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Moral Kombat liveblog

VGXPO – Philadelphia

  • Sat, 03 Nov 2007 14:31:53 PDT
  • Moral Kombat Panel Discussion (3:30EST)
  • Jack Thompson debates Lorne Lanning (N’Gai Croal as moderator)

    There are two winding lines. There’s the media line, which will enter first, and there’s a longer line for general admission. A man in the media line turns to me and suggests that we are about to witness a nightmare. “I’m nervous,” I agree.

    The Moral Kombat panel discussion is intended as a follow-up supplement to the premier of Moral Kombat, a documentary about the issue of videogame violence. When I discover this, I deeply regret having missed it. Director Spencer Halpin acknowledges both sides of the violence-in-games issues; for the purposes of the following panel, attorney Jack Thompson and game developer Lorne Lanning represent each side of the larger, ongoing debate.

    At the entrance to the VGXPO theater, though, each line of people is anxious: the panel is already running quite late. As the media line moves toward the entrance of the theater, I open my bag to be checked, but am instead urged in. The general admission line, however, must have all bags opened and inspected. I can only imagine that security is checking for tomatoes, stink bombs, or guns. For that matter, the panelists themselves are escorted by bodyguards.

    It’s 3:52 pm—that’s 22 minutes after the scheduled start time—by the time I’ve found my seat near the front. Onstage, Jack Thompson is having a good-natured, even animated conversation with games journalist N’Gai Croal. Lanning sits on the right side of the stage, Thompson on the left, and Croal, the panel’s moderator, is seated between them.

    Both Thompson and Lanning wear suits. Thompson looks kind of like a nice presidential candidate—by this I mean he wears a red tie [editor’s note: Thompson later writes to say it was orange, actually]. Lanning wears a turtleneck under his jacket, sitting casually and leaning (I’ll soon discover that, even when he’s irked, he leans back coolly, never once uncrossing his legs at the shins). Mr. Croal is dressed casually, wearing a crisp suit jacket and striped dress shirt with jeans.

    In the theater itself, no photography or filming is permitted, save the cameras already on tripods in front. As I understand it, the panel’s taping is planned as Moral Kombat’s DVD bonus footage.

    N’Gai Croal, sitting between the two men, initiates the discussion. “How did you come to be in a movie like Moral Kombat?” he asks.

    Jack Thompson begins. “Spencer Halpin called me, and he explained who he was, and in spite of that—”

    Thompson’s quip doesn’t go unnoticed, and the audience, filled with gamers and VGXPO convention-goers, is already chuckling. As for the panel itself, Thompson explains that he prefers participating in live media to being recorded because “you can’t be edited. Being edited is a scary thing.”

    His stance on Moral Kombat, the final product? Jack Thompson says he defends Moral Kombat as “fair and … artistically true.” He goes on to say that “the documentary goes beyond just videogame wars. ...I’ve been involved with what has been called the culture war for 20 years. If I hadn’t, I’d still have brown hair.” And, on the other people who participated in the making of the documentary: “I think there are people of goodwill on both sides of the [violence in games] issue. I think two of them are sitting on this stage.”

    Lorne Lanning, who is also featured in the film Moral Kombat, jumps into the matter of ‘morality’ in games. “In the beginning of the videogame industry,” he says, “our games were recognized as … having more ‘nutritious’ value.” He goes on to say that Moral Kombat serves as a “really intelligent portrayal” of the more modern issue of violence in games, and the different lenses and stances therein.

    As for the issue itself, Thompson quips, “We’ll resolve it here today.”

    Thompson begins to speak and, when he is at ease, it becomes clear that his phrasing is careful, and his viewpoints themselves are surprisingly moderate. He simply and succinctly indicates that he feels that technology is an incredible educational tool, and urges developers to ”...act responsibly to use this incredible technology… in a responsible way.” He continues to say that ”[n]o one in their right mind” thinks that violence, in and of itself and used to artful ends, is the crime, or that games alone are to blame—”There’s violence in the Bible!”

    But, Jack Thompson continues, the seemingly extreme stance against these aspects of morality—the “intolerance” of viewpoints even remotely approximating his, or the “ostracization” of people who speak out on the issue, “makes a person like me inevitable.”

    This is a moment that stands out to me, and it’s going to become difficult for listeners—indeed, for Thompson himself—to negotiate. Because, as the panel continues, Jack Thompson, the man, will be reasonable, articulate, and logical. Jack Thompson the inevitable spokesperson and figurehead, however, often seemingly contradicts the man sitting in front of us.

    Jack Thompson is still speaking, though, as the passionate human. “We need to be careful here about what we’re selling the kids. I don’t mean to be a filibuster here, but not only should the artist be [careful] with their art…”

    Thompson soon transitions into matters of the neurological differences between children and adults, acknowledging that children’s minds are infinitely more malleable. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing this quality of children’s development, and being responsible in turn.

