Each week Dennis McCauley contributes The Political Game, a column on the collision of politics and video games:
If you think back to this time last year, you'll surely recall the State of Louisiana being ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Traumatized residents there are still trying to rebuild their lives. These poor souls need all kinds of help - loans and subsidies, jobs and infrastructure repairs.
So the Louisiana legislature gave them a video game law.
Just why a state that is best known for its annual, drunken, boob-flashing street party felt squeamish about, of all things, video games has never been clear. But Rep. Roy Burrell, a Louisiana Democrat, harbored strong feelings about the issue. Apparently frustrated by the failure to get his first effort passed in 2005, Burrell called in a legal gunslinger from out of town:
Unfazed by his very public dismissal from a video game lawsuit in Alabama, the game-bashing Florida attorney set himself to studying federal court decisions in past video game cases. At some point Thompson managed to convince himself and Rep. Burrell that he had discovered the Holy Grail of video game laws – one that would survive all constitutional challenges.
So Thompson drafted a bill and Burrell sponsored it in the legislature. In May, while the attention of the video game world was focused on what would turn out to be the last E3, the pair presented their brainchild, House Bill 1381, to the Criminal Justice Committee of the Louisiana House.
Video footage available on the legislature's website reveals a vintage Thompson performance. During the hearing the anti-game crusader held up a copy of Vice City and told the assembled legislators, "It's not even speech of any kind. It is a device." That's a highly debatable assertion, since a half-dozen federal courts had already ruled that video games are speech. But no Louisiana legislator raised a voice in question.
Thompson's testimony took an especially dramatic turn when he explained to the committee how the PS2's vibrating controllers program gamers to kill.
"(the controller) literally gives you a pleasurable jolt and vibration back into your hands every time you kill someone," said Thompson, his voice dripping with disgust. "When you take a car and you run over innocent virtual pedestrians in the game you get a pleasurable vibration as your wheels go over their skulls..."
With the nonsense meter now dialed all the way up, Burrell waded in, criticizing a racist Flash game that was then circulating the Web. Just one problem: the game, Border Patrol, was a non-retail product over which his legislation would have absolutely no control.
Next, Burrell related the story of an Oklahoma man accused of the horrendous murder of a child. Why he chose this example also remains unclear, since the 26-year-old suspect was no kid, and the "violent" game he played, Kingdom of Loathing, is a non-retail, non-industry, online product in which stick figures – stick figures! – battle one another. Once again, his bill would have no impact on the very example he raised to support it. Burrell wrapped up his presentation with the words, "Mr. Chairman, we got a problem..."
We sure do, Mr. Chairman. The problem is that the witnesses are completely blowing smoke up your ass.
Despite the Bizarro testimony, Rep. Burrell's bill would go on to pass Louisiana's House and Senate unanimously. The governor signed the bill into law and, as expected, the video game industry immediately sued on constitutional grounds.
Surely, this was Jack Thompson's high-water mark in his longstanding crusade against video game violence. The bill he personally authored and championed had passed without a single "nay" vote. At long last he had plunged his sword of righteousness into the cold heart of the evil, child corrupting video game industry. The sound of Doug Lowenstein grinding his teeth could be heard all the way from Washington, D.C. to Baton Rouge to Miami.
And then, just when he should have been savoring his moment in the sun, Jack Thompson instead switched into political self-destruct mode. Things started unraveling in mid-July with his ill-fated attempt to file an amicus curiae or "friend of the court" brief with Federal Judge James Brady, who is presiding over the industry lawsuit. It seems that a couple of those oh-so-annoying legal requirements were forgotten, including the one that says Thompson isn't licensed to practice before Judge Brady's court and thus can't file anything there.
Before you could say, "Law 101," Judge Brady denied Thompson's amicus brief. On the heels of this embarrassing episode, Thompson inexplicably decided to burn his bridges with the Louisiana Attorney General's Office. Since Louisiana A.G. Charles Foti and his deputy, Burton Guidry, were the guys defending Thompson's own video game law against the industry's legal challenge, this was a rather puzzling strategy, sort of like tackling your own quarterback.
While it's hard to know what went on behind the scenes, public statements from the A.G's Office were solidly behind Thompson's law. Guidry, especially, sounded like a Jack Thompson clone, telling a local newspaper that violent games "teach a kid how to kill, how to rape, how to defile a person, how to kill an officer. Video (game industry) people hide behind the fact that it's a cartoon," and pledging, "The office of the attorney general is going to defend this all the way to the (U.S) Supreme Court."
Despite Guidry's public exhortations, things took an ugly turn when Thompson accused Guidry and his boss of mishandling the case and demanded that Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco assign the defense of the state's video game law to someone else.
"I regret to inform you," Thompson wrote to the Guv, "that... your Attorney General's office has utterly dropped the ball... tell your Attorney General, Mr. Foti, either to do his job or get out of the way so that others can do it for him."
In the midst of Thompson's sudden attack on the A.G.'s Office, Rep. Burrell put on a brave face, backed his man Jack, and tried to play the role of peacemaker.
"Historically," Burrell said, "we Louisianans are known ourselves to be a little testy at times, just enough to get the old blood boiling. Hopefully, the additional adrenaline and testosterone being displayed here may be just the extra 'uh' needed in the upcoming 'cockfight' over the constitutionally of this bill."
Adrenaline and testosterone and cockfights? Oh, my!
While the Louisiana situation is fascinating in much the same way that train wrecks are, it also raises many questions. For now, the A.G.'s office must soldier on, defending Thompson's law through gritted teeth. I can't imagine they're too thrilled about it, but they are professionals and will do what needs to be done. The governor's office certainly is not going to pull Foti and Guidry off the case.
Despite his conciliatory statements, Rep. Burrell has to be wondering what he's gotten himself into. While Jack Thompson is just passing through Louisiana, Burrell, Foti, Guidry and Gov. Blanco all have to work together long after this particular storm subsides.
As for the Louisiana video game law itself, the case remains under review by Judge Brady. A temporary restraining order blocks it from being enforced. Expect a ruling soon on the industry's request for a temporary injunction.
And don't think for a minute that the political fireworks are over in Louisiana.
Dennis McCauley is Editor of GamePolitics.com and writes about games for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Opinions expressed in The Political Game are his own. Reach him at dennis@GamePolitics.com