Times are changing in the world of games, and it seems like those clinging to last-gen consoles are being left in the dust.
Gaming’s Dark Side: The Most Controversial Video Games of All Time
Much like the “devil music” of the early rock n’ roll era and the “horrific” themes displayed in comics back in their humble beginnings, video games have long been the subject of controversy and blamed for poisoning the minds of youth around the world.
Being that this is a young entertainment medium, it’s to be expected that controversy will arise around many of our titles as we strive for cultural acceptance and continually push the boundaries and challenge what a game should or should not be allowed to do. It could be said that any game is capable of offending someone somewhere, but from playable sex scenes to brutal executions, this is a list of the games politicians, parents, and moral zealots have loved to hate the most over the years.
An interactive cinematic game for the Sega CD system, Night Trap was a game that saw you protecting a group of girls at a sleepover by using hidden cameras stationed throughout a house and activating a series of traps to keep the girls from falling into the hands of hungry vampires.
It featured acting not even deserving of a daytime Emmy and starred Dana Plato of Different Strokes fame as an undercover agent trying to figure out why so many girls go missing when they visit the Martin house.
What made the game controversial was its live-action nature and thematic content. It was more of an interactive film than traditional game and featured scenes of girls in their underwear as they partied and tried to figure out what exactly was going on inside the creepy house. So what made it controversial?
Members of congress saw the game as being “ultra-violent”, and promoting violence against women. It quickly became the center of controversy and was part of the infamous hearings of 1994 that led to the creation of the ESRB.
Allowing players players to move through levels and blast demons from hell with a wide array of weapons, id Software’s masterpiece Doom was a game that continues to be a gold standard for the first person shooter genre.
From the top down, the game was a total work of genius. Art design was unique, level design was ingenious and challenging, enemy behavior was realistic, and the game’s engine itself allowed it to do things no other game had ever before accomplished.
What brought Doom under scrutiny was its generous depictions of graphic violence. Enemies burst into a cloud of blood when shot, corpses laid on the ground in a pile of gore, and even the main character’s face became a bloody mess when your health meter dipped too low. It was also partially blamed for the Columbine shooting tragedy, as the shooters enjoyed playing Doom on a regular basis. Alongside Night Trap, Lethal Enforcers, and Mortal Kombat, Doom was one of the most controversial games that helped spearhead the creation of the ESRB.
With the success and popularity of the Street Fighter franchise back in the early years of gaming, it’s no surprise that many other companies wanted to jump in and try their luck in the fighting genre. But being that it was a fairly standard formula, they’d have to do something unique in order to stand out and separate themselves from the rest of the pack if they wanted to be successful.
Enter Mortal Kombat, a game that became popular based on one thing: shock value.
Mortal Kombat was a pretty standard fighter at its release, even being criticized as not being as good a game technically as Street Fighter. But it made up for what it lacked by having some of the most brutal and violent finishing moves ever seen in a game. Opponents would collapse into a pile of bones, explode in burst of meat, and even have their still-beating hearts ripped out of their chests in some of the varied Fatality moves available to each playable character.
It’s not really surprising the game came under controversy, really. Even today, characters are cut in half, dipped in acid, dropped into spike pits, and have their spines ripped out of their bodies, to name a few. It left protective mothers everywhere clutching their pearls and lawmakers blaming it for corrupting the youth thanks to its graphic nature.
Lethal Enforcers saw you taking the role of one of the last Chicago cops tasked with stopping a major crime organization that had moved into the city. It was a pretty standard shooter that allowed you to obtain more powerful weapons and included a light gun peripheral in the game that served as the game’s controller.
It didn’t have Doom levels of violence, but the fact you held a gun and shot at virtual people ruffled more than a few feathers, making this game one of the more controversial entries in history.
Grand Theft Auto III
Of all gaming franchises politicians love to hate, Grand Theft Auto takes the cake. And none managed to do so in the way that Grand Theft Auto III did when it first arrived on the scene.
Considered an open world masterpiece by many, Rockstar’s romp through Liberty City allowed people to literally do whatever they wanted in a real life setting in a fictional major city. Everything from running red lights to mowing down pedestrians on the street with an assault rifle was playable in the game without any of the real-world consequences of jail time. Sure, the cops come after you, but you can just as easily steal their cars or turn your guns on them as well.
Of course, being that it is set in a modern imagining of a real city and allows you to assume the role of a violent criminal, Grand Theft Auto III was condemned for inspiring real-world violence and teaching kids that it’s ok to steal and commit violent acts of crime.
That being said, the game does have a Mature rating and isn’t for kids. But hey, that’s a different story.
Whereas the original Manhunt was an ultra-violent psycho horror game, Manhunt 2 took the formula and ramped it up by adding even more violent ways to kill your enemies. Stealth takedowns became brutal gorefests, and things like exploding headshots became the norm.
Outside of its violent nature, the Manhunt series had already found itself in hot water when it was blamed for a murder in the UK. When Manhunt 2 was submitted to the ESRB for a rating, it came back to Rockstar with shocking results; an Adults Only rating due to its graphic nature.
