If you listen to the media, lobbyist groups and Karen from the local Parents & Teachers Council, you’d be forgiven for thinking that games are responsible for all of society’s woes, including drugs, alcohol, violence and *gasp* sex. Indeed, games seem to cop an inordinate amount of flak when it comes to controversy, while books, film and TV seem to get off relatively scot-free.
If I had to hazard a guess as to why this is, I would say it has something to do with the archaic and incorrect assumption that “games are for kids”. Despite clear evidence from a variety of studies that the majority of gamers are in fact adults (the average age sits somewhere between 30 and 35, depending on the country), there still seems to be a lingering misconception amongst the crusty old status-quo in positions of power that games are mostly played by children.
This perspective also hinges on the assumption that games are a bad influence. As both I and other writers here at Exclusively Games have explained (here, here and here), there is overwhelming evidence from numerous academic sources that games have a net positive effect on human development.
All that said, there have certainly been games that have, either intentionally or unintentionally, pushed the boundaries of what is considered “appropriate.” Being an Australian, I have had to suffer under the ban-hammer of the Australian Classification Board several times, and have had to rely on “other sources” to experience games that are refused classification.
In this article, I’ve highlighted some notable games that have courted controversy over the years. This list isn’t necessarily ranked, and a list of controversial games could fill a novel, but these are a few that I consider notable.
#5–Mortal Kombat (Midway, 1992)
Kicking off this list is a game that every 1990s shock-jock and enraged pseudo-journalist has cited as a key factor in the moral decay of society. Mortal Kombat was the game that kick-started a series currently in its eleventh iteration.
Mortal Kombat’s main controversy was the incredibly gruesome “fatality”, where a player could humiliate their opponent by performing a violent killing blow on them. Whether it was ripping out their heart, biting their head off, tearing off their head with the spine attached, or setting them on fire, fatalities were gory, violent and comically over-the-top.
Kano rips out Scorpion’s heart.
Some of the controversy no doubt came from the fact that Mortal Kombat’s character graphics were considered quite realistic, for the time – the fighters were digitized sprites of real actors, and they looked great. Mortal Kombat was also a breakout hit, capitalizing on the success of other fighting games like Street Fighter, so before long it saw release on all the major consoles, the PC and local arcades. This realistic-looking celebration of death and dismemberment was everywhere, and parents were understandably shaken to their core as the journalists who had probably never touched a video game in their life explained, in endless factually-inaccurate detail, how this game was corrupting their little darlings.
With the series now up to Mortal Kombat 11, and the controversy associated with the franchise mostly a thing of the past, it is somewhat funny looking back at the early games in the series and considering how much of a stir they caused. The exaggerated violence was clearly a parody of the violence that was so common in popular martial arts and action films of the day; films that, ironically, were spared the outrage that Mortal Kombat received.
#4–Carmageddon (Stainless Games, 1997)
An absolutely legendary racing game from the PC Gaming Golden Age, Carmageddon was based on the 1975 Paul Bartel film, Death Race 2000. Carmageddon was similar to its spiritual sibling on the PlayStation, Twisted Metal (1995). Each of the cars featured a sort of industrial-horror aesthetic, driven by characters that evoked a sense of homicidal menace. Carmageddon was focused on racing rather than vehicular combat (although you could still eliminate your opponents), but the real difference was the addition of pedestrians.
Every track was full of pedestrians that the players were encouraged to mow down in a variety of creative ways in order to boost their score. The pedestrians we’re just humans either – cows, sheep and aliens could also spray their innards across your screen. Pedestrian kill streaks offered bonus points, and so did other creative methods of elimination – reversing over a pedestrian or power-sliding into a crowd offered an “artistic impression bonus”. One of the pickups in the game caused pedestrians to become suicidal, and they would willfully throw themselves into the path of your car.
Like Mortal Kombat, the pedestrian characters were digitized versions of real actors, so there was an element of realism to the clearly-exaggerated wanton slaughter. Due to the excessive and graphic violence, Carmageddon was either censored or outright banned in several countries, such as the United Kingdom and Germany, but it somehow managed to evade the censors in my home country of Australia.
My favorite bonus in Carmageddon.
Carmageddon is mostly remembered for its extravagant depiction of vehicular violence, but underneath this blood-soaked exterior is a very solid racing game, with some imaginative tracks, excellent driving model and a banging soundtrack by Fear Factory. It was followed by another great sequel, Carmageddon II: Carpocalypse Now, and then the mostly forgettable Carmageddon TDR 2000 (Torus Games) in 2000. Stainless Games returned to the series in 2015 with Carmageddon: Reincarnation (updated in 2016 as Max Damage), which is definitely worth checking out.
#3–Postal (Running with Scissors, 1997)
At the heart of the “video game violence” debates that dominated 90s public discourse was Postal, developed by a studio with the suitably edgy name, Running with Scissors. I suspect that the developers probably started with the gameplay first, and then worked their way backwards to create a plot that explained it all. For what it’s worth, they did a pretty good job with the plot, which has a great little twist at the end.
Though it might seem like a mostly innocuous title by today’s standards, back in 1997, Postal was incredibly controversial, and it seemed like everyone had an opinion on the game, regardless of whether or not they had played it. Postal was banned in several countries, and the United States Postal Service even took Running with Scissors to court, as they took issue with usage of the term “going postal.”
