Dayton City Paper
January 04, 2006
Railing against video game violence isn't just for Jack Thompson anymore
By John Lasker
Practically every serious video gamer knows of the Miami-based attorney
Jack Thompson. His relentless public relations war against the video
game industry has become the stuff of infamous legend. Thompson once
labeled the proliferation of certain Sony games in the U.S. as “Pearl
Thompson is often interviewed on Fox News about violence and sex in
media. He calls games such as Grand Theft Auto and first-person shooters
such as Doom “murder simulators.”
But while Thompson has marginalized himself by assailing CEOs and game
designers in the $10 billion dollar industry, a flurry of recent action
by Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) is bringing
more legitimacy to the theory that hardcore violent video games have a
negative impact on individuals with certain risk factors, such as those
that are young and growing up in an environment predisposed to crime and
Clinton and Lieberman introduced a bill called The Family Entertainment
Protection Act in December. The proposed law focuses on minors and, if
passed, will crack down on retailers who sell them “Mature”-rated games,
as designated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board.
Sen. Lieberman recently stated at a press conference that there is “a
growing body of evidence that points to a link between violent videos
and aggressive behavior in children,” although the U.S. Surgeon General
stated otherwise as recently as 2001.
But social psychologists such as Dr. Craig A. Anderson of Iowa State
University, who has made a career of studying media violence and whether
it inspires real-world aggression, sides with Lieberman, stating that
much has changed even in that short period of time.
“The research that shows violence in games increases aggressive behavior
in minors is getting larger and stronger. I would say that, since 2001,
half a dozen studies a year have been published showing (a link),” he
said, adding there are now 20 to 30 teams across the globe publishing
research that supports a conclusion that has long been dismissed by
gamers and free speech proponents as existing solely in the aggressive
imaginations of conservative watchdogs. Some of the research is based on
psychiatric evaluations while others study brain patterns via MRI
(Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans.
Anderson, who plays games with his own children, believes that many
games enhance logic and problem-solving abilities. But he is also
concerned about how realistic and violent a handful of games have become
over the last several years.
Anderson likes to cite a University of Indiana study published in 2002
where MRI scans were used to view the brain activity from two groups of
teenagers while they played violent video games — with one group having
been previously diagnosed with Disruptive Behavior Disorders (DBD).
The teenagers with DBD showed reduced activity and blood flow to the
pre-frontal cortex, which controls impulses, decision-making and the
sense of future consequences.
The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), a lobbyist group for the
video game industry, counters by saying for every negative study there’s
one that refutes the findings by Anderson and others.
Scientists and psychologists, however, aren’t the only ones worried
about violence in video games. Thousands of police officers and
detectives are actively keeping an eye out for a video game connection
at shootings, especially those committed by young adults or minors.
“Are we cognizant that these games are out there and have a big
influence over our youth? Absolutely,” said police chief David Hiller,
who is also national vice president for the Fraternal Order of Police.
Hiller said that a major concern street-level officers have — one that’s
become more tangible just in the last few years — is that young people
are going to emulate what they do in these games. “Remember, these kids
are being rewarded for pulling the trigger and killing people,” he said.
It’s not just word-of-mouth that’s keeping law enforcement on edge. One
of the most in-demand speakers and trainers for law-enforcement
departments and academies is Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, an ex-U.S. Army
Ranger and West Point psychology professor.
Grossman has testified in front of Congress, been quoted by President
Clinton, and wrote On Killing, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize
and is now required reading at the FBI Academy and several military
academies. What’s more, Grossman wrote the book, Stop Teaching Our Kids
to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence.
Grossman refused to comment for this story, citing his busy schedule.
Since 9/11, he has been on the road for 300 days out of the year, and
his several-hours-long presentations are known to keep audiences
riveted, and afterwards, shocked at what he had to say.
“I train 50,000 people a year, (and) 10,000 cops every year for the last
three years,” said Grossman in 2001 during a violence-in-media debate.
Ohio police agencies said that Grossman has spoken throughout the state
several times in the last two years.
Grossman’s training consists of preparing police and military minds for
combat and street crime. He tells them that “violent media and video
games,” according to an article from Modern Survival, is “the largest
single threat to modern civilization.”
Murder rates may be down since the middle of the last century, Grossman
tells audiences, but felony assaults have risen. Advances in emergency
medical attention caused the swing, he explains.
Grossman is also the founder and director of the Killology Research
Group, a military consulting organization. The Killology Web site says
that first-person shooter games not only desensitize our youth from the
psychological ramifications of killing, but also teach the very
mechanics of killing.
In a recent interview with DCP, Thompson said this belief is hard to
argue against if one considers the relationship between the video game
industry and the U.S. military, which uses video games to teach soldiers
combat skills. He says the U.S. military’s dirty secret is that these
games also break down the inhibitions to killing.
