Commentary > Game Over
Crackpot or crusader?
Vocal gaming industry opponent now targeting retailers.
January 31, 2003: 6:29 AM EST

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Florida attorney Jack Thompson is not what you'd call a supporter of the video game industry. Over the past couple of years, his name has become synonymous with legal threats to publishers and developers he alleges create games that lead to real-world violence.

Thompson is at it again. But this time he is setting his sights on a retailer: Best Buy. And, as always, his opinions are bound to work industry insiders and enthusiasts into a fit of exasperation, while conservative parents groups rally to his call. He pulls the strings of both groups quite expertly, but amid the arguments remains the question of whether his one-man war against gaming companies has been effective or just a lot of background noise.

Thompson is no stranger to the spotlight. In the early 90s, he was a force in the battle surrounding rap music lyrics, helping get Ice-T's "Cop Killer" album removed from stores and convincing a Florida judge to declare 2 Live Crew's album "As Nasty As They Wanna Be" obscene. That ruling was later overturned.

As the hot issue of the day has moved from raunchy lyrics to video game violence, Thompson has maintained a continuous presence on television news programs and in print. Over the past few years, he has also tried to forge a legal link between games and real-world violence. So far, he has not been successful.


His most recent attempt was as the attorney for the parents of three girls killed in the 1997 Paducah, Ky. school shootings. Gaming companies and film studios, he argued, were responsible for the shootings because they exposed the gunman to violent and sexual images. Courts disagreed, dismissing the case last year. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to revive it.

Thompson has been steadily increasing his rhetoric against the industry over the last few months. Last year, when a sniper was terrifying the Washington, D.C. area, he speculated the shooter could be a gamer, based solely on the "I am God" messages that were left for police. (Some games have cheat codes that let you enter what's referred to as "God mode" where the player's character takes no damage.) He also once served as counsel for a Wisconsin woman who says her 21-year old son's addiction to the game "EverQuest" led to his suicide.

Now he's adding a major retailer to his list of enemies.

Thompson on Monday said he had videotaped the sale of "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" to a 10-year old at a Miami Best Buy. In a note to company executives, he accused the store of violating Florida's "sexual material harmful to minors" statute and said "I believe your company is guilty of a felony corporately, as are the individual company executives who knew what they were doing in this regard." The letter also called Sony (SNE: Research, Estimates) and Take Two Interactive Software (TTWO: Research, Estimates) "criminally culpable".

"Your company should pay a wicked price for this," Thompson wrote. "I will do my best to see that it does."

Thompson hinted he may be planning additional stings at other retailers.

Donna Beadle, a Best Buy (BBY: Research, Estimates) spokesperson, said the cashier did nothing wrong, as "there are no age restrictions for purchasing music, movies or software." CNN's legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin agrees, calling Thompson's argument "a stretch."

Loyola professor of law John Nockleby, though, said there's a difference in the standards of obscenity for adults and obscenity for children, which may assist Thompson's argument. "I'm surprised this hasn't been attempted before," he said.

While Nockleby said the approach is "plausible," it still requires Thompson to convince Florida prosecutors that a criminal act has been committed. (A call to the Miami-Dade County State Attorneys Office was not returned.)

Whether you agree with Thompson or not, there's no question he believes in his cause. And even gaming industry insiders concede he has had an impact on the industry.

"Overall it doesn't have the impact they probably want, but what I think you may have is a situation where a developer hears the criticism and says 'maybe we're being a little too gratuitous'," said Jason Della Rocca, program director of the International Game Developers Association. As a result, you're seeing more games that offer stealth or negotiation as an alternative to violence.

Read previous Game Over columns

While Thompson's passion for these legal fights is part of what makes him appealing to certain groups, it can sometimes seem oh, just a tad excessive. Take, for instance, his current battle with Best Buy. A follow-up letter sent to company executives Tuesday read, in parts, more like a rant than a legal letter. For instance:

"I am not asking you to stop selling this sexually violent game to kids. I am not threatening you... I am telling you, point-blank, that I am proceeding against you and your company and others for what you have already done and are now doing. Prosecutions and public relations consequences should fall on your Minneapolis headquarters like snowflakes."

On the phone, though, Thompson is rather softspoken. He knows how vocal his critics can be but doesn't let that ruffle his feathers. In fact, he enjoys telling the story of how the pornography industry in 1990 convinced the Florida Supreme Court to order him to undergo psychological testing. (He passed - and collected $20,000 in damages.)

"I'm officially the only sane lawyer in Florida," he said.  Top of page

Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email.

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