It all sounds so inspiring, doesn’t it? When the BBC announced it was making a drama about the British computer pioneers behind the world’s biggest video game, the broadcaster hailed Grand Theft Auto, the game the programmers created, as “arguably the greatest British coding success story since Bletchley Park”.
On one level, the claim makes perfect sense. Grand Theft Auto – a series of games created by a team of Brits headed by two public-school educated brothers from Surrey – is the fastest-selling entertainment product on the planet. The most recent version of GTA earned $1 billion in its first three days. (Compare that to the fastest-selling movie ever, Jurassic World, which managed just a fifth of that amount over its opening weekend.) But you may wonder whether this record-beater really is such a source of national pride.
If you’re new to the world of video gaming, you need to know that Grand Theft Auto (GTA) is no Space Invaders or Pac-Man. A bloodthirsty adventure set in urban America, you play a criminal. Your mission: to steal what you see, torture the people who get in your way, murder passers-by – even rape women. This is a place – depicted in hyper-real graphics – with the look of a movie, where you don’t merely escape punishment for killing a police officer, but where you are positively rewarded for doing so.
In America, Hillary Clinton – then a mere senator, now possibly the next president – claimed at the outset that the game was “stealing the innocence of our children”. In this country, the Police Federation labelled it “sick, deluded and beneath contempt”.
And now Daniel Radcliffe – still a boy wizard to most of us – is to step out on screen as Sam Houser, the boy from East Sheen in south-west London who started the whole thing. The Gamechangers is a factual drama focusing on a particular chapter in the story of Grand Theft Auto: a fascinating battle between Houser and his company, Rockstar Games, and Jack Thompson, a crusading lawyer who, when the game first went on sale in 1997, advocated for the US to adopt the UK law which restricts the selling of it to anyone under its age rating.
Thompson – who brought lawsuits against the games company, and campaigned on university campuses and in TV studios across the United States – is no ordinary crusader, frequently comparing himself to Batman (he even wears a Batman watch). He has described GTA as “the gravest assault upon children in this country since polio”.
Houser, meanwhile, is an intensively private character – who, it seems, wants nothing to do with this re-enactment of his life. Indeed, when the BBC announced that it was planning to make the drama, Rockstar’s response was to sue the BBC for alleged trademark infringement. (The BBC, for its part, says that lawyers are in discussion, but it will not comment on what they’re discussing.) Little surprise, then, that when Sam Houser was asked for an interview as part of the research for the film the request was denied.
James Wood, writer of The Gamechangers, describes both protagonists as “clever, driven, witty men who come from fiercely opposing viewpoints”. Wood says that this story is “a lot more than just a load of geeks sitting around a computer terminal… It deals with freedom of speech versus protecting our kids; of a European sensibility to sex and violence versus an American one; of young people versus older people.”
And just as no one had really looked into the life of an ordinary urban vicar before he wrote the award-winning sitcom Rev, Wood says of Grand Theft Auto’s untold story: “I couldn’t think of many films or TV programmes that have been made about the people who make these games. Or even any.”
Yet, as Wood points out, those extraordinary sales figures demonstrate that computer gaming is a central part of modern popular culture.