The media moral panic about violent video games, with special guest star Jack Thompson and his shenanigans.

Considering that Jack Thompson was disbarred in 2008 and has laid lower than a snake’s heinie ever since, it’s shocking to think that a whole generation of video gamers are now growing up without ever hearing his name. At the end of our offensive video games post, we regretted not having room to include his shenanigans. Jack Thompson’s mere existence is a sound argument for never calling anything else offensive, ever again.

How to explain this to you kids? Where to even start? If you were a gamer anywhere between the years 1997-2008, Jack Thompson loomed over your whole world like a cloud of volcanic ash. Jack Thompson was the COVID-19 of the gaming world for the first decade of the 21st century. Even if all you were into was rap music, shock-jock radio hosts, or naughty pictures, he was also your scourge. Imagine the most stereotypical, fundie, Southern Baptist Reverend, moral guardian from your worst nightmares. Now imagine he’s a lawyer and he sues literally every media company you want to do business with.

Jack Thompson’s main gig was suing video game companies, claiming that violence in video games caused real-life violence. Your humble author cannot for the life of me locate a lifetime total of his lawsuits anywhere in internet archives, but I can say with confidence that his win rate was el zippo: 0. He won zero lawsuits.

Crazy Moments With Jack Thompson : Some Highlights

1988: Initially provoked by the song “Boys Want Sex in the Morning” on Miami, Florida, radio station WIOD, Thompson dogged the FCC into fining the station $10K. He then sued the station for criticizing him, specifically Neil Rogers’ talk show. The dispute led to a very public fight in which Thompson and station officials stormed out of the courtroom yelling insults at each other.

1988: While running for prosecutor in Miami-Dade county, Florida, Thompson had a dispute with then Dade County State Attorney Janet Reno (before she became US Attorney General), rival candidate. The incident entails that Thompson handed a form letter to Reno with boxes she was to check to indicate whether she was “homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual.” Reno put a hand to his shoulder to conference with him about why grown-ups don’t do that. That touch on the shoulder led to a battery lawsuit from Thompson.

1990: While attempting to use the court system to censor the album As Nasty as They Wanna Be by the rap group 2 Live Crew, Thompson compares himself to Batman. 2 Live Crew had to battle obscenity charges to get their album released. Unfounded rumor has it that Thompson faxed people copies of his driver’s license with the photo replaced with Batman.

1999: Thompson represents three families of victims of the Heath High School shooting in West Paducah, Kentucky. The perpetrator, 14-year-old student Michael Carneal, was alleged to have consumed media extending to video games Doom, Quake, Castle Wolfenstein, Redneck Rampage, Nightmare Creatures, MechWarrior, and Resident Evil; the film The Basketball Diaries, and the novel Rage by Stephen King. The lawsuit alleges that consumption of this media drove him to the shooting. Thompson’s quote to the press: “We intend to hurt Hollywood. We intend to hurt the video game industry. We intend to hurt the sex porn sites.” Both the case and the appeal are thrown out.

2005: Thompson in his long, long crusade against the Grand Theft Auto series, coins the term “murder simulator.”

2005:A Modest Video Game Proposal” – Thompson writes an open letter to the video game community, challenging it to release a video game of Thompson’s own invention. The idea he proposed would show video game developers are the targets of homicide. Thompson pledged to donate $10K to a charity if this game were to see the light of day. After the release of the game I’m O.K – A Murder Simulator in 2006, Thompson welshed on his promise and webcomic creator of Penny Arcade paid the money in his name instead.

So there: Real-life violence did cause violence in a video game, at least once.

2008: Jack Thompson is finally charged by the Florida Supreme Court with “abusing the legal system by submitting numerous frivolous and inappropriate filings in this Court.” These filings are described as “picture books for adults” and contain images of kangaroos and swastikas in one case, and gay porn in another. Despite his passionate efforts, he is disbarred and to this day is not permitted to practice law.

Moving right along…

We only scratched the surface of Jack Thompson’s flamboyant career! Dude could not keep his trap shut, which is why we miss him so badly today. A volunteer effort works today to preserve his legacy at JackThompson.org, which is not affiliated with him.

But anyway, one of the many games he had a beef with is the Mortal Kombat series, which is an important point because it goes to show how seriously the media took the notion that video games provoked, caused, or indoctrinated people to act violent in real life.

