The Virtue Vigilante


Dec. 13, 2006 — -- The lines began forming days before the new game systems from PlayStation and Nintendo, this season's hot holiday items, went on sale.

For game players, it was the most anticipated moment in years.

For game manufacturers, it was a taste of the billions in profits they would make this decade.

In some cases, those lines turned to violent mobs, providing one man in Florida yet another sign that American culture is going straight to hell.

"The violence, and the mayhem that we saw in those lines, I think, is somewhat indicative of the mentality," Jack Thompson said.

In a world of make-believe battles, Thompson considers himself a real warrior.

The conservative Christian lawyer says he is on a mission to protect children from evil in the form of popular games like "Grand Theft Auto."

To him, these games are not entertainment, they are murder simulators.

"Here you're literally stomping someone into the pavement, and you can stomp them until there is a pool of blood in the street of the person you just killed," Thompson said.

"It normalizes that behavior. It makes it appear to be pleasurable to see that gore, so you're desensitized to the gore," he said. "You're kicking, punching, ultimately shooting, cutting the heads off people with a machete. People you don't know and don't have a motive to be violent against."

If Thompson has one defining personality trait, it is moral certitude.

With the odds stacked against him, he perseveres with relentless lawsuits and lobbying against some of the biggest guns in the field.

"I've rattled some cages, and they've rattled me," Thompson said. "They've come after me. They've repeatedly tried to end my legal career. Some people have intentionally incited people to kill me, threatened to kill me."

Though most of the games Thompson rails against are rated "mature," it is perfectly legal to sell them to children.

Thompson once videotaped his 10-year-old son buying the top-selling and infamously violent "Grand Theft Auto" to encourage a major retailer to check IDs.

And when it comes to Rockstar Games, the company behind some of the most mature titles, he is hardly coy.

"Oh, I'm out to shut down Rockstar," Thompson said. "They're run by a bunch of sociopaths, and they're a one-company crime wave."

This conflict pits one man against some of the most powerful law firms in corporate entertainment.

Ironically, Thompson's crusade has made him an object of scorn among the children he is so eager to protect -- the players of hard-core games.

Kids who wear "I Hate Jack Thompson" T-shirts can trade blows with his likeness that they can create as a character within a new version of the long-running game series "Mortal Kombat."

The Thompson-inspired character employs a fighting style called "legalese."

"I kick away at people in my Brooks Bros. suit," Thompson said.

The volleys Thompson has tossed against video game companies are just the latest in a long and controversial career.

Thompson began his war on impropriety 20 years ago, with a fight against a raunchy morning deejay in Miami.

Janet Reno was the district attorney at the time, and when she declined to prosecute the deejay or his station, Thompson ran against her for her office -- and made a stunning accusation.

"I came up with this clever plan of handing her a questionnaire asking her, 'Are you heterosexual? Are you bisexual? Are you homosexual?' And so forth," Thompson said.

In response, Reno approached Thompson, put her arm on his shoulder, and said, "I'm only attracted to virile men, which is why I'm not attracted to you."

Thompson fired back -- by filing battery charges.

"She grabbed a hold of me and shook me. She didn't hurt me, but I was annoyed," Thompson said. "I was angry that she dealt with it in that fashion, and that was a mistake, I shouldn't have done that. But I'm glad. … I think it was reasonable to ask her the question."

Thompson says he lost that battle, but he was far from being done.

His next target was the rap group 2 Live Crew and its album "As Nasty As They Wanna Be."

He convinced sheriffs across Florida that the music violated obscenity laws, touching off a national debate over the freedom of speech.

"It was banned in Canada, taken off store shelves just about everywhere in the U.S., and 2 Live Crew doesn't exist anymore," Thompson said.

He scores that one a victory.

His next forays had mixed success as he went after the likes of Ice-T, Madonna, Howard Stern, and the sellers of pornographic Christmas ornaments.

In the late 1990s, Thompson found a new target: video games.

In 1997, 14-year-old Michael Carneal walked into a Paducah, Ky., high school and shot eight students, killing three.

Carneal was a video gamer, and a fan of the violent movie "The Basketball Diaries."

When Thompson learned this, he contacted the victim's families, became their counsel, and sued the makers of the film and the games.

Though the $130 million suit was dismissed, Thompson is still convinced that these images inspired the killings.

"Nobody in their right mind says that video game or a movie can turn a little angel into a demon," Thompson said.

"Life is more complex than that, but what I say and the American Psychological Association and the head of the American Medical Association, all these experts who've testified under oath before Congress, is that consumption of these violent entertainment products make as a class of people, young people, more aggressive, more violent," he said.

There is one potential culprit Thompson refuses to indict: the weapons.

"I think we've got enough gun control," Thompson said. "Kids went to school for more than 300 years in this country with guns because after school they would go hunt for dinner. And they weren't turning those guns on one another."

Thompson dismisses statistics showing that while the popularity of video games has gone up, violent crime has gone down.

Though the FBI reports that the number of teenagers arrested for violent crimes fell by half between 1994 and 2004, Thompson attributes it not to reduced violence but reduced reportage.

"The experts I talk to in fact indicate that assaults, violent incidents in schools, are up, and they're being handled in-house as opposed to going to the local law enforcement officials because schools don't want to have that stigma," Thompson said.

"The murder rate is down because now the emergency response of emergency medical teams is so rapid that people aren't dying like they used to."

On the legal front, Thompson is still searching for success.

Most recently, he authored a proposed law in Louisiana banning the sale of mature games to kids. It passed, but a federal judge struck it down on First Amendment grounds.

Thompson still has no shortage of critics.

"The fact is that a lot of people are discomforted by what I do and how I do it, because I'm an 'in your face' kinda person," he said.

"I am a flawed, [a] fallen creature, but I think I'm involved in something that's righteous. Because I got a son. And there are people who don't even know him, and don't know all the other sons that are out there. And they don't care about those kids. They wanna make money off of them."

Thompson also blames his failure in some of his missions on the odds stacked against him. He says it's simply "not a fair fight."

"I'm up against a lot of powerful people, and a lot of money," he said.

But Thompson takes heart from another ancient hero with the odds stacked against him.

"[My] most favorite story in the Bible is David and Goliath," Thompson said. "There's something in everybody's heart that responds to the underdog."

That story, like so many in the Bible, is a very violent one.

It ends with David knocking Goliath down with a slingshot and beheading him. How would Thompson feel about a David and Goliath video game?

"I wouldn't want my son, hour after hour, practicing the violence," Thompson said. "I feel like an underdog. These guys are big dogs, but I happen to be right. And they happen to be wrong. … I'm a big fan, as many people are, of Winston Churchill, who told his audience, 'Never, never, never, never, never give in.'"