GamesBeat: I guess the only thing I wished was in there was the actual reaction to the ruling which sounds like it came after you finished the book. What did Sam or Dan actually think about the case?
Kushner: They’ve talked about it before. They’ve basically expressed the sentiment that most gamers and game developers share, which is: don’t infantilize this medium. The freedom shouldn’t be curtailed. So I don’t know. That’s my sense, just from over the years. I think that the games industry does share some of the blame in all of this. I say “industry” because there was, as I explain, Doug Lowenstein, who was running the IDSA or later the Entertainment Software Association.
Doug’s a very thoughtful guy, a very smart guy. We talked at great lengths for this book, and it was very interesting to hear his side of the story, talking about how ultimately there was a strategy in place not to engage the likes of Jack Thompson because it felt almost unwinnable. I’m kind of sympathetic to that and I understand that, maybe in the long run, that was a mistake. Because what happened as a result is that you had people like Thompson going on the Today Show unopposed. So much so that a lone writer like me is getting dragged onto CNN to provide a counterpoint. I was on CNN having to tell Anderson Cooper that, “Well, in GTA you can actually drive an ambulance, and you’re going to fare better with the cops.”
And while I’m saying that, unbeknownst to me, you just hear my voice, and they’re showing what’s essentially a snuff film of the most violent clips from games that I’ve never even heard of. Games like Thrill Kill or what-have-you. That’s what happened. I think there wasn’t enough dialogue. But I do think that, at the end, Hot Coffee was a good thing for the industry. Because it sort of forced the issue, and I think it really forced people to say, “Okay, look. Games are not just for kids. There are games just like there are TV shows like the Sopranos or films like Goodfellas or Saw III or whatever.” Not that… GTA is nowhere near as violent as Hostel…
GamesBeat: It was interesting how you show that Hot Coffee had a big toll on the founders of Rockstar. A fair amount of them parted ways after that. It really took down everybody except Sam and Dan themselves I guess.
Kushner: I’ve heard from some people who have read the book who are not gamers, just people in business, and I’m really hoping that a business audience is going to pick up on this. One of those people said to me, “Look, when you’re young, and you’re growing a company, and it’s a company that’s getting that big so fast, you’re just trying to keep up. You’re just trying to keep it going.” There was so much to contend with, and there were growing pains, just like there were growing pains at id software, just like there were growing pains at Apple or Microsoft for that matter. I do really believe that some of that pain was necessary for the growth of the medium. You know what I mean? I think that we saw, with GTA IV, barely anyone talked about the sex and violence. And I think with GTA V it’s going to be even less of a story. I think it’s partly because guys like you, and I guess myself too, are people who grew up with the stuff and played games. We’re getting older; we’re not just writing; we’re editing; maybe we’re in Hollywood making movies. So that stigma and that knee-jerk reaction to do the equivalent of showing Elvis Presley from the waist up, which is what happened when he went on the Ed Sullivan Show, it’s kinda done. I think we’re past that.
GamesBeat: The other part that was interesting, I thought, was when they were working on Manhunt and a lot of people from within Rockstar felt that they were crossing some lines there and that they were doing something that didn’t really have some redeeming value. It’s interesting to see that in the creative process.
Kushner: Yeah. Listen, I mean, you know this as well as anybody: game developers are people too. Game developers are gonna have differing opinions on what should and shouldn’t be in a game. A debate is probably a healthy thing for the creation of any kind of product. Certainly Manhunt was pushing way far, and maybe there’s a cult audience for that game, and I actually think that game was…. If you take away the violence of it, it was a really cool, stealthy, suspenseful game. That feeling of creeping around corners was pretty thrilling, if you remember when it came out. But why aren’t we talking about Manhunt, like we’re talking about GTA? I think that maybe goes back to this idea that controversy alone doesn’t sell a product, or it certainly doesn’t make something classic. I think we can say that GTA is a classic game. Ultimately, why did GTA become a classic game? It really wasn’t the violence. There have been other violent games, but GTA, as you know, it was the open world, it was the freedom, it was the humor. I think that’s what keeps people playing.
GamesBeat: So what did you wind up thinking about the Housers?
Kushner: I think that, like I said, every medium needs its freedom fighters. You know? Because without the freedom fighters, the medium doesn’t grow. And you can go back. That’s how I look at this, that’s how I’ve always looked at video games. I’ve always looked at video games as being the new rock and roll. That’s what compelled me about it. First off, I grew up playing games. That’s where all my lawn-mowing money went. So it mattered to me. It kinda pissed me off that people weren’t, I don’t know, just respecting the medium or appreciating the art form.
I think if you look in literature…I don’t know, what comes to mind right now? Authors like William S. Burroughs and publishers like Grove Press who were publishing Allen Ginsberg and all the Beats. They had people banning, wanting to ban, people saying they were degenerates, destroying the fabric of youth or whatever. But now, those are considered classic works. It’s the same in music. In the book, I draw a lot of parallels to hip-hop, because for the Housers, they really liked Def Jam Records and wanted to bring that sense of urgency. They wanted to reflect the world that was outside, kind of refract the world that was outside their windows. To me, that’s what I think of them. And when I think of this game, that’s what I think. That’s how I see this. I think that when you’re taking on that fight, there’s going to be some dustups, and there’s going to be some head-butting, and there’s going to be all of that. But the end of the story will be very, very different if that was all for nothing. And it wasn’t. I think that the games industry is better because now I think we are past that period of infantilization. I think that now. Now everybody likes to think they’re a gamer, right? We’re all playing Draw Something or Temple Run. I think the medium has grown up and through that glass ceiling to whatever is the next phase.