The Needles

Jack Thompson Burnout: Can We Stop Now?


Many years ago, the History Channel learned a lesson: Too much of a good thing ain’t necessarily a good thing. The network’s penchant for Second World War programming led people in short order to begin calling it, both affectionately and derisively, “the Hitler Channel,” because for awhile, particularly in the late ’90s, it seemed as though you couldn’t surf past it more than three times consecutively without bumping into Der Fuhrer himself. And while the History Channel has over the years cut back on the Last Good War, the moniker lingers.

In much the same way, videogame news sites are beginning to butt up against a similar situation: to wit, the long, strange journey of the Jack Thompson Circus of Questionable Behavior. And while it’s hard to deny that “news is news,” the question we should perhaps be asking ourselves is a more fundamental one: Is Jack Thompson news?

Or more to the point, is he news we need to hear anymore? Thompson’s antics continue unabated, peaking recently with the inclusion of explicit gay pornography in a court motion filed in September. While it’s difficult to imagine topping that particular maneuver, he seems to be trying: In response to Judge Adalberto Jordan’s request to explain why he shouldn’t be referred to the court’s Ad Hoc Committee on Attorney Admissions, Peer Review and Attorney Grievance, Thompson filed 14 different responses and motions, none of which addressed the question at hand but did accuse Judge Jordan of lying and threatening him with legal damages. Needless to say, Thompson is expected to be paying a visit to the Ad Hoc Committee.

Does it matter? Thompson is facing disbarment over previous activity, and as his hearing grows nearer, his behavior seems increasingly bizarre and desperate. Whether he believes these may be his last few weeks to draw attention to himself as a practicing lawyer or that his actions will lead him down the path to vindication and redemption is academic; his erratic and combative stunts continue to draw attention, and as a result, Thompson is in the news, day after day.

You might say it’s better to have Thompson on the front page, where we can keep an eye on him, than buried in the back section, where he can more easily carry out his agenda unmolested. But the point is valid only as long as you accept that Thompson’s agenda is valid, or at least sane; once that line is crossed, however, legitimate news reporting begins to leak over into base voyeurism. If Thompson were a run-of-the-mill wacko, with a scruffy beard, dirty housecoat and a placard held over his head proclaiming, “THE END IS NIGH,” we’d avoid his gaze as we approached, maybe cross to the other side of the street and otherwise pay him no attention at all. But because Thompson is a lawyer, and because for years he was trotted out by various news organizations as a videogame “expert,” and because videogames remain such a complete mystery (and perhaps a bit scary) to the vast majority of the general public, he continues to carry far more gravitas than he has any real right to. And we, as a result, end up with simplistic sensationalism instead of reasoned debate.

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I have no idea what the solution is. Waiting for Jack to consign himself to the pits of absolute irrelevance sounds good, but who decides when he’s hit bottom? If he is disbarred, as many observers expect is inevitable, will we find ourselves free of him? Or will he instead become an even more high-profile foe of the industry, unfettered by the (arguably impotent) restrictions of his profession? Despite his extreme fringe behavior and alienation of even those who would otherwise consider him an ally, he continues to hang around, somehow managing to hold our attention even as we wonder why we’re giving him the time of day.

Which, of course, is a big part of the problem. We, the news guys of the world, bear some responsibility for Jack’s staying power, but a greater portion of the blame has to go to you, the people who read this stuff. “Giving them what they want” is a bit of a trashy justification, responsible for Jerry Springer, Judge Joe Brown and Spike TV, but it’s also a very truthful rationale behind Thompson’s ubiquitous presence on gaming sites around the world. We write about him, but you love him.

Yes, you love him. You flip him the virtual bird at every opportunity, shake your fists in anger whenever he speaks and call him names so vile I’m embarrassed to have my mom using the same internet you are, but you also follow his every step and misstep with an enthusiasm that can only be described as gleeful. His resolute stand against the videogame industry (and First Amendment rights along the way) has turned him into a bit of a Mussolini figure, swaggering, brash and completely ineffectual, in way over his head and still digging madly. Even recognizing his inherently mean spirit, his presence is welcome for the comic relief it provides.

So ultimately, the answer to the Thompson conundrum lies not with the news sites, but with the news readers. Jack is hits, and hits is good; it’s what keeps this whole thing rolling, so I’m told. If you think it gets tiresome reading about the man, try writing about him some time. In fact, try writing about him all the time. I think most of us would be quite happy to move on to other things, if you’d just let us. Which makes it all quite simple: Want us to stop talking about Jack? Stop reading about him.

In other news, Jack Thompson will be attending this year’s VideoGame Expo in Philadelphia. Details to follow.

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