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End of the Debate

GamesIndustry.biz speaks to Lorne Lanning on the issue of violence in videogames

When the producers of "Moral Kombat," a film examining the ongoing debate over the issue of violence in videogames, looked for someone to represent the point of view of the 'artists', they chose Lorne Lanning.

The outspoken Lanning, who has a background in art and animation, is probably best known for creating the Oddworld franchise which has sold over 5 million games. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, and recently signed a development deal for a computer animated motion picture.

Following a debate with Jack Thompson at the VGXPO in Philadelphia, which will become part of the "Moral Kombat" documentary, GamesIndustry.biz was able to chat with Lanning about the issue of violence in videogames and why this is still a debate.

This is the first part of our interview:

GamesIndustry.biz: How did you come to be involved in the Moral Kombat film?

Lanning: Spencer Halpin, who made the film, was looking for different people to represent different sides of the industry. I think he came to us as the artists...to represent the artists' voice, and people whose content... We did care about not having just violence. We didn't believe in violence without a message, or attached to something that had more...I don't know...nutritious content? Engaging stories? Characters that had more emotions?

He was a fan of the games, and he called and said he was making this film and asked if we would be interviewed for it, and we said absolutely. It is an important issue today.

The end of the film is going to add some of what happened in Philadelphia, so that will be really interesting.

Spencer did a great job in trying to address all the different sides of the issue. My voice is there, a lot of people's voices are there, and they did really well. This debate was arranged because he felt that two sides of the argument really came out pretty strong. One was mine, and one was Jack's [Thompson], so then they arranged this debate. They screened the film and then had Jack and I there to talk about the issue of videogames and violence.

Were both you and Thompson paid for your involvement?

No, no. It was strictly a documentary.

It seems that there were three main issues which you addressed. The first was Thompson's financial motives. The second was a disagreement over how the ratings system was working. The third was whether or not violence in videogames has any effect on players. Is that a fair summary?

I think that's largely close to the truth.

I didn't go there...and I think some people may have been disappointed....because I didn't go there to debate the issue of videogames and violence.

I went there to debate the issue of why we are still debating the issue of videogames and violence.

I heard you say that you disagree with the notion that the debate will become moot when gamers grow up and become the older generation themselves, similar maybe to what happened with pinball, rock and roll, and comic books.

That is true. I don't agree that the issue will become moot.

I've heard that argument before, and part of the reason I don't agree with it is because some of the politicians... Like Mark Warner, the governor of Virginia, who I think, personally, is a brilliant man. We had a roundtable one day. A number of people from the industry were invited to go, and it was basically Mark Warner who called it, and it was about videogames in education, what can we do?

There were some people there who made the point you just brought up. "Well, eventually gamers are going to get older, and eventually every politician will have been a gamer, and the whole issue will go away."

Mark [Warner] just thought that was such a naive comment. Not only is it not going away, but you have to understand the political landscape. The game industry is such an open target that it is easy fodder for politicians. Do not think it is going to go away just because people are growing up.

I think there is a lot of truth in what he said, but I also see [videogames] differently than the previous mediums.

In comic books, the medium didn't change. The artwork may have become more dramatic and violent, but it still stayed a passive form of entertainment. Aside from content, it hasn't changed much in its physical material and medium since it was born. It is not something that keeps reappearing on the radar because it is doing new and dazzling things.

But with games, we are dealing with really intense technology that is never going to stop evolving. Because it is hand and hand with pushing the world's computing power. So, there will always be these opportunities to go after games.

The thing that's happening which is really dangerous is that people are making connections that are proven not to exist, and those connections are keeping this in the media spotlight.

And that's why I was only interested in debating "Why is this still a debate?"

Because the courts have ruled on this again and again and again, and if you go through the court records, as I did, and you read through, you'll find out that the judges are very upset by the time they get to the end of the case where they are evaluating legislation that was just passed by the opportunity-seeking politicians and the Jack Thompsons of the world.

[The legislation] is completely unconstitutional, and their basis that videogames are turning people into killers... there is no proof of, whatsoever. He continually recites studies done by organisations and cites cases that have been proven wrong.

But when he is in the public with the media or at a conference, he can continue to banter them. He continues to say them. It doesn't matter how many cases he's lost because of those claims. It doesn't matter that brilliant people like Henry Jenkins at M.I.T. has debunked them fully. It doesn't matter. Jack keeps on saying the same thing. It is basically a call to war.

It is basically "There are WMDs, and we're going to find them, and we're all in trouble if we don't!" That connection is very relevant. It is the same thing happening. The media doesn't allow the conversation to debunk why they are having the conversation. Instead, they focus on sensationalised sound bites and the fear that it emanates in the public mind as a result.

And a lot of people don't see those connections. They think it is just a debate about videogames and violence. But it is not. The real debate, in my opinion, is why there is still a debate, and there is really one big reason. It's Jack Thompson.

Isn't that a criticism against news coverage in general, not just as it relates to the game industry? The reliance upon sound bites...

Yeah. Our news coverage is horrendous. Anyone who is awake on this planet knows that.

The Europeans, the international community, cannot tolerate being in America and watching the news. They only see spin. If you travel out of the country, you see entirely different stories.

The media in this country is broken. If you talk to politicians, you talk to advertisers, they know what's happening. Look at what the FCC is trying to do, handing more and more news outlets to multinational corporations. We see less and less relevant news that has to do with our lives, and more and more news they want us to see or want us to be sidetracked on various issues.

So, if the issue of videogames and violence can scare people, and make them really curious to tune into the channel for five minutes more? Well, that's better than the news they don't want to report on some new shenanigans in the White House.

So, one reason you don't think the issue of videogame violence will become moot is because of a problem that is endemic to the media?

The reason we are having this debate still is because of how the mainstream media handles it. They will continually call Jack Thompson every time there is a school shooting. And he gets that call, and he's in the car, and he's there.

To be fair, though, the media has "go-to" pundits on every issue. I mean, the media can immediately grab Al Sharpton every time a racial issue appears, and they use sound bites from a lot of people. Jack Thompson just happens to be the one they rely upon for game industry.

That's very true, but I wouldn't say that Jack Thompson is an Al Sharpton, because Sharpton is addressing real issues that affect a real suppressed portion of the population.

My point is... I don't want to be on here ranting about the state of the media as much as I want to make the point that, without talking about the context of why this is still a hot issue today...and leaving out how the media works, you will never get to the truth. And I'm interested in the truth.

Beyond the media, though, the legal profession also has an interest in exploiting the issue, don't they? Trying to get money from the game publishers?

And Jack's at the top of that heap, right?

If there wasn't a Jack Thompson, though... As long as there is money to be "won," there will always be an attorney out there trying to convince a jury that a game caused a kid to kill someone. How can you overcome that?

I'm not so sure. I'm not so sure how many would be out there. Because often times it only takes one.

In the case of Jack Thompson, it doesn't matter how many times he loses. It doesn't matter how many times he is ordered for psychological evaluation by the Florida bar.*

But if you really stand back and look at his argument, as I did...because I did my research coming into this...I went "My God! There isn't an argument today!"

The only argument is Jack's business plan.

Lorne Lanning is president and creative director of Oddworld Inhabitants. Interview by Mark Androvich.

*It should be noted that Jack Thompson has never failed a psychological evaluation.