Like other mediums, video gaming is not exempt from scrutiny and pitfalls. In fact, over some stretches of time it seems like more controversy headlines the gaming industry than any other entertainment outlet. From being blamed for school shootings to massive movements that completely divide those closest to the development process, the video game industry is aplenty with strife. In this installment, we’re going to try and pull only ten of the industry’s most notable moments of controversy and dissension.
The Guy Game
Live, full-fledged nudity is not something you get in most video games, and The Guy Game may be a good reason why. This mindless drone of a quiz-show video game awarded its players with a flash of the goods of one of many Girl’s Gone Wild rejects. It was all mindless fun that put a little extra money into publisher Take-Two’s wallet until it was revealed that, at the time of filming, one of the topless participants was only 17-years old, making her a minor. Despite her apparent initial willingness to be featured the game, she filed a lawsuit against Take-Two, stating that she is still a teenager and wishes to attend college, be active in her church, and develop her career and her appearance on The Guy Game has brought nothing but shame and embarrassment. Whether or not the girl’s embarrassment would have held up in court is a moot point, as the illegality of having a half-naked 17-year old in the game wound up being the driving point for the game’s banishment from distribution and sale.
When Manhunt released in 2003, Rockstar had already solidified itself as a developer that saw no qualms with digital violence; but the developer pushed the envelope even further in 2007 to points that made even its own team uneasy. CBS News dubbed Manhunt 2 the most violent video game to date, a claim that even Manhunt 2’s own development team actually wasn’t far from repeating. What really put the game that much more in the spotlight was its release on the Nintendo Wii, a console known for its motion sensor gaming and abundance of child-friendly titles. Considering the original Manhunt was already being blamed in the case of murderer Warren Leblanc, it came as no surprise when Manhunt 2’s release was widely jeered. Even the British Board of Film Classification and Irish Film Classification Office refused to give the game any classification. The ESRB even slapped an Adults-Only rating on the title, a move which would have kept the game from releasing altogether in the US as neither Nintendo, Microsoft, or Sony would allow an Adults-Only game on their platforms. In response, Rockstar took to censoring portions of the game to bring it down to a heavy Mature rating.
Sex Effect: The Mass Effect Scandle
After its successful release, BioWare’s Mass Effect started to receive public infamy for something besides its critically acclaimed gameplay and story. A short segment within the game portrays an act of sexual interaction between two characters. Immediately, people jumped on the anti-Mass Effect bandwagon, automatically assuming the game was pornographic in nature. A report done by Fox News did not help matters when the station misled viewers in an interview with gaming journalist Geoff Keighley. Cooper Lawrence laced into Keighley and Electronic Arts over the sexual nature of Mass Effect, though it would be later revealed that Lawrence had no idea what she was talking about. Lawrence apologized, stating she had spoken out of turn and later realized after seeing the moment in question that it was quite the opposite of the pornographic scene it was hyped up to be.
The Hot Coffee Mod
The Grand Theft Auto series has been an expected target of scrutiny ever since its inception in 1997, but it was also a heavy focus on the mindless violence that earned it its reputation. For Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, things got very heated when it was revealed the title housed a hidden mini-game that portrayed sexual relations between the main protagonist and his choice of in-game girlfriend. The mini-game was initially only found in the PC release and after its exposure, was quickly removed; but the PS2 and Xbox versions of the game were also found to house the crude segment. Through system hacking, gamers found a means of making the mini-game playable on consoles, forcing Rockstar to re-release San Andreas and the ESRB to re-rate the original release as Adult Only. The controversy warranted attention from Jack Thompson and Hillary Clinton, as well as the Peaceholics protest group, who rallied around Rockstar’s headquarters in August of 2005.
Developers certainly do like to push the envelope, be it either by including shocking sexual themes, uncouth ethnic stereotypes, and even waves of mindless violence. Infinity Ward joined the ranks of envelope pushers in 2009 when it released Modern Warfare 2, which featured a level that left many squirming uncomfortably in their seats. Taking control of a CIA agent undercover in a group of Russian terrorists, players are forced to take part in an attack against civilians in a Russian airport. Sure, players aren’t forced to actually fire upon the crowd, but they are still in alliance with the faction carrying out the mass murder. The level is a big set-up for the main plot, which has Russia invading American soil, but players are able to skip through it. The level warranted a worldwide response, with the Russian version removing the level entirely and the German and Japanese versions penalizing players for killing civilians. Infinity Ward had toyed around with different ways to portray the level, but felt that player interaction would elicit the best response from gamers.
