Another Perspective

Game Blame

A teenager commits triple homicide and Corporate America is on trial.

By 2.24.05

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When 16-year-old Devin Thompson shot down two Alabama police officers and a dispatcher in cold blood in 2003, local journalists, teachers, and coffee-shop commentators began the usual round of soul searching. Some wanted to fix point the finger at the boy's negligent parents. Some wanted to blame a wayward society that had in so many ways failed the boy-killer. A few even wanted to blame the boy himself. But the victims' families had other ideas

It turns out the real guilty party was a software manufacturer. Also complicit in the homicides were corporations like Wal-Mart and Sony. According to a civil suit filed on behalf of relatives of two of the deceased, Take Two Interactive Software's crime-action game Grand Theft Auto "trained and motivated" Devon Thompson to steal a car, and, once apprehended by Fayette police officers, snatch a service revolver from one of cops and open fire, finally making off in a stolen police car. During the melee officers Arnold Strickland, James Crump, and dispatcher Leslie Mealer were killed. Apprehended a second time Thompson, according to the AP, told the cops that, "Life is a video game. You got to die sometimes."

The defendant's attorney Jack Thompson told Tuscaloosa News, "What has happened in Alabama is that four companies participated in the training of Devin ... to kill three men." Wal-Mart and Gamestop are named in the suit because clerks sold the video games to the 16-year-old Thompson (the Grand Theft Auto series is rated M for mature audiences 17 and older). Sony is being sued because…well, because they manufacture PlayStation 2 and Grand Theft Auto, like thousands of other video games, is designed to play on PlayStation 2. One wonders why the plaintiffs are not suing the manufacturers of the television set as well?

Occasionally there is a single root cause for murder. These are called crimes of passion. But more often violent crimes are committed by young men with long histories of trouble and chaos. An intelligent judge knows that it is often a multiplicity of factors that creates a psychopath: abuse, neglect, hopelessness, ignorance, laziness, absentee parents, and the plain, simple thrill of bad behavior. "Media violence," writes Craig A. Anderson, a media violence expert and chair of the department of psychology at Iowa State University, "is only one of many factors that contribute to societal violence, and is certainly not the most important one." However, for the trial lawyers and plaintiffs there is little benefit to be had in blaming hopelessness and ignorance (though I suppose one might sue the school district). Someone must be held accountable, preferably someone with deep pockets. Jack Thompson and his clients are seeking $600 million.

This is a fairly typical case for the Miami lawyer, whose mission is, in his words, " to hold accountable the entertainment industry for the harm it does to our children." Jack Thompson is perhaps best known for working on anti-obscenity crusades like his partnership with Charlton Heston to persuade Time Warner to pull the song "Cop Killer" from Ice T's 1992 Bodycount LP, and bringing obscenity charges against the seminal rap band 2 Live Crew, which ultimately forced record companies to place warning labels on raunchy and misogynistic albums. However, in this instance the lawyer seems to be in it more for the cash than for any sense of justice. Asked about the suit by video game columnist Shaun McCormick, Thompson's response was a terse "Kiss the game industry good-bye."

Only a moral zombie would defend asinine crime-action games ("murder simulators" to use the lawyer's parlance) like Grand Theft Auto, which appeals to the same sort of mindset that enjoys cockfighting and bear-baiting. Jack Thompson's one-stop-lawsuit website offers this description of Grand Theft Auto:

"In this game you have sex with a prostitute and then kill her grotesquely to get your money back and win the game faster. Police officers are set on fire, shotgunned in the face, and innocent pedestrians are run over with cars."

A kind of Death Car 2000 without the satire. Besides the evidence is quite clear, as Prof. Anderson notes, that "high levels of violent video game exposure have been linked to delinquency, fighting at school and during free play periods, and violent criminal behavior… It decreases the normal negative emotional reactions to conflict, aggression, and violence." But the same might be said for watching classic, though violent films like Reservoir Dogs and Goodfellas. That's why they are rated for mature audiences. The solution is not to ban games like Grand Theft Auto, as California Assembly woman Leland Yee has proposed. The solution is to address the real factors that create psychopathic boys. The solution, as Thoreau said, is to hack at the roots of evil, not prune the branches.

The Wal-Mart and Gamestop clerks were wrong to sell the mature-audiences-only game to a minor, and deserve to be fined and fired (not sued) for that, just as they would be ticketed for selling tobacco to a minor. Wal-Mart has largely stopped selling CDs and DVDs containing obscene lyrics, and it should likewise rethink its policy on selling games that portray criminal behavior as good times. It might also make sense to raise the age for mature video games to 18. But none of this would have saved the lives of officers Strickland and Crump and dispatcher Mealer. Devin Thompson never said the "game made me do it." He did, however, say that "the reason I shot those officers is I didn't want to go to jail." That's a psychopath talking. And you don't become a psychopath by simply playing video games.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.