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

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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.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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