    Lorne Lanning is eager to respond to Thompson’s definition of responsible videogame design. He describes the modern zeitgeist as “a consumer-driven, sheeple society” in which children aren’t even exposed to the real threats and concerns of the modern age—looming things like war and a dying ecosystem. According to Lanning, the reason for a game like Oddworld is to produce something “more substantive,” creating a “toy” with “legitimacy.” Lanning sums up on responsible consumerism, responsible game design: “If we can capture this much mindshare, we can make a better world.”

    The men are cool, even-keeled, and visibly respectful of each other. In turn, this room is—I hate to say that it is surprising to me, but it is!-perfectly quiet, respectful, and pensive. As I look around the room, I see youths and adults with their hands held to their chins, visibly deep in thought. Lanning is an audience favorite, to be sure, but Thompson is certainly surprising the crowd.

    Jack Thompson acknowledges an allegiance to the kind of responsibility that designers like Lanning seek. “We can’t be fractured,” he says-and it’s a moment that startles me, because this is a rather polarizing man saying this. Thompson goes on to expound on our united investment in the Common Good.

    Thompson continues with a brief anecdote: Someone said to him, at an event, ”’I want to thank you, Mr. Thompson, for uniting all gamers.’ To what end? I asked him.” This was the juncture at which a gamer first explained to Thompson that he had given them one thing, one philosophy, to unite against as gamers. “And although I thought it was rather eloquent,” Thompson admits, he concludes he doesn’t necessarily think it’s right. “On both sides of the issue,” he continues with a visible melancholy, “there is a concern for humankind. ...[We need to] sit down and reason with one another on so many areas.”

    But Lanning kicks the debate up a notch, seemingly suddenly, and really goes for the jugular. He points out the difference: Thompson has a very particular agenda, while the gaming industry simply doesn’t have one. Furthermore, the gaming industry spends so much to advertise a single game. Thompson’s efforts, conversely, don’t cost a thing. Lanning says, directly to Thompson and seemingly around Croal, “You’re getting billions of money in airtime. For free.”

    Jack Thompson seems taken aback. “I’m not part of the twenty billion dollar industry. I don’t have PR… I don’t have the resources [of someone in PR at TakeTwo, for instance].” He continues, “I think there’s something of a misconstruction that I’m… roiling the waters, all on my own.”

    Lanning objects to this, remarking that after a school shooting, JT was on the television within two hours—”They asked me,” Thompson says helplessly—but Lanning continues. Jack Thompson, he says, has an agenda and a business model and a brand. And as Lanning discusses this in increasingly heated tones, the room grows uncomfortable.

    There’s a long pause, then, before Thompson responds: “Gee,” he says, “I thought this was going to be friendly.”
    The audience of gamers laugh and applaud for Thompson.

    Then Thompson responds directly to Lanning’s allegation: “I’ve been called a massacre-chaser, an ambulance-chaser…” There’s no gain, no money in it, Thompson insists. Furthermore, “I believe that when people are injured, they have a right to have a spokesperson. ...I’m proud to represent people like that.” He concludes with some sort of remark about “the kinds of gamers that don’t have the ethics you have,” possibly referring to the audience on the whole.

    Something in Thompson’s comment sparks Lanning, and he turns to address Croal, the moderator, directly: “If there’s something untrue in there, N’Gai, I don’t want to be the one to call it out! Come on!” For a moment, the audience is again quite tense.

    “Stop, stop,” N’Gai says. I’m… I’m the moderator.” This is enough to generate some laughter and claps.

    N’Gai then speaks, carefully and thoughtfully, as if to help Lanning out. How can Thompson call a game a murder simulator? How can a game like Doom reproduce anything approximating the experience of shooting a firearm? The game, after all, is point-and-click.

    Thompson responds, but then he says: “These are all complex situations. No one in their right mind would say a videogame can turn an angel into a demon.” This moment causes much of the audience to shift in its seats.

    But Thompson continues. The real trouble, he says, is that absolutely anyone can buy any M-rated game. “Any kid of any age can walk into any retailer and buy any game. ...When is the videogame industry going to adhere to the labeling on their products?” This causes several audience members to nod along in spite of themselves. The kid sitting next to me mumbles to his friend, “It’s the parents!”

    Croal wonders aloud, though, how retailers are responsible. Isn’t this particular point, after all, analogous to kids sneaking into an R-rated movie?

    Lanning agrees. “It’s an honor system,” he says, remarking that the movie theater itself is not held liable for children in R-rated movies.

    Then Lanning makes a point that ought to have been made many times in the past: videogame violence, versus what it is that is actually being sold to kids under some rating or guise, “are two separate issues!” Lanning is exasperated, now, expounding on the general marketplace now using labels as trickery. He talks about rampant consumer deception—food labeled as organic that really isn’t, organic at all, for instance.

