By MSNBC contributor
updated 2/18/2008 3:31:37 AM ET 2008-02-18T08:31:37
COMMENTARY

Say what you will about Jack Thompson, but the attorney-turned-anti-video-game crusader has what can only be described as a breathtaking genius for transforming ghastly national tragedies into shining moments of self promotion.

On Friday, police were still struggling to figure out why a seemingly polite, well-respected graduate student named Steven Kazmierczak had shot and killed five students at Northern Illinois University and then turned the gun on himself. But Thompson had it all figured out. Faster than you can say wild speculation and reckless sensationalism, he leapt in front of Fox News cameras and suggested that video games were to blame.

“We find from brain scan studies out of Harvard that if you get started playing, for example, violent video games you are more likely to copycat the behaviors in the games,” Thompson said in a rambling commentary that had nothing to do with what the interviewer had actually asked him. “The disturbing thing that keeps popping up in many of these…is that you can rehearse these type of massacres on simulators, which are called video games.”

During his brief air time, Thompson made sure to plug a book he’s written (which I will not plug here). Then, fresh off the boob tube, he began firing off press releases to various Web sites, trumpeting his screen time and flashing a photograph of himself in all his broadcast glory. (Look ma, I’m on TV!)

And in what can only be construed as an attempt to terrify grandmothers everywhere, Thompson declared in a “news” release: “We have a nation of Manchurian Candidate video gamers out there who are ready, willing, and able to massacre, and some of them will.”

The Northwest Herald and New York Post have since reported that Kazmierczak's former dormmates say he used to play the popular first-person shooter “Counter-Strike.” Though Thompson is now using these reports to make himself sound like a prognosticator extraordinaire, the truth is he's simply playing the numbers. The fact is, one would be hard pressed to find a young man of Kazmierczak's age who has not played video games. Indeed, The Herald reports that Kazmierczak's dormmates said playing "Counter-Strike" was a common activity among the students living in the building — none of whom have opened fire on their classmates.

While the video game connection remains tenuous at best, what seems far more pertinent are initial reports that Kazmierczak previously had been placed in a psychiatric treatment center and had recently stopped taking antidepressant medication.

This is not the first time Thompson has put his mug in front of every camera possible immediately after a mentally disturbed gunman has opened fire on innocent people. When last we spoke with the controversial Florida attorney , he was blaming video games for the massacre of 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech last April.

Not-so-funnily enough, while Thompson's misinfomation-laced pronouncements claim that the shooter — Seung-Hui Cho — had a passion for violent video games, a governor-ordered review of that horrific incident found no connection whatsoever with games. Instead, what the review panel found was a young man with a long history of psychiatric illness and a student who fell through the cracks of a deeply flawed mental health system. In fact, according to the the extensive 260-page report, it's unclear if Cho — who was passionate about books (gasp!) and not video games — ever played anything more aggressive than the kid-friendly "Sonic the Hedgehog."

Needless to say, video game players and proponents are collectively rolling their eyes in disgust at Thompson’s latest attempts to use a nightmarish tragedy to further his own cause and beat his own drum.

“Blaming video games for the behavior of the mentally-challenged is vile on many levels,” Hal Halpin, President of the Entertainment Consumers Association, wrote in a public statement

“My opinion is that Jack is a distraction from the real issues,” said Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association. “When these kinds of tragedies occur, it’s horrible, horrendous and sad, and it’s very difficult for people to wrestle with the real issues. It’s easier to say, ‘Oh it was those video games that brainwashed him.’ That’s much easier than saying our society is messed up, people don’t take care of each other, teachers aren’t in control, there’s rampant bullying, and there are no parents at home because they have to work two jobs.”

In his personal blog, Della Rocca also posts an interesting e-mail conversation he had with Thompson after the Virginia Tech shooting. In it, Thompson challenges Della Rocca to a series of gaming debates and explains that they each stand to net $3,000 or more per event. Della Rocca declined this money-making endeavor, though not before suggesting they instead agree to a free debate...which Thompson declined.

“Not only must we question what good is this guy actually doing, but we should be questioning his motive,” Della Rocca said. “That is to say, are these massacre chasers profiting inappropriately from the deaths and fears of these tragedies?”

Speaking of the scapegoat de jour...
When games aren’t turning our children into a bunch of gun-wielding psychopaths, it seems they’re turning them into a bunch of Fatty McFattersons. Or so Steve Easterbrook, CEO of McDonalds UK, suggested to The Times of London.

“Kids are sat home playing computer games on the TV when in the past they’d have been burning off energy outside,” he opined during an interview about the role the golden arches have played in rising obesity rates.

To his credit, Easterbrook admits that obesity is a “complex” problem. At least on that point the developers over at Persuasive Gamesagree. They say that obesity is, indeed, a complex problem with no simple solutions. They also suggest that, among other things, it just might be fast food that makes you fat.

I know, I know! What a bunch of loons with loony ideas about how the world works.  One of those loony ideas: They made a video game about the labyrinthine and systemic problem behind America’s ever-expanding waistline. Aptly enough, this little simulation game is called “Fatworld” and it’s free to download at www.fatworld.org.

I took a few moments to speak with Ian Bogost, the brain behind “Fatworld” (and the author of the book “Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames”). While games frequently get a bad rap for being violent diversions forged in very mouth of hell itself, Bogost believes that video games are, in fact, a medium uniquely suited to presenting complicated and thought-provoking issues to the public at large.

Image: Screenshot from Fatworld
Persuasive Games
The game 'Fatworld' begins by having players select their character's body shape, age, socio-economic class, and predispositions to things like heart disease and diabetes.
With that in mind, he created “Fatworld” to be an exploration of the intricate relationship between obesity, nutrition, socioeconomics and politics.

“Unlike television or even novels, instead of telling stories, video games represent systems and complicated interactions between multiple dynamics,” Bogost says. “They're a model of the world rather than an individual story within it.”

And so you start “Fatworld” by creating a character — selecting body shape, age, socio-economic class, and predispositions to things like heart disease and diabetes. In “Sims”-esque style, you lead your character through daily life, choosing what foods to eat and buy, whether to exercise (or not). You can acquire and run restaurants and the types of food you put on the menu will affect the health of the people in your town.

Meanwhile, you can stroll on over to the Govern-O-Mat to change government food subsidies or bribe a politician, and you can visit the Health-O-Mat to check on how your character is faring. (Using vending machines to affect government and health care policy is a bit of divine commentary, I think).

Throughout it all, the choices you make affect your character's health — you’ll watch yourself get fatter or thinner, live a long life or die. Yes, the game plays a little clunky here and there (the exercising mingames especially), but if "Fatworld" stumbles at times in the gameplay department, it more than makes up for it in the thought-provoking department.

“If anything, what I hope to do with the game is to show that any simple answer is wrong,” Bogost says.

Stick that in yer McNugget hole and eat it
For those looking for a game that feels plenty comfortable pointing the finger of blame at fast food, check out the free “McDonald’s Video Game” at www.mcvideogame.com, which gives players a satiric peek at the ugliness that goes into the making of a Big Mac.

Welcome to McDonald’s. Would you like a side of rainforest deforestation with your double-hormone beef patty? Mmmm, mmm good!

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