The Columbine Massacre
The Columbine massacre of 1999 was a terrible tragedy that affected many. Sadly, as if the devastation of the event wasn’t enough, the tragedy is constantly called into play when trying to support the negativity of gaming. Anti-gaming advocates were quick to blame idSoftware’s early 90’s demon romp, Doom, for the disillusioned minds behind the massacre, mostly because shooter Eric Harris was believed to have created a level designed after Columbine High School. Columbine’s place in gaming didn’t just end there, as American Filmaker Danny Ledonne, created Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, a turn-based roleplaying game where gamers play as killers, Eric and Dylan.
Jack Thompson vs. Video Gaming
Over the course of gaming history, the video game industry has almost always been under fire and scrutiny; but there is no bigger offender to this than activist and disbarred attorney, Jack Thompson. Most famous for propagating the “Video Games Made Me Do It” legal defense, Thompson has had a proverbial hard-on for the gaming industry for quite some time. During his most active periods, Thompson has taken on games like The Sims 2, Grand Theft Auto, and Doom. One of Thompson’s more famous uproars came with the Paducah Shooting, when video games, pornography, and the 1995 film The Basketball Diaries were all cited as reasons for Michael Carneal’s slaughter of three fellow students. During the trial, Thompson blamed Doom and Grand Theft Auto, a claim he practically mimicked for the 1999 Columbine massacre. Though Thompson has been slightly less publicly vocal, he still works behind the scenes, as seen in 2011 when he blamed the Valve Corporation for the Erfurt and Virginia Tech massacres.
Federal Gaming Regulations and the ESRB
Those that grew up playing video games in the late 1990’s are all-too-familiar with the Entertainment Software Rating Board, but gamers from the late 80’s and early 90’s remember a time when there was no coalition for the rating of video games. It wasn’t until 1994, when a group of game publishers approached Congress with the proposal of the ESRB, did games receive their telling age ratings. About a year prior, Congress had begun to hold hearings over the concern that violent video games were being directly marketing to minors, citing specifically Ed Boon’s infamous arcade fighter, Mortal Kombat, and directly pegging Nintendo and Sega as major offenders, despite Sega’s internal rating system. In response to these concerns, Senator Joe Lieberman introduced the Video Game Ratings Act of 1994, which would put a federal commission in charge of creating a standard for game ratings. Not wanting their work to be federally regulated, major publishers at the time banded together to create the Digital Software Association, now known as the Entertainment Software Association, to oversee video game age ratings.
To some, it’s about feminism in gaming; to others, it is a movement that means so much more with a focus on corruption of ethics and favoritism in gaming journalism. The roots of Gamergate - a phrase coined by Firefly alumni Adam Baldwin - stems back to February of 2013, when developer Zoe Quinn was allegedly given an unjust amount of attention for her interactive fiction Steam title, Depression Quest. The backlash got worse when Quinn’s former boyfriend, Eron Gjoni, publicly stated that she had had an affair with Kotaku journalist, Nathan Grayson, which is said to have lead to the unwarranted attention. By August of 2014, fellow developer Brianna Wu and feminist cultural critic, Anita Sarkeesian, were added to the list of targets of what was being coined as the “quinnspiracy.” The movement eventually spiraled, with YouTube personalities, female gamers, and other notable celebrities such as Felecia Day receiving life threatening responses for their support of Gamergate. Is the concern of journalistic ethics just a red herring for the anti-feministic movement poised at Gamergate’s roots? Many would certainly have you believing so.
The Electronic Arts’ Wife
Behind every successful man, there is a great women to support him - and the case of the Electronics Arts’ Spouse is a fine example of this. Electronic Arts had been fighting against controversy for a bit over the quality of the games it had been putting out, but a LiveJournal kept by the wife of one of its employees really blew the lid off the proverbial cover. After his smaller studio collapsed and he was offered a job at EA, the employee in question thought he had stumbled upon the dream; that is until he and his team started to be subjected to 12 hour workdays at 7 days a week with no offer of overtime or any equivalent. From there, a spiral of controversy descended upon EA over its employee and work relations, forcing the company to either change its policies or face the wrath of the gaming community that would essentially keep it afloat. Since this explosive journal entry, it seems employee relations have improved at the massive developer - though it is sure to remain in the spotlight with miserable game launches like that of SimCity.