Stay on target
For too long the definition of “Game of the Year” has been unfairly narrow. How boring is it to see every website shower the same stale AAA games with praise at the end of each holiday season? So at Geek.com, we’re doing what we can to put a stop to this in Game of the Year, a new column celebrating worthy alternative picks for the year’s greatest game regardless of genre, platform, year of release, or even quality. Here, any game can be Game of the Year!
Recently the world lost a great actor. Bill Paxton passed away on February 25 at the age of 61. You probably remember Paxton from beloved James Cameron films like The Terminator, Aliens, True Lies, and Titanic. Or maybe you’re a Twister or Apollo 13 fan. Heck, he was even a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He played villainous Hydra spy John Garrett in the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Just don’t confuse him with Bill Pullman.
This week’s game of the year celebrates Bill Paxton’s contribution to video games. No, we’re not talking about his parts in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare or Sewer Shark. This week’s game of the year is the 2015 film The Gamechangers, starring Paxton as famous real-life video game villain Jack Thompson.
Jack Thompson’s failed crusade against video games is practically gamer folklore at this point but here’s a recap. Throughout the 1990s Thompson, a Christian conservative Florida lawyer, spent his time going after rap groups and Clinton allies he believed were obscene. He eventually turned his attention to toward video games, especially the super violent, super popular Grand Theft Auto games from Rockstar. This reached a breaking point once the secret sex minigame inside GTA: San Andreas was discovered and the game was reclassified as Adults Only.
Around the same time there was a lot of concern in the gaming industry surrounding legislation trying to limit the sales of violent games to children in draconian ways beyond the industry’s own ESRB ratings. But the legislation failed, a Supreme Court ruling made games protected speech like any other art form, Rockstar continued to make a ton of cash, and Thompson was permanently disbarred for being an incompetent lawyer. Everything worked out. Frankly, the worse thing Thompson ultimately accomplished was causing GamerGate idiots to brand anyway who talks about actual problems in games as Thompson analogues.
The Gamechangers is a BBC made-for-TV version of this story, and it’s pretty cheesy in a very made-for-TV kind of way. It’s lurid exaggeration like Law & Order, but instead of being ripped from the headlines it just is the headline. Shots of a teenager going on a killing spree after playing GTA are framed like a play session of GTA itself. Rockstar co-founder Sam House, the film’s other lead, does research for San Andreas by hanging out in “the hood” and later sees the world literally turn into GTA around him. Gamers might appreciate offhand references to the development of other Rockstar games like Bully and Manhunt 2. But when a major plot point hinged on Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis of all games I nearly fell out of my chair laughing.
The one thing that makes The Gamechangers at least a more intriguing piece of made-for-TV schlock is the acting. Bill Paxton imbues Jack Thompson with more sympathy than that hack deserves quite frankly. Meanwhile, Daniel Radcliffe plays Sam Houser as this twitchy, bratty boy genius who comes across as “What if Mark Zuckerberg was a British white dude really into gangster movies and urban culture for some grating reason?” But apparently that’s not too far off from the real guy. Radcliffe’s post-Harry Potter film choices continue to be super fascinating. The man played a faring corpse and did a spectacular job!
The gaming world is in a different place than it was in 2005, and not just because Jack Thompson thankfully vanished from the face of the Earth. Rockstar still makes violent games, but it seems like the company has gone from teenagers purposefully trying to get a rise out of squares to talented but grumpy millionaires. Call it the South Park path. Meanwhile, games like Red Dead Redemption and its upcoming sequel attempt to have more soul than the satire GTA settles for. And because of that Supreme Court ruling, no one has anything to fear about these games being “banned” or “censored.”
So The Gamechangers represents an interesting time capsule of gaming’s not-too-distant past in the broader culture. Track it down if you can and enjoy this cinematic Game of the Year. RIP Bill Paxton.
Check back next week to read about the next Game of the Year!