There was a time when the biggest enemy of gaming was not the industry itself, but a single man. Before the days of microtransactions, lootboxes and corner cutting conglomerates, the gaming industry was at the mercy of politicians and lawyers who wanted nothing but to gut it entirely. It started in the early 90s, with games like Doom, Night Trap and Mortal Kombat. Horrified parents took to the picket lines and wrote their congressmen to air their growing concerns over the violent media that they were letting their children be exposed to. In the aftermath of one Senate Committee Hearing in 1993, the threat of government imposed censorship and regulations brought the gaming industry together, and the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) was established to implement a rating system. This was not the end of the debate, however. For years to come, an endless stream of politicians and social activists would come out of the woodwork to protest the violence depicted in video games. The most prominent of them was one Jack Thompson. To go up against an entire industry time and time again like Jack Thompson has done throughout the years definitely took guts, and it earned him more than his fair share of infamy. So what ever happened to Jack Thompson?
His story begins in Cleveland, Ohio with him graduating from Cuyahoga Falls High School. He soon after attended Denison University, and later on Vanderbilt University Law School. In 1976, he and his wife moved to Florida, where he spent the next two decades practicing law. His notoriety began during his formative years, well before the video game violence controversy picked up steam in Washington DC. It began in 1988, when he sued Dade County State Attorney Janet Reno for battery for touching him on the shoulder (in response to a question of her sexual orientation). The charge was later dropped, as it was considered a political move on Thompson’s part given that he was running for Prosecutor at the time. Reeling from the loss of that election, Thompson would go on to pursue legal action against various Rap artists for obscenity, including 2 Live Crew, N.W.A., Ice-T and even MTV.
His first suits against the video game industry began in 1999; during the aftermath of the Heath High School shooting that occurred in West Paducah, Kentucky on December 1st, 1997. 14-year old Michael Carneal had opened fire on a group of students, killing three and injuring five. In the subsequent investigation, it was learned that Michael played games like Doom, Quake and Resident Evil, and he frequented numerous Adult websites. Thompsons suit alleged that Carneal had become desensitized to the violence depicted, and that the games themselves could be considered defective due to the psychological damage inflicted on Carneal. Ultimately, the lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds that Thompson was unable to present any hard evidence to support these claims.
This was not the last time that Thompson would pursue legal action against the developers as a result of violence. It was the beginning of a very long legal career and activism. Over the years, Thompson would file suits against Sony, Take-Two Interactive, Rockstar and even Nintendo, in a legal campaign of what many would describe as very vocal and very public ambulance chases. It should come as no surprise to anyone that anytime any wide-scale forms of violence happened, Jack would be there to speak out against violent entertainment, mostly video games. He even wrote a book on the subject, “Out of Harm’s Way,” an autobiography that chronicles many of his legal exploits throughout the years.
His crusade against the gaming industry reached a boiling point in 2005 when he submitted his open letter to the gaming community titled “A Modest Video Game Proposal.” In it, he made a proposal: if a game developer were to program a game following a character killing game developers, then he would donate $10,000 to a charity of Take-Two Chairman Paul Eibeler’s choosing. A small group of developers known as Thompsonsoft took him up on his offer and released “I’m O.K, a Murder Simulator” in 2006. In it, the protagonist Osaki Kim (“O.K”) goes on a murderous rampage across the country to avenge his son, who was killed by a gamer. To the surprise of nobody, Thompson did not fulfill his end of the deal outlined in the proposal, citing that the game didn’t meet the requirements of his proposal. Realizing that his end of the bargain wouldn’t be met, Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade fame decided to donate the money in his name. Jack Thompson subsequently attempted to file a police report against them for harassment, though nothing ever came of it. His feud with the industry continued into the latter half of the 2000s with him taking on the gaming community as a whole.
Unsurprisingly, his endeavors had garnered the negative reactions of everyone from average gamers to hardened internet trolls. Because many of his public appearances were televised during the aftermath of many shootings, Thompson had garnered a reputation as a nemesis of the gaming community, oftentimes being compared to an ambulance chaser. The backlash was palpable, though not all gamers were completely at war with him. In 2006, a project dubbed “Flowers for Jack” took donations to send flowers to Thompson’s office, along with an open-letter attempting to open peaceful talks between Jack and the gaming community. Thompson rejected the gesture and even sent the flowers to his perceived rivals in the gaming industry. His activism continued until 2007, when his frequent lawsuits finally caught up with him.
In February of that year, the Florida bar moved to disbar him over actions of professional misconduct, as a result of many grievances filed against him throughout his career. According to the Florida Supreme Court, Thompson “demonstrated a pattern of conduct to strike out harshly, extensively, repeatedly and willfully to simply try to bring as much difficulty, distraction and anguish to those he considers in opposition to his causes.” At the end of a lengthy trial, Thompson was disbarred on September 25th, 2008 and ordered to pay a lengthy fine of $43,675.25.
Today, Thompson makes his living by teaching civics classes to inmates in Florida, including American History and Constitutional Law classes. While this may sound like a personal defeat to anyone else, to Thompson, his current career path is a victory. In an interview with Inverse, Thompson stated that “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.”