Believe it or not, this game had heads spinning in 1997.
Postal was banned in my own country of Australia, and though I don’t agree with game censorship, in this case I can understand why it occurred. The game was released little over a year after the utterly tragic Port Arthur Massacre, and local tolerance for Postal’s brand of wanton violence was understandably lacking.
As Oscar Wilde once said, “There is no such thing as bad publicity,” and in this case, that is absolutely correct. Postal is a fairly bad game; the gameplay loop was repetitive and quickly grew tedious. Were it not for the controversy surrounding it, the series would probably have been entirely forgotten. However, from a holistic point-of-view, Postal is an important part of gaming history, as the entire spectacle of the game stands as a snapshot of the historical context of the games industry in the late 90s.
#2–Doom (id Software, 1993)
There is perhaps no game, particularly among PC games, that has had such a profound impact on 1990s ideas about the games industry as id Software’s seminal work, Doom. Doom turned the burgeoning first-person shooter genre into a global sensation, and catapulted the likes of John Carmack and John Romero to super-stardom in the gaming world. In the mid-90s, there weren’t any “first-person shooter” games – there were only “Doom clones”, such was the defining influence of this game.
With this violent game about wading through Hell massacring demons achieving such widespread recognition, it was only a matter of time before one person or another took issue with it. Doom was criticized for its graphic depictions of gore, violence and satanic imagery, with religious groups in particular taking issue with the hellish themes.
To this day, the best depiction of a shotgun in any game.
Doom received a disproportionate amount of negative press for its violence, and there were plenty of games in the 90s that were at least as violent, if not more so. But Doom was the game that everyone had heard of, so everyone had an opinion – especially if they had never played it.
The backlash against Doom also set the tone for the somewhat adversarial relationship between gamers and non-gamers for the remainder of the decade. Every discussion of video game violence invoked the name of the id Software classic, and every new release, especially first-person shooters, was treated with instant suspicion. This only served to encourage developers, who continued to push the boundaries of public approval for years to come, with some games like Shadow Warrior and Duke Nukem 3D even incorporating sexual imagery, much to the chagrin of outraged parents the world over.
By the late 90s, it seemed that all the controversy surrounding Doom had subsided, but the game was once again catapulted into the spotlight as a result of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. This terrible event perpetrated by two troubled teens led to the death of 15 people, and the injury of dozens more. Following the massacre, it became apparent that the perpetrators were fans of certain music, movies and games – most prominently, Doom. A narrative began to develop that suggested the boys had used Doom as a “murder simulator” to prepare themselves for the shooting, including an urban legend that they had created a custom level that depicted the school (a myth that is almost certainly false). Seven years after its release, the name Doom was still being invoked as the bogeyman of games industry.
#1–DMA Design / Rockstar
The final entry on this list isn’t a single game – rather, it is a homage to a studio that has courted controversy for over two decades. Rockstar’s dance with the devil began about a year before its formation, with the release of Grand Theft Auto by Scottish developer DMA Design (predecessor to Rockstar North) and publisher BMG Interactive (the predecessor to Rockstar Games). The public unsurprisingly took issue with Grand Theft Auto’s depiction of violence and apparent glorification of the criminal lifestyle. Gamers didn’t care, and they devoured the freeform mayhem for which the GTA series is now famous. DMA Design developed two more Grand Theft Auto games (GTA2 is a forgotten gem), and after making the leap to 3D with Grand Theft Auto III, they became known as Rockstar North.
Grand Theft Auto’s humble beginnings (Source: MobyGames.com)
Rockstar Games (a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive), eventually established development studios in several locations, including Rockstar Toronto and Rockstar Vancouver. Rockstar North is responsible for many of the studios famously controversial titles (such as the GTA series and Manhunt), but other development arms have also been responsible for games that have attracted controversy, such as Bully (Rockstar Vancouver, 2006) and The Warriors (Rockstar Toronto, 2005).
Rockstar have been blamed for all the usual “ills of society” – depiction of violence, crime, drugs, sex, torture, murder – you name it. Despite the seemingly endless complaints, they continue to win awards, fans and critical acclaim. As Miles Davis once allegedly said, “If I don’t like what the critics say, I get in my Ferrari and drive away”, and that is Rockstar’s approach. Criticism means little in the face of such monumental success.
GTA5’s beloved psychopath, Trevor (Source: MobyGames.com)
What the critics constantly fail to recognize about Rockstar’s games is how effectively they hold a mirror up to society. Rockstar, in their classic tongue-in-cheek fashion, are constantly highlighting real problems that actually exist by shining critical, satirical eye on them. To pay these games off as simply “controversial” (or even worse, attempt to ban them) is ignoring them for what they are – evidence that games are just as capable as any other medium of delivering biting social commentary.
Most importantly though, Rockstar have demonstrated over two decades of masterful navigation through the waters of outrage and contempt, and delivered dozens of beloved titles famous for their irreverent and chaotic breed of fun.
In about 1989, Gavin Annand played his first games on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Thus, began a lifetime obsession with games. A gaming addict or connoisseur, depending on your perspective.