Jack, I just want to say one thing: Don’t sue me.
I wouldn’t be your first. You’ve brought down the righteous hammer of justice on such varied personalities as Howard Stern, Rockstar and 2 Live Crew.
Since you are a real lawyer with a real degree from a real law school, I figure you have the tools to go after me, too. But wouldn’t that just distract you from your war on videogames, your battle for decency? Anyway, I’m just trying to set the record straight here, say something about you that hasn’t been said before, say something that might make sense out of all the information published about you on the Internet. I just want to try and understand why you hate videogames so much. So, like you Jack, I’m just doing my thing, and you know, curiosity is my only vice.
All Work and No Play…
Who is Jack Thompson? He calls himself the “Miami attorney the video game industry loves to hate – and with good reason.” The good reasons typically cited by the industry, when the industry does choose to speak with a common voice, which is never, runs like this: Jack Thompson is a rabid game hater and just doesn’t get it. He is convinced that games make people do things like become snipers and rampaging high school students. He is combative and humorless, and worse than that, he selectively uses facts to make his case to impressionable journalists, like those that work for CNN.
Fortunately, if you want to know more about Jack, he’s not a particularly private man. He likes to go on television and hate games, post to online forums and hate games, and send out the occasional open letter explaining why he hates games. He even has an autobiography coming out which, we can only assume, provides a little more detail about why he hates games.
He’s also got a growing entry in the Wikipedia, the weird mix of raw fact and scurrilous gossip we’ve come to refer to for all things historical. And by that, I mean I’m going to rely on the Wikipedia a lot, even though I think some of it might be wrong. This might sound like a lazy compromise but I really think of it as good old booze-soaked journalism. Sure, you can dip your sources from the sharp quote factories of the industry analysis and pundit pools. Or you can rely on the inside source, nicotine-stained and world-weary.
And what does my inside source have to say? A lot, really. The man is a Florida-based medical malpractice lawyer. But his story is so fantastical at times, it would be at home next to classic tales like “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
Jack’s beanstalk is media attention, and his giant-killing forum is the courtroom. While he’s fired legal shots at such massive targets as Sony and Nintendo, he’s made most of his noise in the media making claims about videogames’ harmfulness to youth and malicious indifference in the game industry. And along the way, he does things like accusing the Japanese of using games as a modern Pearl Harbor attack on American kids, demanding that Bill Gates personally pull Rockstar product from the Xbox and calling the FBI when someone makes a juvenile buddy icon depicting him. Really, Jack does things your grandma probably thinks sound reasonable, but leaves the average gamer scratching his head wondering why this guy has it out for games.
Keeping track of Jack’s activities is like trying to document an evening of binge drinking for an entire fraternity on a lost weekend in Vegas. You can make some general observations about “Mai Tai’s here. Barf there.” But you’re really just dipping your toe into the raging river.
Since I started to work on my Really Big Jack Thompson story, he has: been denounced by the National Institute on Media and the Family; denounced them back; announced a contest to build a satirical game based on a gamer who goes on a rampage and kills a lot of people; had a couple of developers make the game; reneged on his offer to pay $10,000 to a charity if the game was built, which led the fine fellows at Penny Arcade to respond by writing a $10,000 check to charity to cover Jack’s original promise and then sell “I Hate Jack Thompson” t-shirts, which led Jack to send a letter to the Seattle Police Department suggesting the PA guys were harassing him. Most recently, activist gamers responded to Jack’s threats against PA by urging the Florida bar to consider this as misconduct.
And I haven’t been working on the story that long.
You can pick up the phone and call Jack. His phone number is on his website. Just don’t expect much. If you’re lucky, you’ll get his answering machine. Leave a message, if you like, but unless, I suppose, you are CNN or Fox News, he won’t call you back. If you’re lucky, Jack will pick up the phone with a gruff, flat, “Hello.” You won’t get a, “Jack Thompson, Attorney at law. How may I help you and may Sam and Dan Houser burn a million years in hell for bringing Grand Theft Auto into the world.” Instead you get a short cautious conversation along the lines of, “Who are you, what do you want?” – the sort of stuff Neo kept asking in the Matrix. If Jack warms up to you, he might even divulge his email address with a plea to “Not share it with anyone,” since he’s been getting a lot of death threats. If you are not lucky, he’ll brush you off as a fanboy looking for a pound of flesh with an, “I’m too busy to talk now.” What’s frustrating is whether you get happy Jack or mad Jack on the line seems to be a lottery. Every time I tried to arrange an interview with him, it seemed like a different Jack had answered the phone.
Both Jack’s seem to agree, however, talking to the gaming press wasn’t the best way to advance his cause. Better, I guess, to spend time on television getting the facts wrong (like claiming characters in The Sims come equipped with pubic hair and genitals) and stirring up concern in parents already too busy or lazy to just sit down in front of the PS2 long enough to see what their kids are, in fact, playing.
But what bothers me isn’t that Jack gets things wrong in the name of making a point. It’s that he seems to get them wrong just enough to make his point. And that’s why, even though gamers righteously dismiss Jack as some square who’s not hip to what the kids are doing, the rest of the world sees Jack as a guy in a nice suit who just might have a point.
And I wonder if this is actually his technique.
If you want to hurt someone, I mean really hurt them, don’t make up outrageous lies. Tell lies that are so close to the truth that they might be true, even if they are completely made up. Tell the world that George Bush has that kid Mikey from the Life commercials tied up in the White House basement and no one can take it seriously. Our president may be many things, but he’s not going to get a cameo in Silence of the Lambs III. Tell the world that Bush is in the pocket of the oil industry and it doesn’t matter whether it is true or not. It just sounds plausible.
