October 18th, 2005

Katamari Damacy

Jack Thompson v Penny Arcade

Most (all?) of my readership knows that I develop computer games. I am fortunate enough to be able to support myself doing this, but even if I weren't employed in the industry, it'd be a hobby. Painters gotta paint, I've got to fiddle with interactive simulations, and hopefully entertain people.

When people ask me what I do for a living, and I tell them that I make computer games, there are two pretty frequent responses. One is "oh, that must be fun! I/my son/my nephew would love to play games all day". To which my latest response is "well, they're not really 'games' until we're DONE with them" (and even then, we're not good enough yet to know if they're going to be fun until remarkably late in the process).

The other response, and I understand where it's coming from, though it saddens me, is "Oh, do you make first person shooters like, what's that game where you steal cars?". You're thinking of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Yes, it's a popular series of games. Yes, it affords a wide variety of behaviors. No, I don't approve of killing prostitutes. Before or after having sex with them. No, that's not the kind of game that I make.

Grand Theft Auto (starting with GTA3) has garnered a lot of attention for encouraging antisocial behaviors. I've read that some researchers have found some correlation between playing violent games and having violent tendencies. I've read that some researchers have found an inverse correlation between violent games and violent behaviors. The message: we need more and better science.

For the time being, though, the industry is labeling its games as well and better than movies are rated. Retail stores are enforcing the ratings. The last time I was in a game store, a kid wanted to buy a mature-rated game with cash in hand, and the woman behind the counter declined to make the sale. Neither the kid, nor the salesperson made a big deal about it - ratings are nothing new, they're doing their jobs. An adult is required to make the purchase of mature-rated games (like the Grand Theft Auto games).

And let me underscore one point here. Movies are made for a variety of audiences. Care Bears and Barbie are appropriate for one demographic. Traveling Pants draw in a different group of people. "Kill Bill", almost completely disjoint from the first two groups. And that's fine. Perhaps the First Amendment covers the right of filmmakers to make a variety of different kind of entertainment. I kind of think that the framers of the Constitution were particularly interested in defending political speech, but I can see that drawing things too finely is problematic.

The same variety of entertainment is present in computer/console/video games. There are Barbie games. There are some (too few) games appealing to teenaged girls. There are (too many, at least in proportion) games appealing to adult males that want to tickle a power trip urge. That may be driving an exotic sports car, playing golf against Tiger Woods, defending Normandy Beach, or dispatching monsters on Mars with automatic weapons.

Again, perhaps the First Amendment is relevant, but in the same way that all movies aren't for all people, all games aren't appropriate for all audiences. I'm belaboring this point because it's a little too easy to look at the fact that there are kids that play games and that there are games that kids should not play, and have a hard time reconciling these two.

One person that seems to be making a living off of misunderstanding the breadth of interactive entertainment is Jack Thompson, a Florida lawyer. He has decided to bring suit against Rockstar Games, the authors of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, on behalf of two slain police officers. He's staged a number of other publicity-attracting actions, which I find dreadfully irresponsible.

Most recently, Jack Thompson invited the computer game industry to create a particularly violent game. In Jack's game, the player would play the father of a kid who had committed violent crimes and had played violent games. As preamble to the game, the child gets punished for his actions, and the father loses his sanity, visiting destruction on various parts of the computer game industry, from the developers, to the distributors, to the retail outlets. Jack's design is unnecessarily descriptive of the actions the characters would execute, but it's one of the bloodier game descriptions I've seen.

If anybody were to make this game, Mr. Thompson said, he'd donate $10,000 to charity.

Yeah, we get it. Turn the light on the industry. See how we like it.

So, people DID go out and make this game. There are hobbyists out there that make games all the time. This one fits well inside Grand Theft Auto, which seems fitting, considering Jack's distaste for the franchise.

And then, when the developers turned to Jack, asking him to make good on his promise, he reinterpreted his statement. It was satire. The offer of money to charity was... was what? The punchline? I'm not entirely sure I understand the point of offering money to charity in what was otherwise a somewhat juvenile exercise in parody.

There's a web comic site called Penny Arcade: http://www.penny-arcade.com that covers computer and console games. Jack Thompson has drawn their attention on several occasions from his media appearances. The artist of the comic sent Jack Thompson an email relating to this game design. This gave rise to this comic, and this page of news posts. Turns out Jack Thompson is a little unfriendly on the phone.

The best part, though, is that when Penny Arcade learned that Jack had backed out of his promise to donate to charity, they went off the rails a bit. Penny Arcade has, over the past two years, organized a game community charity drive drawing half a million dollars to children's charity. They might be permitted to do something a little unusual when Jack Thompson offers money to charity, and then reverses himself.

Penny arcade donated $10,000 in Jack Thompson's name to the Entertainment Software Association Foundation. Read about it here, but it looks like their servers are being hammered. (Also, if you can follow the link, page past the first bit where they talk about up-and-coming games.)

There are times that I am proud of gamers. Thanks, Tycho. Thanks, Gabe.