Shoot first, ask questions later
The BBC’s game season makes Steven Poole switch off and play
On the one hand, it’s a cheering sign of the times that the BBC’s Make It Digital season this autumn ran two high-profile programmes about videogames: one a feature-length drama, and one a documentary in the prestigious Horizon strand. On the other, it’s a melancholy sign of the times that both were about the mouldy canard of whether games cause violence.
The Gamechangers was an expensive drama starring someone who used to be Harry Potter and was now pretending to be Sam Houser, head of Rockstar Games. It was set in the era of Vice City and the San
Andreas Hot Coffee controversy, and also starred Bill Paxton as Jack Thompson, who filed a class-action lawsuit after the teenager Devin Moore shot three cops and, in his legal defence, claimed PTSD and a “dissociative state” after obsessive playing of Grand Theft
Auto: Vice City.
There were some incidental details to enjoy: I liked Houser’s line about how he wanted videogames where, “You don’t have to become a penguin, or some shitty hairy elf.” But the script was condescending to everybody concerned. Houser was portrayed as paranoid and petulant, much was mockingly made of Thompson’s Christianity and Anglophobia (“It’s a disgusting picture of America made by some Brits”), and we saw the killer Moore do literally nothing except shoot cops in Vice City before he actually shot cops for real. (His mother was smoking a cigarette as he played, unmistakably implying an abusive family background.)
Formally, then, the film affirmed the story that GTA had caused Moore to murder: what’s more, his real-life actions were shot in a thirdperson videogame viewpoint before the camera pulled back and up to become a chase-cam as Moore drove off in a squad car. Less rhetorically partisan, at least, were other such playful touches: the film finished with aplomb when an annoyed Houser, walking out into the Manhattan streets at night, hijacked a car and drove off as the picture morphed into mid-’00s console graphics. But by the time a title card popped up to declare “There is still no conclusive evidence that videogames make people violent. The debate continues”, it looked disingenuous, for the entire film had endorsed the idea they do.
The Horizon documentary was uneasily subtitled Are Videogames Really That Bad? (Sure, they’re bad! But are they that bad?) It had the usual mise-en-scène: some fine videogame critics were made to stand awkwardly in a white office; psychologists and neuroscientists were filmed slowly walking down corridors. (Like in an FPS, geddit?) The programme spent a long time presenting evidence that games increase aggression, before using other experts to deconstruct that evidence to conclude that they don’t. The programme then pulled the same trick a second time, mooting the idea of gaming “addiction” and then saying that it’s not that bad for most people. Only in the last third was there interesting, positive information on how playing games causes growth in the brain areas associated with visuospatial coordination, strategic planning, and fine motor control, and that they can help older people improve their attention span and working memory. Perhaps one day,
Neuroracer designer Adam Gazzaley nicely suggested, a videogame might be prescribed by a doctor as “a therapy, a digital medicine”.
Horizon thus showed all too clearly the limits of what can be done in mainstream TV at the moment. Any documentary apparently still has to start from scratch in explaining what modern games are like, presumably because commissioners assume the audience is as out of touch as they are. But once you’ve done that, and then spent most of the rest of the programme refuting myths, there’s not much time left to say anything very interesting. You certainly can’t try to defend videogame violence for its artistry. No one was invited to point out that the US cable series Hannibal, for instance, is far more violent than any game ever made, yet has had the mainstream critics fawning over it for its baroque, highly aestheticised murder scenes.
Perhaps, at least, the programme will have been a public service to that tiny segment of the population that has never played games and gleans all it knows about them from Daily Mail headlines. Licence-fee money well spent, no doubt. Me, I switched over from iPlayer and decided to creep up to the top of an outpost in Afghanistan at night, where I gleefully killed all the guards with mortar fire before they ever saw me. It was beautiful.
Any TV documentary apparently still has to start from scratch in explaining what modern games are like