12 February 2010

Reactions to Moral Kombat - politicians, industry and academia

This post follows this first post and this second post. It is a bit long, so here is my
tl;dr: The Good (Henry), The Bad (attorney) and the Queen (industry) (and shake your head)

Movie premiere and Thompson-Lanning debate at VGXPO

The premiere of the movie happened at the Video Game Expo (VGXPO) in Philadelphia on November 3rd, 2007 (see page 12 of the press clippings). A panel was held shortly after the movie at VGXPO the same day: Jack Thompson was sitting to the left of moderator N’Gai Croal, with Lorne Lanning on the right (according to Gamelife). Maybe mentioning a little bit about Thompson and Lannings could be useful. Thompson is an attorney anti-violence in video games. He is supposed to be the "bad" guy in the story. His bodyguard first tells the audience that informed the crowd, in no uncertain terms, that he would not be putting up with any bullshit during this debate. Lannings is a game industry guy, so at VGXPO he was supposed to be the "good" guy. That is why some journalists suggested before the debate: we are about to witness a nightmare.

This event was largely covered by game journalists. In random order of popularity, Wired/Gamelife, thebbps.com, 1up.com and Joystick had journalists at the debate to take notes (they were first in the media line and then sitting together at the front where they chatted amiably). I think these 3 articles combined give a quite neutral and detailed report of the debate. qj.net refers to the article as a via Joystick so I guess no journalist from there was at the debate. Kotaku quotes some bits of page 12 of the press clippings, so I guess no one from Kotaku was there either. ripten.com fully quote Joystick for their coverage of the event. For the journalists who were there, they could only take notes as In the theater itself, no photography or filming is permitted, save the cameras already on tripods in front. [...] the panel's taping is planned as Moral Kombat's DVD bonus footage (source).

Gamepolitics.com collected some quotes from a post-debate interview of Lannings by gamesindustry.biz (second part of the interview). Gamepolitics.com also mentioned a motion filed to the Florida court by Thompson on November 5th, 2007. In this motion, Thompson who wanted to appear to the next Board of Governors' meeting put forward the fact that he went into the “lions’ den” in Pennsylvania. Thompson also wrote:

Because of the quality and coherence of my presentation, I was then asked by the GDC to reprise the Philadelphia debate, this time in February in San Francisco in a 5000 seat arena, as the keynote event.

There has been a big mess following this news: more than 500 comments such as:

  • Well well, THompson overinflated his self importance again
  • Allow me to offer you the first, "Heil Mein Furor," salute, JT. Heil Thompson!
  • What would be nice is if [Thompson] was able to debate without taking cheap shots at people and making gamers out to be worse than paedophiles.
  • I see the folly in debating Jack Thompson now. [...] So debating this man is not constructive; it just gives him a sense of position and authority to continue making the crazy claims once he's out of earshot of smart people.
  • Dear Manta: First of all, stop being a coward and use a real name. (comment from Thompson)

But finally, the GDC committee, surprised by this news, denied that the Thompson-Lannings debate would happen again at GDC, as is reported in gamepolitics.com: It is, perhaps, unfortunate, but given today's controversy it looks like any potential debate involving Thompson and GDC is a dead issue. Thompson answered to the GDC committee that Since this is how the video game industry treats its critics, no wonder it has a public relations problem with parents. I share the conclusion of gamepolitics.com: In the end, one has to wonder exactly what Thompson hoped to accomplish here. Had the deal been finalized, the GDC event could have been fascinating for attendees and beneficial to Thompson in an image sense. Very little, if anything, was to be gained by adding the prospect of a GDC appearance to the U.S. District Court record, which publicly exposed it to media scrutiny.

Thompson and the video game community

The selfish, childish video game industry accepts no harness. Their freedom is pure license. They are about to pay a wicked price, and I aim to make sure they pay it.
-- Jack Thompson, at cbsnews.com in February 2005
Federal regulation of your industry is coming because you folks simply can’t figure out why parents don’t trust you. Fine. When the regulation comes, and it will, don’t blame me.
-- Jack Thompson in a letter to the GDC Committee, November 2007, retrieved from gamepolitics.com

Thompson has been keeping a certain level of permanent buzz in the video game community (industry and players) since at least 2005. He is one of the principal opponents of the game industry lobby group. In this lobby group is the Entertainment Consumer Association (ECA). One of the websites of the ECA is gamepolitics.com, which contains more than 300 posts in its "Jack Thompson" category (which started in September 2006). As a comparison, the Obama category of gamepolitics.com only contains less than 120 articles (since January 2008).

