Title: Game Changer
Author: Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Quill Tree Books
Publication date: February 9, 2021
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Review copy
All it takes is one hit on the football field, and suddenly Ash’s life doesn’t look quite the way he remembers it.
Impossible though it seems, he’s been hit into another dimension—and keeps on bouncing through worlds that are almost-but-not-really his own.
The changes start small, but they quickly spiral out of control as Ash slides into universes where he has everything he’s ever wanted, universes where society is stuck in the past…universes where he finds himself looking at life through entirely different eyes.
And if he isn’t careful, the world he’s learning to see more clearly could blink out of existence…
Ash Bowman is a straight, white, 17-year-old male, a lineman on the high school football team, son of working class parents, a good student, and a good friend. He considers himself pretty woke, not particularly a social activist, but sensitive and caring, and certainly not making the world any worse.
As the book starts, in the middle of a high school football game during a particular hard tackle, Ash has a weird sensation, but it’s over in a moment. Probably just the impact from the tackle, nothing to worry about. It’s not until Ash is driving home and nearly gets hit by a truck in an intersection that he realizes something is wrong. The friend in the passenger seat points out that Ash blew through a stop sign. Impossible, Ash thinks, until he gets to the next intersection and sees the familiar shape of a stop sign — but it’s blue. And to everyone but Ash, that’s completely normal. Stop signs have always been blue.
Ash knows something is wrong, but can’t pinpoint what. But at the next football game, during his next hard tackle, there’s another strange moment, and this time, there’s an even bigger shift in reality. When he heads to the parking lot, instead of his beat-up old car, Ash realizes that he drives a BMW. Rather than living in a poorer part of town, his family now lives in a gated community. Rather than leaving behind his football dreams in high school Ash’s dad is a retired NFL star who now owns a successful business chain, and the family lives in luxury. And once again, Ash is the only person who remembers that the world was once different, although those closest to him seem to have some almost-memories that they can’t quite explain.
With each impact at each game, Ash’s world shifts further and further from his own. He finds changes within himself, as well as in the world around him. Ash suddenly finds himself needing to confront racism, homophobia, and sexism in ways that were never quite as immediate in his original life. And as he learns to control the shifts, he faces a dilemma — does he continue to aim for a better world, or to go back to his own flawed world and try to be a voice for change?
The hows and whys of Game Changer have to do with some sci-fi mumbo jumbo that’s fun but not all that important. It’s not meant to be real quantum physics or anything, just a bit of hand-waving to set up the story and what happens. And that’s okay. The mechanics behind Ash’s world-shifting aren’t what matter here — the heart of the story is about Ash standing in different versions of his life and finally understanding other perspectives from the inside.
Some of these realizations are a little simplistic, as he lives out the concept of walking in someone else’s shoes. Still, it’s interesting to see this character, who’s always considered himself one of the good guys, come to grips with what it’s like to be someone else, what it’s like to lose privilege, and finally get what a friend has been telling him over the years — you can’t explain someone else’s experiences to them if you’re not them.
In some ways, Game Changer reminded me of David Levithan’s Every Day, in which the main character wakes up in a different person’s body each day and has to adapt to living as them, whatever their gender, orientation, race, economic status, or body type. In Game Changer, Ash is always Ash, but with the shifts in worlds, he becomes different versions of himself, and must learn to inhabit that self in the world he finds himself in.
Game Changer is a quick, intriguing read, and I think the target YA demographic will really find it though-provoking and a great jumping-off point for some intense discussions. Definitely worth checking out.