David Kushner has been on the front lines of the video game culture wars. In 2004, he published Masters of Doom, a portrait of the founders of id Software (the makers of the seminal first-person shooter game Doom). Now he has published a book about Rockstar Games, the company at the heart of the culture war on game violence and creator of the Grand Theft Auto series.
His groundbreaking book, Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto, debuted in April. It follows the story of Sam and Dan Houser as they grow up in a privileged entertainment household in England and then migrate to New York to make video games for adults. The story captures the passion of the Housers as they try to push all of the boundaries that pigeonholed games into children’s fare. Thanks to the Housers, we have open-world games that have the same content and themes as R-rated movies.
But we also have a world divided about whether violent games cause children to act out murderous fantasies. As Kushner tells the inside story of the Housers and their travails within Rockstar Games, he also chronicles the rise and fall of anti-violence lawyer Jack Thompson and the firestorm of controversy that arose around incidents such as Hot Coffee, the (accidental) sex mini-game that was unearthed in Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. It incited politicians to propose laws banning the sale of violent games to minors — an issue that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The grudge match between Rockstar and Thompson became the defining conflict of the video game era. When you read this book, it will force you to decide whether the players or the haters were the real freedom fighters. We interviewed Kushner about his book and the 10-plus years of research that went into it. Here is an edited transcript.
GamesBeat: How is your book being received?
David Kushner: Well, it just came out, but it’s getting covered, and people are reading it, which is all I can hope for. Obviously, the last time I did this was 2003 with Masters of Doom, and it’s kind of interesting to do a book like this now with the Internet being what it is. In 2003, obviously, there wasn’t Facebook and Twitter. It’s a completely different experience. Everybody would love to have a cover on the New York Times Book Review, but then there’s Twitter and Facebook, so that’s fine. It’s just a different climate for an author now than it was back then. It’s been interesting to see that unfold.
GamesBeat: It must have been fun. How long do you think you worked on this? There’s probably a lot of magazine stories in there that got it going, but when did you really start working on a book?
Kushner: I got the green light to do it a couple of years ago, I would say? But as you know, you’re in the same position as me; I’ve been out there covering it, seeing you at E3 since the beginning of the decade and probably around the time of the first GTA. To write a book, it’s nice to be able to draw from having been on the front lines and reporting there as things were unfolding. I was able to draw from all that but also now, because all this time has passed, take a step back and connect the dots. That’s my favorite thing to do. That’s why I like books. You can take a breath and put the pieces back together. Because we all lived through this. In the course of going through it, there’s so much happening that I didn’t even realize was happening at the time. I think that’s something you can only realize when you’ve got the time to sort through it. So that’s what I did. I took everything I had done, everyone I had spoken with over the years, went through that, and then just did a whole new round of interviews and research and core documents. That’s what became the book.
GamesBeat: It’s very interesting as a narrative to read all of the different things that you captured that were happening at the same time. It was interesting to see both sides of the fence: inside Rockstar and also what’s going on with Jack Thompson.
Kushner: I was writing a book for two audiences just like I did with Masters of Doom, and I had to do this as well. You’ve got the gamers, and you’ve got the non-gamers, or as I oversimplify in the book: the players and the haters. I’m being a bit cheeky about that. But of course that’s not to say that people who don’t play games necessarily hate the industry or hate video games, but when I did take that step back and ask myself, “Okay, what’s really the story here? What’s the story that I’m trying to tell?”
The story I was trying to tell with Doom was really about the developer’s side of the story. That was really about how these two guys with similar backgrounds and very different points of view came together to make something they wanted to play and that was just unlike anything anyone had seen. Something that gave rise to this modern game industry. They had controversy along the way, but it was ultimately a buddy story.
I always looked at this book a little differently. To me the story was always that players versus the haters idea. I looked at what I call the GTA decade as being the defining decade for the modern game industry. Just like rock and roll in the ’50s and ’60s and comic books and heavy metal later after that kind of went through their period of being considered dangerous, video games had that happen, and GTA was at the heart of that.
Ultimately, I think it was a necessary period of growth. We grew up playing games. For us it was always sort of silly to hear people suggest that you could play a video game and want to go kill somebody. But as silly as that seemed to us, it was very real to a whole other camp. The biggest thing I wanted to avoid was to be patronizing or to make fun of that. Ultimately, you’ve got people who were concerned about their children, and whether they were right or whether they were wrong is another matter. But I try to come at it with that sort of empathy or sympathy, trying to tell it from all of the sides. Really more than anything, I wanted to reach the people who don’t feel like they care about games, who don’t know about games. I thought that this was the narrative through which I could do that.
