The Story Behind the Story, an interview with Moral Kombat’s Spencer Halpin

Spencer Halpin is an independent filmmaker, with “Moral Kombat” being his first movie. Originally from Fairfield, Connecticut, Halpin graduated from Clark University in 1996 after majoring in Geography and...

Spencer Halpin is an independent filmmaker, with “Moral Kombat” being his first movie. Originally from Fairfield, Connecticut, Halpin graduated from Clark University in 1996 after majoring in Geography and Global Environmental Sciences. Halpin’s film, “Moral Kombat,” is a documentary examining the moral and ethical implications of modern video games and was released in 2007. Considering that I discovered in 2010, I guess this means I am way out of the loop.

Special Note: According to Spencer Halpin, “While it was finished in late 2007, the film was only released to the public earlier this year, via digital distribution.” So I’m not late in regards learning about this documentary, I’m just not cool enough to be in the loop.

The film’s homepage is – http://www.moralkombatmovie.com/index.htm – and it can be currently viewed for free here

Nicholas Yanes: Prior to creating “Moral Kombat” you worked in the music industry. What was the transition like from working with audio stimuli to working with video production equipment?

Spencer Halpin: In some surprising ways it’s similar. Studio time in audio parallels that of post-production house time. When they say that the Devil is in the details, it couldn’t be more true for either medium.

Yanes: Considering how it seems that every entertainment company is emphasizing the creation of cross-medium products, do you think people who want to get involved in the entertainment industry should specialize in one field, or try to become a jack of all trades?

Halpin: Well, my perspective is that it seems beneficial to know enough about the industry that you’re dedicating your career to. That was certainly the case with this documentary. It was an independent production…and like with game development that means getting involved in every aspect. That said, you need to excel in one area within that trade, so focus in on what you really enjoy and the rest will follow.

Yanes: So “Moral Kombat” is a fantastic documentary. What was the inspiration for the project?

Halpin: Thanks. I believe we formally received our first media review this morning from GamePro magazine (http://www.gamepro.com/article/news/216070/watch-spencer-halpins-moral-kombat-on-hulu-now/ ) which simply said something like, “Go see this film!”The background on the inspiration is that I wanted to make something compelling that could be an educational tool, informative and a historical document and my brother, Hal (http://www.halhalpin.com/ ), was knee-deep in the violence in video games debate, representing retailers. One night over dinner, he suggested that I consider covering the issue and a few months later I was at E3 with a film crew.

Yanes: “Moral Kombat” is also notable for its distinct visual style. Why did you decide to go for that specific look?

Halpin: I didn’t embark on the journey with any set course, actually. It was so uncharted that I made a conscious effort to let the story tell itself. And with the medium being so expressive – visually and audibly – all of that had to become part of how the story would unfold.

Yanes: “Moral Kombat” is incredibly informative. How did you go about gathering the information? And off the top of your head, how much of the information presented in the film came from traditional research and how much came specifically from the interviews you conducted?

Halpin: Thank you. We tried really hard not to make being informative come across as preachy, which was a much harder line to walk than one might imagine. Gathering data came from a few sources, but the background that provided me with the knowledge to ask the interviewees questions came from the two writers on the film. Collecting licensing and fair use materials was another thing entirely though. For that we had and have a remarkable legal team’s help (http://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/fair-use-project ).

Yanes: Was there something you learned while working on this project that absolutely stunned you?

Halpin: Ha! Many… Man, I can’t even think about how to answer that question without rambling on for a while about each one. But to phrase it another way, the documentary taught me life lessons that are invaluable. It created a few new amazing friendships with fascinating people. And it gave me a better appreciation for games as media.

Yanes: In my free time I try to read as much about the video game industry as possible. While I’m glad to see that the industry is now going after an older audience and trying to appeal to women more, it seems that the industry overlooks the issue of race a lot. Even people who criticize video games seem to only comment on gender or violence. Why do you think people tend to overlook the issue of race in regards to video games? Do you think people don’t care, or do you feel that video games are a “color blind” form of entertainment?

Halpin: One of the exceptionally talented people that I was referring to a minute ago includes N’Gai Croal, who wasn’t in the film. I got to know him after shooting was complete and really more wearing his professional hat as a journalist with Newsweek at the time. Not having any experience with media interviews or screenings, I did what I did when posing questions to my interviewees and made it more personal. N’Gai came to my house and was very thoughtful and cautious about how he approached both the film and me, actually. That grew into a lot of respect – certainly from my side – and I began reading his pieces and commentary on GamePolitics (http://gamepolitics.com/2008/04/12/newsweeks-ngai-croal-re5-contains-racist-imagery ). That was my exposure to the race question, so it came after the doc was in the can. It is a compelling subject though. And yeah, like gender representation or even sexuality, it’s one that needs to be explored further. You should talk with Dr. Henry Jenkins (http://www.henryjenkins.org/2007/11/moral_kombat.html ) at USC about that.

