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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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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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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
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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