GamesBeat: It was very well-done on a lot of levels there. What kind of access did you have to the Rockstar guys? How did you make use of that access here?
Kushner: As I say in the book, at the time I started, I was living like five blocks away from Rockstar’s offices in New York. As I went back through my notes, I realized I had actually started talking to them back in 1999, around the time of the first GTA. I did various stories on game testers there; I did a big feature for Rolling Stone on Vice City that went on the cover. Then Hot Coffee and Jack Thompson, pretty much every angle on this as it unfolded. When it came time for me to do the book, I approached them about participating and they declined. Which was their choice to do.
But ultimately I still went on, and I was able to talk with people who were no longer at the company, many people who are no longer there, and people who we haven’t heard from before about what went down. I was able to draw from that. But really it was also going back to that big idea that I was trying to explain before. For me, the main character of this book is the game. The main characters of Masters of Doom were Carmack and Romero, but I really wanted to write about the game as the character, how the game evolved. To do that, that meant a different journalistic approach. I was just basically calling up anybody who was part of this story along the way.
The book does digress into those little subplots, like the story of the modders who were involved in Hot Coffee. Patrick Wildenborg, we heard his name a lot at the time as being the guy who discovered Hot Coffee, but we never really… I never knew what he looked like, I never knew what he did for a living, and I really wanted to find that out. That was incredibly fun. Also, that’s part of the benefit of letting time pass. Now it’s been a while, and now he’s willing to tell that story. He told it to me, and in addition, I was able to draw from hundreds of pages of court documents which included things that are no longer on the Internet. Forums gamers were discussing it in. To me, when I’m writing anything, I’m a big nerd about source material. Because that’s how you bring a story to life. For this there was just so much source material, so much to work with, that I was never really at a loss.
GamesBeat: Yeah, I noticed a lot of e-mails that you had from Sam Houser; I guess that came out in all of this testimony or discovery that happened related to all of the court cases.
Kushner: Yeah, it did. That alone, with all the stuff from the modders too. Really, my M.O. in all of this was just to tell the story. I just wanted to bring the story back to life in as much detail as I could because I really do feel like it was this defining story for the industry. At the time, I feel like it was largely untold and uncontextualized. That was what I was trying to do.
GamesBeat: Where do you think you had some of the most interesting new material or scoops that people didn’t really come across before?
Kushner: Well, I think everything you talked about; all of that stuff that came from the court documents on Hot Coffee and the modders. I really tried to just go and put you right there in Patrick Wildenborg’s living room as he was hacking away. I don’t know that anyone really knew the extent of it, the tick-tock of the modders and how they collaborated. This guy Barton Waterduck, which is maybe my favorite handle of all time, this mysterious modder who’s very instrumental in finding Hot Coffee and making that happen. So that, to me, is seeing the story come to life.
GamesBeat: It was sort of astonishing for me to read the e-mail from Sam Houser about all of the sex-related things he wanted to get inside Grand Theft Auto San Andreas and his frustration at being blocked.
Kushner: You know, listen, I think ultimately the Rockstar guys are, and were in this period, freedom fighters in the best sense of the name. This is still a relatively new medium. It’s really kind of silly that people thought that you couldn’t have sex or violence in a game because they figured that the people who play games are children. This was the same exact kind of infantilism that was happening in the days of E.C. Comics (the predecessor of DC Comics), and this is why (founder) Bill Gaines had to go testify. The path to Capitol Hill was well-worn before anybody was dragged up there to have to talk about Hot Coffee.
This country has a history of putting the manufacturers of youth culture — the mediums that produce youth culture — putting those people through the wringer. That’s what happened. That was the decade for games, I think. We saw with heavy metal in the ’80s or a long time ago with dinosaur novels or even pinball machines. So I don’t know what you think, but to me, the end of the book and the end of the GTA decade felt like closure. I think with the Supreme Court — all that was going down as I was finishing the book — with the Supreme Court basically weighing in on California and this proposal in California to ban the sale of violent games to minors. You’ve got conservative Supreme Court justices saying, “Well, let’s go ahead and ban Grimm’s Fairy Tales; those are pretty violent too.”
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.
GamesBeat: What do you think the point was where these guys actually crossed over into making something that was of the highest quality? There’s a certain period of time where people thought they were making sensationalist games. They were not works of art. But if you look at GTA IV, it’s clear that they’ve crossed that point. When did you think that they got there?
