There was a sad inevitability about the reaction to The Gamechangers, the Grand Theft Auto documentary which aired yesterday on the BBC. It seemed to come into being all too quickly, from Daniel Radcliffe’s surprising casting a few months ago to its cliff notes adaptation of an already spurious book, to the awful pun of a title; a reprise of every lame video game related news article from the past twenty years.
Rockstar and the games press may be raging, but not all of the responses have been negative. A fair few people with no insight into the story or company seem to have taken it on its merits, and found something to enjoy. And yet as a centrepiece of the BBC’s Make It Digital season, designed to showcase the UK’s success stories and get people into coding, The Gamechangers seems an unmitigated failure: a drama which belittles its audience, short-changes its subject matter and fails to drive home that the biggest selling entertainment title in world history was made in Scotland.
@BBC Was Basil Brush busy? What exactly is this random, made up bollocks?— Rockstar Games (@RockstarGames) September 15, 2015
We’ve come to expect this from TV. A few weeks ago, US chat show host Jimmy Kimmel became embroiled in a minor spat when he mocked the concept of Let’s Plays. When YouTube commenters responded with their trademark deference, Kimmel used them to prove his own point, and then set up two guest YouTubers – Markiplier and MissesMae – in a series of skits, where he called them both nerds and tried to hook them up. The show was designed to put a lid on the criticism, but had the air of a big shot giving these internet guys their big break, ignoring the fact that online, Markiplier is a bigger deal than Kimmel. The whole thing paid lip service to understanding and showcasing this hugely popular pastime, and then proceeded to dismiss it entirely.
There’s a fairly convincing argument that we shouldn’t care about all of this. For many young people, YouTube and streaming services are already bigger than TV. Old media will die eventually, and the cheaper, more creative online world will continue to cater to currently maligned audiences. Or maybe, just as certain comedians and writers have begun to sneak games into popular culture, so executives will age down and sharpen up. They’ll realise that this content – done right – is a guaranteed draw. That the niche audience who will tune in for the novelty value of TV coverage actually isn’t so niche, what with games being, y’know, higher grossing than films and music combined.
Because here’s the thing: TV coverage of games doesn’t have to be bad. Games aren’t inherently boring to watch and discuss. If that isn’t proved by the millions of people streaming League of Legends and Hearthstone tournaments, or the several million views per episode of Game Grumps or Game Theory, look at the TV shows we’ve seen already. GamesMaster ran for six successful years under Dom Diamond and Patrick Moore's unlikely stewardship. Kids show Bad Influence! was CITV’s highest rated programme for three years running. Charlie Brooker’s Gameswipe and later documentary How Videogames Changed The World were both superb. And on current network TV another chat show host, Conan O’Brien, is working wonders with his Clueless Gamer feature, perving his way through big releases for an audience of 1.3 million.
The best thing about those skits is that in spite of the slightly tired nerd jokes, they normalise games. In true Let's play spirit, it's just two dudes having fun and chilling out, and people like it. There’s still a weird fixation on the notion of a ‘gamer’ – you wouldn’t do a segment called ‘Clueless Moviegoer’ – but Conan puts pay to Kimmel's claims alone. As long as that idea of an isolated gaming community exists, with the daunting prospect of 12 buttoned controllers and a £400 buy-in, it’s vital that TV addresses it. Breaking the stigma around the content of games should be as simple as showing people the latest indie darlings. But getting to a place where people will watch them and say ‘yeah, I could see myself enjoying that’? - that’s the real barrier.
Remarkably enough, the BBC have past form. In 2003, they debuted a show on BBC Two – once, long ago, the preserve of factual and experimental TV - called Time Commanders. The pretext was that groups of history buffs and average Joe tag-alongs would band together to re-enact historical battles, usually fighting from the losing side. It was presented initially by Radio 4 and Newsnight's Eddie Mair, and boasted one ‘celebrity’ edition with newscaster Kate Silverton and comedian Al Murray. There were history professors on commentary duty, interjecting with tactics and interesting titbits.
And it was all just a big game of Rome: Total War.
Writing on Eurogamer at the time, Dan Whitehead lamented that “How Videogames Changed The World ends up having to provide the answer to every question regarding games coverage on TV, simply because nobody else has bothered to try.”
We need those trailblazers. We’d like to hope that they can be better than The Gamechangers, of course, but if dodgy dramatic treatments of games can build an audience, I'll take it. People play games all the time, even if they don’t want to admit it – mobile games, gameified apps, sports and quizzes. Fun isn’t puerile, it’s just the way it’s packaged. Sneaking games back into history and other, nobler interests...that might just lay the groundwork.