Trig­ger Happy

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

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