Kushner: It’s funny, because if you talk to anyone who plays or is a fan of GTA, and I mean, look, I was certainly and remain a fan of the games. Everyone is going to tell you something different. People will say Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, people will say San Andreas, some will say GTA IV. I guess for me it’s Vice City because Vice City was funny. I would almost say it was the funniest of the games. I like the humor of it, I loved the social satire, that it was set in that period of time, that it was celebrating things like Miami Vice and Scarface. Just extrapolating that into this twisted gaming universe. And that it was just a pretty game. People don’t usually think of the word “pretty” when they think of GTA, but it really was a pretty game. All the sunsets of Vice City were terrific. So I think for me, Vice City was that moment. GTAIII certainly was a massive breakthrough, but Vice City defined the voice of that game in a way that it hadn’t before. The radio stations. Maybe more than anything, it gave you the freedom to explore a time and place that felt really palpable. I think that certainly that went on, that continued in San Andreas, and it did continue to GTA IV. Personally, I found GTA IV to be a little more dour than some of the earlier titles. But it’ll be interesting to see what GTA V holds.
GamesBeat: Yeah, you talk about how there isn’t much humor in GTA IV.
Kushner: I’m not the first person to say that. But you know, it was cool, though. GTAIV, what I loved about it even more than the other games was just the detail, the attention to detail. That was incredible. Especially as someone who was living in New York, to basically go down to the equivalent of Brighton Beach in the game. That was cool because I knew Brighton Beach. It was amazing to see how detailed that was.
GamesBeat: It seems like an awful lot of years to cover here, maybe 15 years. Did you have a tough time deciding what to include and what to throw out?
Kushner: Um…. You know, that’s a good question. To me, writing is editing, ultimately. There’s so much information. So writing is editing. I used to have a great-uncle who had a linoleum business, and his motto was, “We always tell people to cut with confidence.” To cut the linoleum with confidence. To me, that’s what I had to do, and I guess what anybody has to do when you’re telling a story that unfolds over 15 years. The way that I approach it is to say, “What is the story? What is this about?” Then everything falls into place. It’s kind of about, and I wrote it in the first line of the book, which is “How far would you go for something you believe in?” That was the reason I did that because, to me, that was the theme of the story. On the one hand you had these gamers who completely believed in what they were doing, and how far would they go for what they believed in? And on the other side you had these “haters,” and how far would they go? Because they certainly believed what they felt. I tried to just stay out of the way and tell that story. Not be judgmental, not caricature anybody, and just kind of render as it was the best as I could.
GamesBeat: It is written as a narrative as well. I wondered if there was any part where you felt like you could take some license — almost fictional license, or whether everything that’s in there is written either as an eyewitness or something rooted in a document or something like that. I wondered: When you’re setting up some of these conversations between these people, you’re obviously not there…. How do you do that?
Kushner: That’s certainly something. I’m not the first person to have to contend with it. But it’s the same as I did for Masters of Doom or any story I’ve ever written. Journalists have had that same challenge for a long time. Every single thing in there is drawn from either a document or an interview, and nothing is fictionalized. Everything that’s in there came from the reporting. What I did, and what I like to do, is to make it cinematic. Just to give the reader a feeling that they’re there. All the dialogue and all of the e-mails and everything came directly from documents. The great thing is, with a story like this, you don’t have to make anything up. It’s all reality. That’s why I write non-fiction: because reality is way more compelling than anything you could imagine.
GamesBeat: One of the parts that I thought was actually a good idea was the writing about their experience as they played their own games.
Kushner: That’s a good example. Somewhere, I had read about Sam Houser talking about how much he loves to play darts in the game. I read about that and why he liked it, and why he liked it, as I recall, was because maybe he wasn’t as good of a darts player in real life or something like that. The way, I think, to write that, to keep a reader in the story, is to write that from the point of view of sitting down to play it. That’s in GTAIV, where you can go and play darts. I just think you’re trying to keep the reader in the story, and you’re trying to humanize it. To filter it through the eyes of the people who are experiencing that. It’s the same way that I might describe Jack Thompson playing GTA. What’s it like for Jack to play GTA, to look at GTA? That’s what I try to do. When possible, it was nice to be able to describe the game through the eyes of whoever was playing it. This is a big moment early in the book, and one of the moments I found kind of funny, which is when they had game testers come in to DMA Design in Scotland, sit down, and play. They had all of these people playing it who were running this. This is at the time when the game was set up so you were a cop. All these people were sitting down playing and they wanted to just run stoplights. And you had all of these programmers saying, “No, you can’t do that. You’re a cop. You can’t run the stoplights.” And people are just mowing through stuff, mowing over people, running through stoplights. That was important because their point of view was, “Why can’t I run the stoplights? This is a video game.” And of course that was a huge epiphany for the developers, and I got their point of view on it. That was when they said, “Just let ’em be the bad guy.”