While Thompson's warhorse only is violent video-games and not video games in general, many among the video game community have been considering him as the main video games opponent. Gamepolitics.com writes: To be sure, GamePolitics wasn't the only game site in Thompson's crosshairs. He filed a lawsuit against Kotaku in 2007. He threatened My Extra Life over a Jack Thompson Photoshop contest. He tried to get the Seattle Police to bust Penny Arcade, and when he found out PA isn't actually in Seattle (doh!), he called the FBI, instead. Interestingly, he has become the man who united gamers to the same cause. According to gamepolitics.com Thompson definitely helped to rally gamers together, even if, by and large, they rallied to oppose him. Indeed some gamers tried to launch grou protests, such as the United Gamers Against Jack Thompson (i started this band to see how many people agree. and Slogan: HUNT HIM DOWN!!!) or Gamers Unite to Stop Jack Thompson (United like this, we can stop him.). Meanwhile, other very famous politicians in the US and in other countries have taken strong stances against violence in video games. Hilary Clinton protested against the GTA:SA Hot-Coffee mode, Barack Obama about kids playing GTA IV and Hugo Chavez government outlaw the sale of video games (reaction of a player from Venezuela at boingboing). But none of them has been rallying gamers as much as Thompson did.

The reactions of industry leaders to Thompson's attacks have been very different. Doug Lowenstein had chosen to ignore Thompson. Lowenstein was followed in 2005 by David Walsh who asked Thompson to stop using his or the group's name to give people the impression that the NIMF supports his efforts. Thompson answered about Walsh's decision: A child psychologist who would give a heads up to Doug Lowenstein in such a matter without confronting me directly man-to-man is a person who has lost his way. Others like Hal Halpin have decided in December 2007 to reply to Thompson's pikes, finding that Lowenstein's strategy did not work: Turns out that the “ignore him and he’ll go away” strategy backfired... [Thompson]... is intelligent, articulate, passionate, and camera-ready. [...] It’s time to fight back!. In September 2008, Lowenstein sent a letter to Kotaku in which he asked for Kotaku not to give Thompson a platform he might not have had for as long as he did. Lowenstein wrote that Kotaku can help set the tone for mainstream media coverage and if you validate extremists you give license to the less informed to follow your lead, ie Kotaku should ignore Thompson for a while. Gamepolitics.com (publication of the ECA which founder is Hal Haltin, Spencer Haltin's brother) strongly disagreed with Doug Lowenstein's position: by refusing to respond, Doug dropped the ball. Thompson, finding no resistance from the top of the video game industry, was empowered to push harder.


I could not find a lot of reactions from the academia about Moral Kombat: the only articles I found are from terranova and Henry Jenkins.


Terra Nova actually mentions violence in video games a lot, but no coverage of Moral Kombat has been done. There was a shy attempt to mention Jack Thompson and game regulation policies in August 2005, and a joke about the ascendancy of Jack Thompson to Emperor in May 2006. Another note in December 2007 mentioning that Polemical rhetoric [...] taken too far, one diminishes one's credibility (Jack Thompson is a pro at this). The closest I could find to Moral Kombat was a report from Dan Hunter about the Canadian Red Cross asking video game developers to stop using their logo in games. In cause was the demonization of games and the whole "Jack Thompson and Hilary Clinton and Every Other Politician vs The Games Industry" Punch-and-Judy show, this quote being a link to a gamepolitics.com article. But this article was written in February 2006 ... So little about Thompson from terranova and nothing about Moral Kombat.


Henry Jenkins played himself in the movie so he surely has a reaction. Jenkins even reviewed the movie just after its premiere. The first article deals more with the content of the movie (ie violence in video games) but the second article praises the movie for its artistic innovations and creativity. The beggining of the first article is very straightforward: Spencer Halpin's Moral Kombat is perhaps the most important film ever made about video games and you should see it if you get a chance.

At the end of the first post, Jenkins wrote some quotes he found interesting from some participants. Put in a nutshell, some interviewees recognized there was violence in video games, others put forward that games are artistic, that parents should realize what games really are, and it was also mentioned that game designers are responsible for the content of the game. I already mentioned these points in this post.

Jenkins also explains that the media tend to polarize the debate into 2 clans while the contrast is more gray/grey. When I start to describe the film, most people want to know "which side" it takes. I see this as both a reflection of how polarized the debate often becomes and also how accustomed we have become in thinking about documentaries as a form of public advocacy. Moreover, the fact that longtime video game critic and trial lawyer Jack Thompson appeared to be a central focus poured kerosene on the flames. Having watched the trailer through a gamer and somewhat academic eye, David Sutherland commented that the movie smacks of sensationalized tactics often employed in arguments against video games. This could explain the hostile reactions of players to the trailer: death threats thrown to Spencer Haltin and people in the game community who wanted to censor [Spencer Haltin's] work because of what they perceived as its pro-censorship bias. But these reactions only followed the trailer put on Youtube, and Jenkins points out: don't judge this film by its preview because the preview presents such an unbalanced perspective on the issues. Finally, the researcher underlines that The absence of game designers in public discussions of game violence allows stereotypes about who they are and what they think to gain traction. One of the reasons why Jenkins paeticularly liked the movie is because game designers (such as Lannings or McGee) appeared in this movie and talked about their art. So Henry Jenkins is the "good" grey guy in the story.

Interestingly, Jenkins reply to a (supposed) comment from Thompson wanting to debate these issues on a college campus. Jenkins replied he could certainly see why a "bout" between the two of us would generate a great deal of buzz and hype around the issues -- a bit like a battle between a cheetah and a giant squid, say. This seems to indicate there have been (being?) frictions between Thompson and Jenkins.

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