If you’re a gamer who’s heard of Jack Thompson, you’re probably not a fan. He’s known, in certain circles, for his personal crusade to bring down the violent video game world. There’s been a lot written about Thompson’s rise to, and fall from, infamy, but we decided to talk to the man himself.
Most pronounced in his history of gaffes was 2005’s “A Modest Video Game Proposal”. In his public essay, Thompson took aim at the video game industry for creating murder simulators where civilians are massacred, but not daring to turn that deliberate and ruthless focus on itself. He proposed that, if someone could “create, manufacture, distribute, and sell a video game in 2006” that allowed players to kill video game developers, he would donate $10,000 to charity.
Ignoring that plenty of games already had easter eggs sets in their offices (including Postal and Doom II), a few different developers released titles that met this requirement, only to have Thompson declare that the entire statement was a satire and he would be making no such donations. The guys from Penny Arcade went ahead and made a charitable $10k donation with the memo line: “For Jack Thompson Because Jack Thompson Won’t”. This led Thompson to pursue legal action against them, and it got only messier from there.
It would silly to interview Thompson hoping to determine whether or not he is an asshole, because he absolutely, empirically has been in the past and there’s no mystery there. I just wanted to see if he might be my kind of asshole.
Jack, you ready to get into this?
If you know me and my reputation, you know that I have all the answers. So yes.
I’ve read that you’re a practicing Presbyterian. How does religion figure into the making of Jack Thompson?
I wrote an autobiography called Out of Harm’s Way and it gets into a lot of that. I went to Vanderbilt law school, where I met my wife of 40 years, and we were classmates with Al Gore. We moved to Miami and I took the bar exam and I failed. It just broke me. It was the first major failure in my life. It had some positives, including convincing me I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. Long story short, that led me on a path to Christ.
Did finding Jesus help prepare you for the experience of watching Bill Paxton play you in a movie about your life?
Yes. I’m no stranger to media, but this is different. The BBC is a very classy and fair organization. The extreme of that is that before it aired, one of the producers flew to Miami and gave us a private screening for my family and our friends. I don’t like to watch interviews I do because it makes me feel disembodied. I had to stop the screening at one point because one of the people we were watching with is a 95 year old lady and she had some concerns about events that had been “heightened”.
It also left out a lot of people that have been supportive of me and my message over the years, including people whose politics are far to the left of mine. When I took on 2 Live Crew, I had a lot of support from parents in African American communities. I worked with Hillary Clinton on some of the gun violence aspects. There’ve been neat opportunities to reach across political and ideological lines in my career and I think that’s the most interesting part of the Jack Thompson story. I don’t think there’s any place in the world for the kind of Rubio/Trump political fighting we’re seeing right now.
Do you think your rhetoric is less confrontational than that?
We all have sharper and softer sides. I have a sharp side and it got me disbarred. You remember in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when the guy challenges Butch for control of the gang? They agree to have a knife fight but when Paul Newman asks about the rules and is told “there are no rules in a knife fight” he proceeds to kick the other guy in the balls and win. I’ve been in a lot of knife fights and I know there are no rules, by virtue of how other people come after me.
I suppose the part of Jack Thompson that’s always made some sense to me is that your fight is woefully unbalanced. From your perspective, you see these media things as being credible threats to human life, and so you react with the intensity of someone who is literally trying to save lives.
There’s a scene in Gamechangers that has happened to me hundreds of times, where a teenage kid calls me on the phone out of nowhere to tell me that I’m an asshole.
Almost every time I had that call, the kid would ask “What are you doing? Why do you want to take away my fun?” To which I’d explain that I don’t want to take anything away from adults, because I believe we have a free society.
But when the game industry puts an age rating on a product and stores ignore that, you have a fraudulent system that puts young people in danger. I videotaped my ten year old son buying Grand Theft Auto by himself from a Best Buy. And almost every time, the kid that called me will say “Well, I agree with that.” And I’ll ask if I’m still an “asshole” and they usually come around.
Do you ever think of what you’ve done as less Cultural Warrior and more that you became The Dad of Video Games? You’re one of the first figures in a very young medium to take a public stance about limiting access for very parental reasons.
I actually did a CNN interview on that very issue. I spoke about how parents should exercise some discretion on what their kids watch. Same thing with parents who give autistic children shooter games to babysit them. People didn’t take that kind of criticism seriously until Columbine, and then everyone wanted to have that conversation.
Did all the personal attacks — and knowing there was a constant, active movement to get you disbarred — free you up to do the kind of work you’ve done? If you know your career has a very loud ticking clock, do you just go for broke against Bad People?
I don’t think there are good people or bad people. We’re all pretty messed up. I tell my detractors that I’m well aware I have more in common with Hitler than with my savior, Jesus Christ. We’re all fallen and depraved, right? Matthew 18:6 says “but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” The issue for me has always been protecting children. Not just children who are victims but children who become violent and are victims in their own way. So I’ve never seen anyone I’m against as a bad person, but I do see dangerous behaviors and dangerous products.