    “Consumers have a horrible time of being able to identify anything,” say Lanning. A consumer can’t tell what actually comprises the product itself, never mind identify to whom the product is even really intended.

    Lanning quickly backpedals, then: “We think the ESRB already does a wonderful job. The retailers need to do a better job”-as well as parental responsibility, he says-”but the game industry cannot be held captive” by the habits of retailers, or the kind of dirty pool they play.

    But the games industry can do something, Thompson tells Lanning. Thompson says he’s long proposed that developers and publishers simply find out which retailers are deliberately selling to minors and then “withhold product” from those particular chains. Thompson goes on to challenge publishers to show retailers that “you’re serious about the age ratings” on your own games.

    Thompson then alludes to the incident in which his own 15-year old son walked into a Best Buy alone and purchased a Mature title, if only to make a point. “When Doug Lowenstein says he [believes that parents shouldn’t let their kids play these M-rated games], I believe him! But don’t sell the game to my kid when I’m not there!”

    Thompson goes on to say that “the age ratings on games are inaccurate” and that they “don’t do anything!” Frankly, says Thompson, it might be best if the current ratings system were ditched altogether, since it’s strongly apparent that no one is serious about it.

    Croal regains control of the conversation: it’s strange, he says, “when you consider that Tipper Gore…[and others]... come out of the 60s… but they’re the ones who put the stickers on CDs…” The kinds of people who now seek to legislate, he remarks, are the ones who once touted personal liberties and responsibility.

    Lanning says, then, “Whoever controls the airwaves, controls the perception. ...We’re at war right now” and here, Lanning means war-war, and not the war on gaming violence, “and it was sold to us by the government [via] media who were not doing their job.”

    There’s a back-and-forth here—I can’t make it out because the two young men next to me are now hissing at each other, engaged in their own microdebate. I’m fairly certain, though, that Thompson now springs onto this issue of media, of history being rewritten by the winners, and begins to lapse into the liberal media/antagonized evangelical argument.

    Lanning is now beyond irked. He asks us, the audience, to raise our hands if we identify as Christian. The room hesitates, but arms go up one by one. “Half the room!” Lanning narrates for Thompson. Lanning then raises his own hand. “I was raised Christian, too.” He’s about to make a point, but Thompson continues where he left off.

    Thompson describes what it is like to be targeted, how people go after him and attempt to have him disbarred. “I think there is an intolerance, against people like me—[although the perception] seems to be that [media outlets are] at my beck and call.” Thompson says that there is an “intolerance” of the “religious perspective of things,” because the media is controlled by a small number of people who… he hesitates, and doesn’t quite complete this thought, perhaps because of Lanning’s earlier illustration: Christians, and people who hold Christian beliefs and ideas of morality, are by no means in the minority. Lanning makes a series of strong points here.

    There’s a moment, here, when Lanning mentions that Rupert Murdoch is a Christian, and Thompson remarks that, actually, he’s Roman-Catholic. There are a few gasps; in my seat, I bury my face in my hands. Croal says, ”...Moving right along…!”

    But Thompson recovers. “No, no!” he says. “I think Murdoch hiself” would insist on that distinction. This point is fair enough, and the audience almost tangibly relaxes. But, Thompson says, no matter how Murdoch identifies himself—as Christian, or Roman-Catholic, or whatever morality he might identify as—”I would not say that Rupert Murdoch is an honorable person.”
    There’s a beat, and then Croal quips, “Neither would we.” The audience applauds and laughs, and Thompson and Lanning each stand from their seats to shake hands. This moment is sincere, quaint, and genuinely funny.

    Croal tosses a hardball toward Lanning: in the documentary, professor Henry Jenkins indeed asserts that videogames do, on some level, ultimately cause a mind to somehow trivialize true violence.

    Lanning has his own thoughts on desensitization, again broaching the matters of the state of things today, and violence and war. By Lanning’s measurement, even our current government itself trivializes violence, by essentially selling it to the populace as a way to fix things.

    As for Jenkins’ assessment, says Lanning, we frankly know little-to-nothing about the science of the mind. “When people see this in a CAT scan, that in an MRI, and say this is why he committed that crime… When it comes to the human mind, we have so many things to do to understand” the science and neurology of the mind, or, for that matter, causality—discerning what influences what, or how.

    Lanning goes on to remark that, “while videogames proliferate like never before, [violent crime has been dropping.]” And in the long-term scope, this is certainly true. Lanning asks about our priorities: “If we’re really looking out for kids,” he wonders, why are we going after something as piddling as games?

