46 pages 1 hour read

Neal Shusterman

Game Changer

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


Game Changer is a young-adult novel with elements of speculative fiction and LGBTQ+ themes, published in 2021 by HarperCollins and written by American author Neal Shusterman. Shusterman’s work spans multiple genres and media, including young-adult novels and short stories, picture books, games, nonfiction, poetry, and television and film scripts. Some of his most popular work includes the Arc of a Scythe (2016-2019) and the Unwind (2007-1015) series, as well as Downsiders (1999) and Full Tilt (2004), novels which earned over 20 awards each. Shusterman’s writing often explores themes surrounding identity and shared human experiences, with an emphasis on empathy and growth. Game Changer, in particular, focuses on the journey of Ash, a young American teenager, as he learns to shift between different versions of the universe. Through his explorations, Ash comes to learn about different perspectives and explores the themes of Identity and Perspective, Passive Privilege Versus Active Allyship, and Gray Morality. This guide refers to the 2021 Quill Tree Books hardback edition.

Content Warning: The novel addresses themes of identity and social justice, including discussions of gender, social class, sexuality, race, and disability. The narrative depicts racism (including fictional racial slurs), homophobia, and domestic violence.

Plot Summary

Ashley “Ash” Bowman, a white heterosexual teenager who plays football on his high school team, is the protagonist and narrator of Game Changer. He lives with his working-class parents and his younger brother, Hunter. His best friend, Leo Johnson, is a Black quarterback with a promising future. Some of Ash’s other friends include Paul, his math tutor, and Katie, whom he has a crush on. The latter is dating Layton, a teammate of Ash’s who is controlling and abusive.

During the opening game of the season, Ash experiences a shock that, although it does not cause a concussion, brings about an ominous feeling. While driving home after the game, Ash’s car is almost totaled by an oncoming truck because he did not notice the stop sign, as the sign is now blue instead of red. When Ash enquires about the color of stop signs, everyone responds that stop signs have always been blue.

Via the next football collision, Ash seems to hop realities again—he soon realizes that he now inexplicably lives in a mansion, as his father has had a successful football career in the NFL. He and Hunter are also much closer. Ash unsuccessfully tries to reconcile the two conflicting versions of his reality, so he confides in Katie, who is intrigued but does not fully believe him. Later, Ash learns that in this reality, he is also selling drugs and has secretly slept with Leo’s sister, Angela. Ashamed of his behavior, he vows to stop dealing and do right by his best friend.

During the next game, a heavy blow sends Ash into a world where the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education had a different outcome and upheld segregation instead of declaring it unconstitutional. In this world, Ash and Leo are not friends, since Leo goes to a different school and works as a cashier. Ash befriends him nonetheless and tells Leo about the other (much more positive) version of reality, and Leo reluctantly believes him.

Meanwhile, Ash meets some entities posing as an ever-increasing number of skateboarders whose role is to maintain balance in the universe. These beings, whom he nicknames “the Edwards,” identify and train the subjective locus, or the latest center of the universe. Ash, who is currently the sub-loc, is accidentally shifting into a different universe each time that he is knocked into with force. He must now learn to control his shifts to be able to return to his original universe before a black hole swallows it. Ash teams up with Katie and Leo, who remember glimpses of their original lives due to their proximity to him.

At the next game, Ash attempts to control the changes in the world around him and shifts into a universe where he is gay and dating Paul. Ash comes out to his family and schoolmates about his relationship with Paul upon realizing that he is in love with him. Ash is later assaulted by his drug dealer for refusing to sell anymore, which prompts him to shift and inadvertently delete his attackers from all universes.

During the next game, Ash is unable to shift due to his conflicting emotions. He keeps training with the Edwards to avoid the end of the world, which is getting increasingly closer, causing natural disasters and more and more conflicts. At the following game, another player injures Ash, who accidentally shifts into a universe where he is a female cheerleader dating Layton. Soon after, Leo is arrested for defending an unarmed Black man by tackling an armed white man. Female Ash, acting on feelings from his past self, tries to kiss Paul. When Layton finds out, he attacks Paul and tries to kill Ash. At the last moment, Paul revives and knocks Layton unconscious. As the Edwards flee, abandoning Earth, Ash sacrifices herself to stave off the end of the world.

Ash wakes in the hospital, back in his original universe and body. He and Layton were in a car accident after their game, which has left them both permanently disabled. Ash has lost his left leg, which is amputated from the knee down, and Layton will be paralyzed for life. Katie decides to stay with Layton, at least temporarily, given his condition; though Ash is certain she’ll leave him eventually, Ash also knows any chance of romance between himself and Katie is gone. Ash vows to work on his relationship with Hunter and his friendship with Paul. He is briefly visited by one of the Edwards, who promises that Ash will accomplish great things in his future.