[I was]…led to games because there was a shooting in Paducha, Kentucky and the movie The Basketball Diaries influenced the shooting there. That movie was a TimeWarner property, so I contacted the lawyer defending the shooter to let him know that three years earlier, I’d warned the TimeWarner shareholders about copycat violence from entertainment properties, and if he needed me to testify to that, I would. Instead, he asked if I’d like to be co-counsel on the entire case. That’s what got me on the games arc.
I’m glad you brought up this case because I have a lot of questions. You tried to blame The Basketball Diaries but also six or seven video games and some musicians. Did you have specific causality you were associating to each property or did you put together a grab-bag of scary sounding pop-culture across a variety of mediums and try to make it stick?
That’s an excellent question. In the facts of the case, a 13 year old kid fires eight shots and all of them hit their targets. Kill shots from 30 feet or more. Amazing shooting. When the cops cuffed him, they asked why he did it and his answer was “The Basketball Diaries”. So that wasn’t just a movie we grabbed at random. At the wrongful death trial, we brought a world renowned child psychologist who testified that, if not for the influence of this movie and the game Doom, Michael Carneal [the shooter] would never have been capable of any of this.
Our hook then became proving that the entertainment industries were deliberately marketing things like this to kids beneath the appropriate age rating. The director of the film even gave us a quote that they had added more violence to the film than was in the book it was based on, because they wanted to make it more appealing to a teen audience.
We lost that case. Of course.
And you’ve lost every case you’ve ever fought.
Yes. And every lawsuit ever brought against the tobacco companies for decades was a failure, until suddenly one got through and that opened the floodgates. I believe that’s my legacy. A much more skilled attorney than I ever was is going to break through. Gaming needs its own Better Call Saul lawyer where a defendant gets off for the influence of video games. There’s already been some progress, especially with the Petric killings in Cleveland, where a kid murdered his parents because they took his copy of Halo away.
So not just the content, but even video game addiction being taken seriously in a courtroom, that’s a win in your book?
During the Paducah case, I did a TV appearance and Matt Lauer asked me what I was worried about. I told him my greatest fear is that other teenagers would have access to these kinds of pop-culture materials and that it might inspire further violence. Eight days later, Columbine happens. Those shooters both reference Doom and The Basketball Diaries in their suicide video. It’s a terrible thing to be the guy who predicted Columbine.
Depression also plays into these things. Mental health plays into these things. Gun control also seems like a pretty big factor. Isn’t picking on video games just a distraction from the more obvious factors?
We all have burdens and we all have skills. My background in the medical field helped prep me to understand how entertainment effects the human brain. I’m also not a luddite. I’m a big fan of pop culture and I think there is power in it. I respect the entertainment industry and I respect their power. I think a lot of people think I just dismiss pop culture but I love it, and understand it, and understand where it goes wrong—
Not to interrupt, but I’m really asking here: aren’t guns a bigger problem?
We have more guns than people in this country. That’s regrettable but that’s not going to change. Guns are out there and we are not going to do anything about that. Genie is out of the bottle. So what do we do about the stimuli to use guns in a sociopathic way. What can we do about the culture that glamorizes gun violence? That’s what the Clintons were saying long before I even cared about things like this. Guns aren’t the problem; gun violence is.
When you were finally disbarred, how long did you spend being angry with the world?
Three years. There is a history of depression in my family. It was… hard. This is the last chapter in my life, so now I’m teaching Civics to prisoners in the Florida prison system. Maybe you can tell I’m a frustrated teacher at heart who loves to push ideas. The prison system needed volunteers to teach character and prep them to re-enter society, so I reached out. And they let me know “This cannot be Civics according to Jack Thompson. It’s got to be right down the middle with none of your right-wing garbage.” And I said, “Yeah, I can do that.”
I love that this is how someone spoke to you about volunteering. “You can donate your time, but like, don’t be you. You’re too much of an asshole.”
Well, I love American History and Constitutional Theory so now I’m in the Everglades Correctional Institution and I teach 52 inmates a three hour class every week. Most of these guys are bright and hungry to learn and equally horrified by the current presidential cycle so we have a lot to talk about.
It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my entire life and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t been disbarred, and I let them know day one what I messed up guy I am, so they understand to take even neutral Jack Thompson with a grain of salt. I understand what it is like for the justice system to come after you, and we can share in that experience.
Watching (mostly poorly educated men) invest themselves in engaging and respectful debates about Constitutional issues — that’s the kind of thing that leaves me on the verge of tears.
Are you saying it’s pretty good to be Jack Thompson, finally?
I am happy and doing well. I feel comfortable in my own skin. Yeah. I’m there.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.