This is a tactic that Jack seems to understand well. He once called Janet Reno a closeted lesbian and that hurt because, well, honestly, would a straight woman wear her hair like that? When Jack calls Doug Lowenstein, the head of the videogame industry’s primary trade group the Electronic Software Association, the Goebbels of the game industry, it stings.
Because, if nothing else, Jack knows how to hurt. And he seems to like it. Which makes him appear a lot like the frustrated 13-year-old boys in Everquest who have nothing better to do than build up characters to level 8,000, and then spend day after day annoying people in such a monumental manner that we had to give the behavior its own name: Griefing.
The psychology of the griefer is pretty simple. When nothing else in the world is under your control, why not spend your remaining vital energy pissing people off? If you can’t build something up, tear it down. A smoking crater is at least as noticeable as the nice building that once stood in its place. If nothing else, people will know you are there. At least they will care about you, even if it is just to take the time to hate you.
And griefing doesn’t just happen in the game world. I’ve heard these people aptly described as “sh** disturbers” for the simple reason that some people – a fortunately small fraction of a fraction of the population – can’t leave well enough alone. If there is a neat pile of anything – books, papers, people in a nice conversation at a party – the Disturber will come around and make a mess out of it.
Some people even turn this into an art.
I know a guy who corresponded with Charles Manson, was friends with Church of Satan founder Anton LeVey and has a fencing set said to be owned by former American Nazi party founder George Lincoln Rockwell.
A fellow writer, a rotund and omnivorous thinker who was liberal to the bone and as perceptive as a Geiger Counter once said of my pal, “He’s an intellectual anarchist; he’s not happy unless other people are unhappy.” What’s funny is that this guy, my friend with the interesting taste in pen pals, associates and memorabilia, was still connected to a basic form of order. He was not a Disturber. The people he found amazingly on the edge, further out than his frontier of weirdness, were not just intellectual anarchists; they were, well, Disturbers of the first order.
And I’m starting to think that maybe, this is really the center of Jack Thompson. I think, deep in his bones, Jack likes flipping the Monopoly board over just to see the colorful confetti of play money flying through the air. Because it sure seems like Jack just doesn’t want anyone to have any fun.
I wanted to talk to Thompson for the simple reason that as a gamer and free speech advocate, I’m supposed to hate Jack Thompson. And that sounds like the sort of challenge any free-thinking intellectual would jump at. Besides, for all I know, he may be on to something.
What we know for sure, when it comes to videogames and violence, is that we don’t know enough. Games certainly have not spawned any apocalypse of violence. Then again, I’m not sure we should run around saying games have no effect at all. Of course they do. I don’t play Halo 2 for the pleasure of being bored. I like it because it is fun to blow someone away with a sniper rifle. It’s even better when you can tag some chump up close with a sticky grenade. If you can pistol whip another guy to death, that’s just artistry.
My studied conclusion about games and violence is that games make us wild and crazy and bloodthirsty, but just for a controlled period of time in front of the screen. And from what I can gather, unless you are already in desperate need of a daily Halloween bucket of meds, this exposure to violent material doesn’t leave you with any lingering urge to harm your fellow man.
Still, like Jack, I’m not a social scientist, a cognitive scientist or even a doctor of love. So I assume that Jack does what I do – scrape around for facts and opinions, try to figure out what is true and bother people with your opinions at cocktail parties. Only I suspect that Jack looks at the entire internet as his cocktail party.
What fascinates me the most about Jack is that the power relationships are all screwed up, sort of the way they are in a Quentin Tarantino movie. In most real life situations, someone is in charge and someone else has to go along with things. Cops pull you over and you say, “Yes officer, no officer.” And even if you go to court, you say, “Yes your honor, no your honor.” Tarantino’s films always seem to end up in some sort of a Mexican Standoff between people that love each other, and want the same things, but don’t trust each other and might be too criminally insane to know the difference. This sort of sums up the Russian and U.S. Cold War policy of “mutually assured destruction,” and how just about anyone feels about their mother-in-law.
And so it is with Jack. Because his dirty secret is out there for everyone to see. Jack Thompson needs the videogame industry. Without Rockstar and nutty child assassins, what would Jack do? Personal injury law? Bankruptcy? Divorce mediation?
Nope. Everyone who likes to stir things up needs something to stir. And Jack needs the videogame industry to rise to the occasion. Don’t you have to wonder what it’s like being Jack? He brought legal action against Howard “I used to be the king of media,” Stern and 2 “Didn’t they use a naughty word in a rap song 20 years ago?” Live Crew? Jack needs games and, strangely enough, games need Jack.
No celebrity has really made it until they either been Punk’d or get a restraining order against some crazed fan. That’s the standard of having attained the top in pop culture. And Jack is a reminder that the videogame industry is big enough and important enough and cool enough for someone to hate.
Just as Bowser had to rise to the challenge of foil and villain for Mario once Donkey Kong was co-opted into a big, furry good guy, gaming needs an ever present bad guy boss. Through confrontation, we can see what matters, what it all means, where it all ends up.
The difference between Bowser and Jack is more than a spiked turtle shell and a malevolent laugh. Bowser exists for the game; Jack exists in spite of the game. Like the online griefer, the contradiction is that when someone makes ending fun the focus of their fun, then it’s only a matter of time until there is no fun for anyone. And that’s no fun at all.
David Thomas is the founder of the International Game Journalists Association. He also provides commentary and criticism at buzzcut.com.