90s Gaming Controversy: The Story of Mortal Kombat

Beginning with the early 1990s arcade game by Midway Games (yes, the same name behind Pac-Man), Mortal Kombat [sic] set the standard for edgy fighting game franchises. Earlier popular series like Street Fighter and Punch-Out had kept to depicting boxing matches in which characters could be pummeled and bloody, but stopped short of being killed. Mortal Kombat threw conservatism to the wind and gleefully depicted opponents gushing blood and getting their spines ripped out. The victories were no longer called “knock outs,” now they were “fatalities.”

Trigger warnin’ and stuff…

So. Jesus Christ. Mortal Kombat is another in the history of game series which strives to push the envelope, and hence is always up front sucking up the lead for all us sinners shielded behind it. In fact, the game franchise faced a long line of legal challenges before Jack Thompson ever heard of it. At the federal level, Independent Senator Joe Lieberman launched a congressional hearing on the need to regulate the video game market. This led to the US Video Games Rating Act of 1994, and in response the video game industry came up with the ESRB system we know today. To make his case, Lieberman showed video footage of Mortal Kombat to Congress. So yes, that “M for Mature” on the corner of your video game case is Mortal Kombat‘s legacy.

Together with game franchises such as Doom, Quake, and Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat has been in the cool kids’ club whenever moral panicky types need something to panic morally about. The media has stubbornly stuck to the message that video game violence is responsible for real-life violence. It’s like the video game itself ran through the building shooting people! For a while around the turn of the century, every single shooting incident was followed by a story about how video games are making people violent. As regular as clockwork!

It’s insane that we’re still arguing about this 20 years later. Not only that, but everything from music to comic books gets a turn in the hot seat, as an example of how our nasty ol’ media is bad for us. As the TVTropes page shows, everything including board games, manga, literature, theater plays, and pinball has been blamed for the moral decay of youth.

This is such an old trope that your humble penguin, as a native Hawkeye, is obligated to remind you that a famous stage play set right here in Iowa satirized this point in Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. It starts with a band equipment salesman attempting to sway a town into starting a boys’ band as a means to combat the moral rot of their community brought about by a game. Can you guess which game?

No, not Mortal Kombat, silly! This was the 1950s. He’s talking about pool.

A closing quandary…

Do we blame real-life bad behavior on media? Can we argue that the media we consume normalizes negative or antisocial behavior in real life? Could it be that Jack Thompson, beneath his hysterical crack-ups, had method to his madness?

Well on today’s episode of Judge Judy, dear reader, you get to sit in the judge’s seat!

Let me ask you this:

Ha ha, the line got blurry there a couple times, didn’t it?

What we’re talking about here is epistemic responsibility. It’s a deep and murky branch of philosophy, concerned with knowledge and beliefs, and the responsible application of same. (I’m paraphrasing a lot here.) Some might argue that I, as the author, should know better than to tell you to take a loaded gun and shoot somebody. Others would argue that I, author, am perfectly within rights to say whatever I please, and the onus is on the reader to know right from wrong. In actual epistemic discussions, there is even the argument that if I, the author, hold a belief true, and share it to convince you, and it later proves false, then that was still my bad. But others would say “who trusts some malarkey you read on the Internet?”

Within that argument, however, is a shifting of responsibility. If you assume that I am an authoritative news source, then it is my fault if I mislead you. If you assume that I write only for entertainment, as fiction, humor, or satire, then I get to hide behind the “joke bro!” defense. Naturally, you are responsible for your own actions. Yet we do have laws like “truth in advertising” and “libel,” which assume the concept that words can influence people’s actions against their consent.

There’s also an argument which holds: We obviously can’t count on a completely sane and rational audience at all times, and therefore should be careful lest we put a dangerous idea in someone’s head. You could say “Anybody unstable enough to go shoot up a school based on a video game they played was unstable enough to shoot up the school anyway.” Sure, but we just agreed that the unstable person could not help themselves. I, as the rational author, can. So then it is my problem, isn’t it?

And yet, nobody wants to live in an elitist world where we fence off ideas too dangerous to share lest they tip someone over the breaking point.

Discuss among yourselves.

 

About the author

Penguin Pete

Penguin Pete

Geek tribal bard for the Internet, before "geek" was cool. Linux power user, MTG collector, light saber owner, cult movie fanatic, comic book memer, video gamer, Unix beard currently measures six inches.