“The military has contracted the video game industry to manufacture
virtual reality simulators that teach new recruits how to kill,” he
Some of these games, such as the free download America’s Army, are now
widely available, he says. “And these same simulators do not affect
civilians? The video game industry has no argument against this.”
Thompson and Grossman have, literally, hundreds of thousands of critics.
One critic of Grossman has been calling on him for several years now to
stop spreading fear and unproven information.
“I would say to him that he should reconsider much of what he has
disseminated in the law-enforcement community during the last ten years.
Because at best, much of what he has disseminated is of dubious value,
and at worst, potentially harmful,” said Thomas J. Aveni of The Police
Policies Studies Council, a law-enforcement training and consultation
corporation based in New Hampshire.
Aveni said that Grossman’s argument about how violent video games have
tremendous sway over our youth is “too simplistic” and “illogical.” He
said the real causes of violence are upbringing, poverty and other
“I’m inclined to believe the vast majority of violent felony crimes
committed by our youth are being committed by inner-city kids who don’t
have an X-box,” he said, “Meaning, they haven’t been conditioned by
violent video games.”
Nevertheless, Grossman has also instructed audiences that one way to
remedy violent media is to challenge the producers and distributors in
court, a tactic used by Thompson.
Thompson has helped file several civil suits against the video game
industry and its retailers, but all were dismissed before making it to a
jury trial. Retailers have argued that laws against selling Mature-rated
video games is unenforceable because preteens/teens simply get older
relatives/friends to purchase the games for them.
But the track record for litigation may change during the coming year.
Two years ago, a then-18-year-old Devin Moore shot and killed two police
officers and one dispatcher at a police station in Alabama. Moore was an
avid player of Grand Theft Auto and it was alleged that his parents had
physically abused him. He told police upon arrest, “Life is a video
game. You’ve got to die some time.”
Thompson filed a $600 million wrongful death suit on behalf of the
families. After gaming industry attorneys made a motion to dismiss the
case, the judge decided in December that the trial could go forward.
There is another opportunity for dismissal, but those close to the case
told DCP there’s a good chance it will now go to a jury.
Thompson and his colleagues would first have to show the jury
psychological or medical evidence that video games have an adverse
psychological impact on certain individuals, resulting in dangerous
conduct. They must also prove that either the video game manufacturers
knew, or should have foreseen, that the violent and antisocial content
of their video games could have a dangerous psychological impact on
Thompson recently removed himself from the Alabama case after video game
attorneys alerted the judge to his past covert activities. Thompson’s
critics may call him a quack, but they cannot deny that his intuition
has been on target.
During the central Ohio “Highway Sniper” scare, where Charles McCoy Jr.
took turns shooting variously at homes, schools, and passing motorists
in late 2003 and early 2004, Thompson urged a law-enforcement sniper
task force to stake out a Columbus-area GameWorks, a restaurant and
video game room.
Lo and behold, the admitted shooter, McCoy Jr., turned out to spend a
lot of time playing video games (some violent) and was known to frequent
the area GameWorks. When he was arrested after going on the lam, police
said his few possessions consisted of his PlayStation 2 and the game,
The Getaway. Incredibly, McCoy’s shooting spree resulted in only one
death, that of 62-year-old Gail Knisley of Washington Court House. The
Knisley family, with Thompson as their attorney, wanted to go forth with
a lawsuit but several factors, such as McCoy’s paranoid schizophrenia,
changed their minds at the last minute. McCoy pled guilty to
manslaughter and is now serving a 27-year prison sentence.
Many close to the McCoy case said video game violence was not the reason
McCoy went on his shooting spree.
“My first thought was that such an allegation is complete bullshit,”
said Dr. Mark J. Mills, a forensic psychiatrist from Maryland who
interviewed McCoy and testified on behalf of the defense. Mills said
that after McCoy stopped taking his medication, his “auditory
hallucinations” worsened and eventually tricked him into shooting into
speeding highway traffic.
Nonetheless, Thompson compares his anti-video game crusade to another
legal war where the plaintiffs chipped away ever so slowly at a
“Look at the tobacco industry,” he said to this reporter. “We’re
pioneers at this. The first time you don’t succeed…”
Anderson agreed that, like the tobacco industry, the video game industry
in time will lose in court and be forced to make changes.
“I suspect Mr. Thompson is correct,” he said. “A lawsuit victory would
bring about enforcement. It may not have an effect on the video game
industry’s profitability, but it will have impact on retailers and how
well the rating system is enforced. (Furthermore), parents have to get
involved to a much greater extent then they are now. A victory will more
than likely get them more involved.”
Reach DCP freelance writer John Lasker