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.
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.