So, what’s so bad about an AO rating? Retailers in the United States won’t carry AO games, and other countries blocked it from even entering, effectively banning Manhunt 2 from multiple countries. In order to not risk low sales numbers, Rockstar was forced to pull much of the game’s violent content in order to tone it down enough to score a rating of Mature.
World of Warcraft
While it might not contain the same questionable violence or sexual content as the others on this list, World of Warcraft sparked controversy when it became subject of addictions with its players. After its release, stories began to trickle out about players being completely immersed and obsessed with the game, demonstrating addictive behaviors to the point where playing started taking a toll on the player’s health.
While public outcry wasn’t quite as loud as it was in other cases, it still managed to not slip by unnoticed in the press and larger entertainment communities, even going so far as to be the subject of a particularly epic episode of South Park.
Call of Duty
Being that it’s one of the most popular and “realistic” military shooters of all time, Call of Duty has had to deal with its fair share of scrutiny.
But of course, no one part of a Call of Duty game has been quite as controversial as the “No Russian” level in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which saw the player, an undercover CIA agent, taking part in shooting up an airport full of civilians alongside a group of Russian terrorists.
While you did not have to kill any civilians in order to pass the mission, the level was no less controversial and had several outcomes. It was removed altogether in the Russian PC version of the game, was altered to give the player a “game over” if they fired on any civilians in Japan and Germany, and was even targeted for a ban in Australia (which eventually failed). Never mind that the game warned you of graphic content and gave you the option for playing it; it was considered heinous that the content was even in the game at all.
Much like World of Warcraft, Second Life came under scrutiny for a number of reasons, including the lack of regulation of real businesses in the game and that it tended to cause addictions with its players. Players in Second Life engaged with others in a virtual world through the use of customizable avatars. With friends, you could engage in a number of activities and be social in the virtual space, giving players an effective and enticing release from their actual lives.
If Custer’s Revenge leaves anything to the history of gaming, it’s proof that even in the 8-bit era, games could still manage to be explicit.
Originally appearing on the Atari 2600, Custer’s Revenge was a game with an explicit warning label claiming that it contained adult content. And it did. The gameplay consisted of a nude and fully-erect Custer dodging arrows as he moved across the screen to rape a nude Native American woman tied to a post.
Not only was it a stupid game, it was also outrageously crude, racist, and offensive, and will forever be remembered as an all-time-low for gaming.
Leisure Suit Larry
Leisure Suit Larry started out as a text adventure starring the sleazy Larry as he traveled around town hitting up bars and trying to seduce women. It was a goofy game rife with sexual overtones and blatantly adult content that was warned about even at the start of the game. And while it isn’t necessarily the best game ever made, it is no less important to the discussion of how we should go about handing themes of sex in video games.
Six Days in Fallujah
Being a tactical shooter that took place during the modern Iraq war, it’s not surprising that Six Days in Fallujah was met with some angry responses when it was first announced. The game was centered around the real-life experiences of Marines in the Second Battle of Fallujah, detailing the horrific and difficult nature of their mission and what the soliders dealt with throughout. Many claimed that it was in poor taste to “glorify” the events of the war and condemned it because of the nature of its content. It was eventually met with enough controversy that its publisher, Konami, pulled out and left it high and dry. The game has never been released.
When she first entered the scene in the late 90’s Lara Croft was accused of being an over-sexualized depiction of the female form that reeked of making women to be nothing more than sexual objects. Patches like the “Nude Raider” mod for PC allowed one to play as a nude character and led to an outcry both inside and outside of the gaming community proper.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
While Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was scrutinized for the same reasons as any of its predecessors in the series, one mission in particular managed to skyrocket the game to new levels of controversy. The mission? Hot Coffee, a minigame that allowed the player to take part in simulated sex and control the main character’s movements as he went at it with his in-game girlfriend.
It wasn’t originally even supposed to be accessible within the game itself, as it was locked away in the game’s code and supposedly rendered “inaccessible”. But leave it to the clever minds of modders and hackers to find the mission and unlock it for all the world to experience.
The minigame caused an uproar in the public eye, being the cause of lawsuits and even inspiring some congressional bigwigs to pen legislation that would allow the government to play an active role in the ratings system. The game was given an Adults Only rating and pulled from store shelves, leading Rockstar to eat heaps of money as they attempted to reconcile the situation by removing the content and hiding it deeper in the game. Things balanced out again eventually, but the mission has forever made San Andreas one of the most infamous GTA missions of all time.
Much like GTA, the Postal series has received its fair share of hate over the years thanks to its realistic setting and freedom to kill “innocent” NPCs within the game world.
In Postal 2, you play as an average American everyman going about his life and completing a series of tasks. Where the controversy comes in is the game’s violent nature, should you choose to kill anyone in the game. It contains many tongue-in-cheek references to organizations and groups in the real world, and allows you to violently kill and urinate on victims in a handful of missions. Like so many before, it was also cited as the cause of real-life shootings thanks to its real-world presentation.