Yanes: Among the academics I know there seems to be a debate as to what has been the most influential game of the past decade. It usually comes down to “Grand Theft Auto,” “World of Warcraft,” “Guitar Hero,” or “The Sims.” What game in the past decade do you feel has revolutionized the industry the most, and why?

Halpin: Hmm, tough question… I know that most of the people in the industry feel that Grand Theft Auto was the game-changer because it introduced us all to the open world design. From an artistic perspective, I’m more personally compelled by the gorgeous graphics coupled with moving audio tracks. Since we scored the entire film from beginning to end, including sound effects, it’s something that became truly important to me. But from a more pragmatic perspective, yeah, I guess any of the major blockbuster games that were ‘system sellers’ or that changed the financial paradigm, like MMOs….

Yanes: When you first began putting this documentary together, were you surprised by the number of people actively trying to regulate video game content?

Halpin: Yes and no. No, because my brother and I see each other all the time and discuss our work like anyone else – so I was aware of how frequently he was being called to testify before committees, or interviewed by the mainstream media. Yes, in that I didn’t appreciate how passionately people felt about their side of the debate. There were and probably are very few people who are in the middle on the subject. Where generally people form opinions about their perspective without doing a lot of in-depth research or knowledge, the interviewees in the film were literally experts in it. Anti-games attorney, Jack Thompson, was just a steadfast in his resolve as game designer, Lorne Lanning, was in the polar opposite view. That it’s still a raging debate and headed for the U.S. Supreme Court!…( http://www.supremecourt.gov/Search.aspx?FileName=/docketfiles/08-1448.htm ) Well, that’s just incredible…

Yanes: With the development of Xbox’s “Kinect” and the PlayStation’s “Eye,” it seems that video games are becoming more and more interactive. As video games approach full immersion in virtual worlds, how do you think this might change the debate surround the ethical implications of video games?

Halpin: I think you’re hitting the nail right on the head from Senator Leland Yee’s perspective (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leland_Yee ). He’s drawing on his former profession as a child psychologist in his argument that games should be treated differently from music and movies precisely because of the interactive nature of the medium. That motion sensitive controls are being introduced that make the experience that much more immersive and interactive would simply add fuel to his fire. Senator Yee has also gone on the record to say that even if he loses in the Supreme Court, the State of California will be back with more anti-games legislation, but crafted with whatever criticisms that the Court had for the first effort removed.

Yanes: At the end of the day, what are you hoping that people will learn from watching “Moral Kombat”?

Halpin: My goal was always to tell the story in an objective and unbiased way while making it compelling enough to educate the audience. I guess the best feedback I’ve had in that regard is that interviewees on either end of the extreme sides both complained that it tilted slightly in the opposing direction. Well, with a Supreme Court challenge (http://www.gamepolitics.com/category/topics/scotus ) imminent, the thought is that the gaming industry would/will be doing everything in their power to get folks to see it – especially now that it’s available in so many different outlets, consoles included…

Yanes: Is there anything that you are currently working on now that fans of “Moral Kombat” should look out for?

Halpin: We’re considering doing some new interviews for the DVD extras and to keep the story updated. The relevance of the film to the Supreme Court case is interesting, as it’s likely to be an informative piece for anyone who’s interested in the subject – consumers, the press, even court staffers and Justices, I’d hope! We’ll have to see, I guess…

Yanes: Finally, if you wanted your fans to add false information to one Wikipedia entry, what entry would you wanted edited and how would you want it changed?

Halpin: Honestly…what came after the film was finished was the most brutal. There were threats made against my life, my family…There were two extremist groups that had me targeted for harassment – usually via email, but a few times in person. And then things got worse when we uploaded the trailer to YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIu3JMGxk3Q ), where the pro-gaming audience was just as bad. It got unbearable…The negativity was just non-stop. Even today, with the film out broadly on just about every digital distribution outlet imaginable, people still comment and express opinions about the film and about me without even watching it. So, I did what I had to and eventually unplugged. I stop reading things about the movie. Even today, it’s filtered to me. That’s why I couldn’t tell you what my Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_Kombat ) says or doesn’t. I guess I’d hope that their editors treat the film with the same respect with which we treated the subject matter. I couldn’t ask for anything different.

Again, the film’s homepage is – http://www.moralkombatmovie.com/index.htm – and it can be currently viewed for free here: http://www.hulu.com/watch/167833/moral-kombat

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