was/is such a success. Gamechangers was simply shoehorned in as a showpiece for an otherwise pretty solid ‘Make it Digital’ season.

      So basically, there’s a huge void still to be filled by an actual documentary on all this, and it’s telling that Gamechangers didn’t actually have any actual researchers listed in the credits.

      Though it’s a shame it wasn’t a far more rounded beast, hopefully it’ll lead on to more and better things. Computing and Gaming on telly is a Good Thing, even when it’s done half-arsed.

      The rest of the programmes in Make it Digital (Also made at BBC Scotland) have been pretty good IMO; Ada Lovelace, Algorithms, and Horizon: Are video Games Really that Bad?

      (Disclosure: I have worked for BBC Scotland, but had no involvement with Gamechangers at all – I’m just an interested bystander, not a cheerleader.)