7 Video Game Controversies Not Involving Grand Theft Auto or Mortal Kombat

With the recent Supreme Court ruling that video games are a form of Free Speech protected by the First Amendment, it seems like a good time to look back at some of the controversies that led the nation's highest court to get involved in the debate. While you've heard the stories behind notorious titles like Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto, here are some video game controversies that might have flown under your radar.

1. Death Race

Death Race was the first arcade video game that really got people riled up. While there were other car games around at the time, Death Race was the only one where the player's goal was to run down an endless supply of stick figure pedestrians. After hitting a “gremlin”—maker Exidy insisted you were running down gremlins, not people—the figures gave out a shrill, garbled scream, and then turned into a tombstone, which stayed on the screen as an obstacle to dodge while pursuing the next target.

Practically upon its release in 1976, Death Race caused a stir for its questionable gameplay philosophy. The sound of the gremlin's scream also bothered people, who said it sounded too much like a child's voice. The concern, of course, was that a person playing Death Race would get behind the wheel of a real car to start running over kids. Although there were no cases of this type of violence actually happening, parents across the country rallied against the game—there are even stories of protesters dragging the game out of arcades and burning it in the parking lot.

While exact production numbers are unclear, some sources say that only 500 Death Race games had been made before the controversy. However, thanks to all the publicity, orders doubled before the game was pulled from the market.

2. Super Columbine Massacre RPG!

In the years after the tragic 1999 school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, which left 13 people dead and another 21 wounded, people struggled to understand the event. To try to make sense of it all, Danny Ledonne chose an unusual and controversial medium when he created the 2005 video game Super Columbine Massacre RPG!

Using police reports, crime scene photos, and excerpts from the journals of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as a guide, Super Columbine Massacre allows the player to take on the role of the shooters as they navigate the pixelated halls of Columbine High School, planting propane bombs in the cafeteria, and then continuing their armed assault on the students and staff.

Ledonne insisted that the game was intended as art, meant to spark conversation much like acclaimed director Gus Van Sant’s 2003 movie Elephant, which graphically depicts a fictional school shooting that borrows heavily from the real Columbine massacre. Those who defend the game argue it has just as much to say about the shooting as Elephant, except it uses the medium of video games to express those opinions and emotions. But Super Columbine Massacre RPG! has been a point of contention since its release.

The most public controversy came when the game was initially accepted, then later rejected from the Guerilla Gamemaker Competition at the 2007 Slamdance Film Festival. The game’s dismissal caused half of the other contestants to pull their projects in protest. The jury even tried to give the game a special award, but the Slamdance organizers denied it the honor. The story of “Slamgate,” as it is now known, as well as the game's impact on the ongoing debate of video games as art, is highlighted in the 2008 documentary Playing Columbine, which Ledonne produced to tell his side of the story.

3. JFK: Reloaded

Was Oswald really the lone gunman in the Book Depository? Did he have help from the Grassy Knoll?  Those were the questions hoping to be answered by JFK:Reloaded, a “historic simulation” video game released on November 22, 2004, the 41st anniversary of JFK's death. The game allowed the player to see through Oswald’s rifle scope and take shots at the Presidential limousine as it headed through Dealey Plaza. To promote the release, the game’s website held a contest with a top prize of $100,000 to the player who could most accurately recreate the events in Dallas as reported by the Warren Commission, which determined that Oswald acted alone.

While there could arguably be some educational value to the game (as publisher Traffic Management Limited suggested), many, including Senators Ted Kennedy and Joe Lieberman, said the very idea of re-enacting such a horrific day in our nation's history was "despicable." Others said the only lesson it taught was how to be an assassin. Despite the controversy, the game was never a mainstream success, and, less than a year later, the website was gone. Traffic Management has never released another game.

4. Tomb Raider

Main character Lara Croft's digital bustline has always been controversial in the Tomb Raider games. But the series has also drawn fire from animal rights groups for the menagerie of animals killed during gameplay. Many mirror animals on the endangered species list in real-life, like tigers, bears, snow leopards, and gorillas. The creators of the games have toned down the animal slaughter over the years, but Croft still takes out the occasional tiger with her twin .50 caliber pistols.

5. The Sims Online

In the virtual world of massive multiplayer role-playing games, there are few rules by which a person must abide. This became clear to Peter Ludlow, a philosophy professor from the University of Michigan, when, in 2003, he found that players were involved in a virtual sex trade on The Sims Online.

If a player needed Simoleans, the in-game currency used to buy clothes, houses, and other goods, they would sometimes agree to cybersex sessions in exchange for digital cash. Of course the problem is, according to the game's terms of service, Sims’ players can be as young as 13, meaning there’s a good chance underage kids were participating in these sexual chats with adults.

When Ludlow brought this illicit trade to the attention of Sims' creator Maxis, he claims the company did nothing to curb the practice. However, they did shut down his account because he had links to his commercial blog in his Sims character profile, which apparently was prohibited in the otherwise anarchic online world.

6. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Like Hollywood movies and TV shows, video games also receive ratings based on their content. These ratings, like E for Everyone or M for Mature, as well as descriptions of what can be found in the game, are assigned by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) after they have evaluated an early version of the game supplied by the publisher. While there can be some changes to the final product, it needs to stick closely to what the ESRB reviewed or they might call for a re-evaluation.

In 2006, Bethesda Softworks submitted Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, a sword-and-sorcery role-playing game, which the ESRB rated T, meaning it was appropriate for kids 13 and older. They also described the game as containing “Violence, Blood and Gore, Sexual Themes, Language, and Use of Alcohol.” However, shortly after the game was released, software called a “mod” (modification) was created by someone online that, when applied to the PC version of the game, removed the female characters’ tops, revealing their bare breasts. Of course if you never downloaded and installed the mod, the characters were clothed throughout the game as originally intended.

However, upon hearing about the mod, the ESRB re-reviewed the game and gave it a higher rating—an M for Mature, which meant it could only be purchased by people 17 or older, restricting a large part of the game's target audience. The ESRB’s official stance was that the rating changed because Bethesda submitted environmental graphics featuring a pair of dead bodies that were notably less bloody in the review version. But the board also acknowledged the existence of the third-party mod for the PC version, which meant the game would now carry the additional description of “Nudity,” even though there was none in the game Bethesda released. Additionally, the new rating extended to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game, despite there being no such nudity mod for these versions. Under protest, Bethesda created a software fix that would make the nudity impossible to access, but the ESRB refused to change their rating.

7. RapeLay

While there are many video games that feature violence, few of them do it as methodically and disturbingly as RapeLay. In the game, the player takes on the role of a man who stalks, molests, and then forces himself upon three women in explicit, graphic detail.

RapeLay was released in Japan in 2006 and sold as hentai, a genre of pornography that features X-rated cartoons, comic books, and video games. Because it was sold legally as an adult-only product, the game was not considered controversial until 2009, when British Parliament member Keith Vaz used it as an illustration for the need to tighten regulations on video game sales. Vaz pointed out that RapeLay was available on Amazon via third-party sellers who had not gone through proper channels to have the game evaluated by the British Board of Film Classification, which rates some video games for the UK. As soon as they were made aware of the game, Amazon quickly banned it from the site.

The media jumped on the story and the bad publicity fallout was extensive. The game's publisher, Illusion, pulled the game from the market. Additionally, the Japanese version of the ESRB, the Ethics Organization of Computer Software, banned all future video games where rape is the main goal.

Michael Campanella/Getty Images
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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