Oct 022008
 
Schadenfreude and gloating pervaded the online gaming world last week when the news broke that prominent anti-gaming crusader Jack Thompson would be permanently disbarred on or before October 25. While Thompson has challenged this decision in Federal court (accusing the justices of the Florida Supreme Court of persecuting him), it seems unlikely that he can do anything to save his right to practice law in Florida. Some optimists in the larger gaming community seem to feel that Thompson will be gone for good after this, but grandstanders of his ilk rarely depart so easily. Legally, Thompson is still entitled to file lawsuits like anyone else, and because he has become so notorious it is doubtful that he will be pushed out of the public square. This is much to the detriment of the debate on video game violence, because he did, and does, far more to harm the cause of those concerned about graphic violence than he ever did to help.

Of course, the critics of video game violence are legion, but few, if any, of them could rival Thompson for sheer volume or nastiness. Like many such critics he had a tendency to play fast and loose with the facts, famously asserting that the Virginia Tech massacre had been inspired by first-person shooter games and holding to this view in the face of definitive evidence to the contrary. His partaking in the brain-dead excesses of conservative punditry was not nearly as troublesome as Thompson’s deep, almost disturbing lack of professionalism, good taste, and basic decency. His demand that Janet Reno tell him whether or not she was a lesbian is a well-known matter of public record. Less famous, but just as unsettling, was his conduct towards judges and fellow lawyers, carefully described in his bar trial (of which you can read selected transcripts at Gamepolitics). It is clear from the record that no boundary of decency or good behavior deterred Thompson from the pursuit of litigation based on the idea that video game violence caused real life violence.

That isn’t a completely absurd contention like creationism. The psychological effects of violent media (including video games) constitute a serious area of scientific study. While reasonable people can disagree on the quality of particular experiments and the proper interpretation of their results, there is no serious scientific disagreement that violent media produce at least short-term changes in feelings of aggression and attitudes towards violence. The long-term effects of violent video games on normal people are still disputed, and there are a number of moral, economic, and artistic considerations that have an important bearing on the subject. Nonetheless, it should be possible to have a rational, constructive dialogue about whether and how much violence in games ought to be acceptable to the audience, the creators, and yes, even the government.

But constructive dialogue is precisely the sort of thing people like Jack Thompson prevent. The bullying attack mentality at the core of his behavior turns the issue into an emotional one, making every side too angry to engage in a calm, rational assessment of evidence. Because of this, Jack Thompson got in the way of addressing the violence issue every time he showed his face. Admittedly, if the court has a remedy for your harm these tactics can pay off in some instances. However, suppressing video game violence through legal means has not been, and will never be, a viable strategy in America. Thompson’s attitude poisoned any chance that he could personally effect a change in the quantity of violence in video games. Even if he had been effective in recovering money from video game developers, the end result would have been an interminable process of swatting flies; attempting to punish the games industry for violence every time an exemplar showed its head. Profitable for a professional litigator, perhaps, but not a way to effectively change the industry’s attitude towards the portrayal of violence.

Thompson also poisoned the larger debate by being a kook and a villain. He made himself easy to hate, a figurehead for gamers to revile, and also did his best to demonize both gamers and his personal critics. In this way he brought a needlessly adversarial relationship to the various sides of the issue. Because his attacks were accompanied by distasteful personal behavior and a fundamental unwillingness to deal in fact, Thompson also made himself a ready caricature. He enabled gamers and game developers to regard everyone who held his position as being just as out of touch, hateful, and ridiculous as he was. Hatred and ridicule both have the effect of dehumanizing the other side, and ending any serious effort at consideration or collaboration.

So I’m glad that Thompson has been disbarred. I’m not glad because it hurts Thompson, and it doesn’t matter to me that the dignity of the Florida Bar has been upheld. I’m happy about this result because it discredits Mr. Thompson and is the first step towards removing him from the debate entirely. That’s the best possible outcome for gamers, game developers, and organizations that are genuinely interested in decreasing the violent content of games and keeping violent games out of the hands of children. Jack Thompson did nothing but harm to those efforts; it is to be hoped that in his absence a friendlier environment, in which the participants in the discussion seek common ground rather than mutual destruction, will develop.

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