    Thompson acknowledges that, although causality is certainly very complex, violent crime has, more recently, been on-the-rise. He makes a muddled point and—I’m guessing here—it sounds to me like his point is, if you look at it like a graph charting the long-term, violence is dropping, but if you look very closely and at a graph of more recent years, violence is on the incline. This makes a certain statistical sense, and to that end, both men are actually correct.

    Lanning is frustrated. If there are so many variables contributing to violent crime, and if Thompson acknowledges and respects this point, why simply go after videogames? Here, Lanning again accuses Thompson of being driven by money, this time more directly. “I’ve won one case!” Thompson contests (having to do with videogames, he means).

    Lanning says that this simply isn’t true, and that he’s already consulted Thompson’s Wikipedia page, and…—Lanning is interrupted as we all laugh heartily.

    Thompson joins in the moment of Wikipedia-blaming. If you knew all the fallacies on Wikipedia, Thompson smiles “you might like me more.” He goes on to list a number of factual errors about him on Wikipedia. Some of the audience nods, a little chagrined.

    For the first and only time, someone in the audience shouts a question. This person makes a rather politely-veiled Penny Arcade jab, wondering aloud whether, were Thompson to win the next big case, would give his earnings to charity?

    I can’t quite parse how Thompson responded, particularly in retrospect and from my notes, but it was somewhat in the affirmative. Whatever Thompson says, though, it elicits another round of attack from Lanning.

    Lanning says, pointedly, that he grew up in a hardworking family, taught to respect that kind of selfless labor. The videogame industry is a hardworking industry, he says. In Thompson’s world, however, just one victorious court case means a “six million dollar payoff! And even if you give some of it to charity,” Lanning concludes, Thompson’s still sitting awful pretty.

    Thompson is very annoyed at this juncture. “Since you want to make this personal!” he says. And this is fascinating, because although Thompson has recovered from each of Lanning’s earlier accusations, this time he sounds less like Thompson-the-person-in-the-panel, and more like Thompson-the-soundbyte:

    Thompson describes the TakeTwo case, and within this context, returns to an extreme stance. Even with all the variables that occur in the creation of a murder—the ratings, the stores, the game itself—”but for [that is to say, with the exception of] the game,” people would still be alive.

    Thompson goes on to say that a game like GTA—a cop-killing simulation—is a game made by “sociopaths who are technically adroit,” but otherwise produce something that teaches nothing but “sociopathy.”

    By this logic, asserts Thompson, while so many variables contribute to the making of a killer, in the end, the game—and therefore its creators—is the variable most at fault.

    This is a terrifically tense moment, so N’Gai Croal pauses to make a point: he asks everyone in the room to raise their hands if they are among those gamers who ever have played a GTA game. The room is now a sea of arms.

    Lanning says, “That’s what we’re debating—faith vs facts. Jack has faith that” games are killing. On the other hand, there are the “facts”—which prove that games cannot be held responsible, if only because of violence being on the decline. Lanning reminds us, then, to follow the money, returning to his earlier point of the six billion dollar payoff. Jack Thompson is, duly, very defensive.

    If Thompson agrees that a lot of variables go into making one human shoot another human, then why only go after the game’s maker? Lanning says that, clearly, the real reason is the money that is to be made. The real reason someone would dedicate himself to attacking one variable in a complex algorithm of violence-causality—a variable whose involvement in the outcome is based on, at best, tenuous science—is, again, that six million dollar payoff.

    The room is again quite tense, and the discussion itself, circular and repetitive. To everyone’s relief, N’Gai Croal announces the Question-and-Answer period.

    The first question is given to Amber Dalton, who was a panelist herself earlier in the convention. She begins by applauding Thompson for willingly coming into “a den of wolves.” She makes several points about matters of personal responsibility, and the commonalities in each man’s argument. Thompson responds.

    Then there is this exchange a little later:

    Querent: “Before videogames, what would you use to explain earlier school shootings?”

    JT: “You really want me to answer that?”

    Querent: “Not really.”

    Thompson agrees that so many variables contribute to any one event, no matter the event’s nature. He finally explains the legal grounds for pursuing the game itself. In legal terms, Thompson explains, for proving “legal causation” in court, you simply must prove that one puzzle piece, one event or action or entity, was a necessary component. This particular moment in the Q&A strikes me as most fascinating.

    Another querent begins by describing himself as “someone who is both a gamer and a lawyer.” He then asks Thompson about the distinction between old, violent art like Beowulf, and new art like GTA. Thompson responds, but Lanning follows it with a different response: “The distinction is six million dollars.” There it is again!

    The panel discussion concludes with all three gentlemen onstage looking like old friends. Thompson, Lanning, and Croal all make themselves accessible after for a short while, all conversing with straggling audience members.

    There is a small press event scheduled to follow, though, and Lanning and Thompson both are ushered out by their respective escorts.

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