Top Video Game Controversies

by Meagan Marie on Nov 18, 2009 at 11:49 AM

Cinema, rock and roll, and comic books have all been branded as corruptive forces in their day – making apparent that all forms of media or expression are subjected to an elevated level of scrutiny in their budding years. Video games are no exception. In the relatively short lifespan of the industry, controversy has continuously marred public perception of gaming and the culture it encompasses. But are these blemishes deserved or overblown? We break down some of the biggest gaming debacles of the past decade.

Note: We made a conscious decision to leave out more abstract controversies (such as the debated tie between video games and violence) in favor of singular, highly-publicized events in the interactive entertainment sphere.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)

If violence isn’t at the heart of a video-game controversy, sex is more than likely the culprit. One of the more well-known entries to make the list, the Hot Coffee scandal stemmed from a usually inaccessible minigame found in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Once modded to allow access, the minigame allowed players to simulate sex between the main character and one of his many girlfriends. The name spawned from dialogue immediately prior to the interaction, when Carl would be invited in for “coffee,” a not-so-discrete euphemism for sex.

Sex and violence are nearly synonymous with the Grand Theft Auto franchise, although sexual encounters in other iterations usually unfold in a less explicit “peeping Tom” manner. While no actual nudity was involved in the hidden sequence, the acts depicted were admittedly graphic. Not long after the sex scenario was discovered in the PC version of the game, hacks became available to unlock the feature in the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions. And the rest is history.

So what were the ramifications for Rockstar Games and Take-Two Interactive? San Andreas was pulled from shelves after the media fallout and re-rated as an AO game. As a result of the new rating, most retailers refused to sell the title and Rockstar eventually recalled the game entirely. A “clean” version of the game was later released, but the damage was already done. Several lawsuits were filed against the developer and publisher, including class action suits accusing them of consumer fraud. The debacle haunted those involved until this year, when the class action suit was finally settled for over $20 million.

Rockstar and Take-Two interactive have been careful to avoid similar outcries with their newer titles, although the whole “sleep with a hooker, kill her, and take back your money” thing continued to raise eyebrows with the release of Grand Theft Auto IV.

Resistance: Fall of Man (2006)

People love to topple iconic buildings. Godzilla’s been taking down the Tokyo tower for years, and the White House has been blown up more times than we can count. Still, the Church of England considers some buildings off-limits.

In 2006, Insomniac Games released the FPS Resistance: Fall of Man, which was based in an alternate timeline. The premise centered on an advanced alien species invading Earth and converting its inhabitants into an army. Most of the game unfolded in Europe, with iconic imagery abundant throughout the game. Evidently the Manchester Cathedral was a bit too true to life, and the Church of England took issue.

The scenario in question allowed players to battle the alien horde both outside and inside the church. The Church of England labeled it as “virtual desecration” and threw about allegations of copyright infringement, additionally scolding Insomniac and Sony for encouraging gunplay in an area where gun violence was a real life issue. The churches demands were many – they wanted an apology from Sony, a sizable donation, the content removed from the game (through a modification or complete recall) and future financial aid to help support programs to reduce gun crime in the Manchester area.

While the copyright infringement claims wouldn’t stand up in court, most media outlets latched onto the moral aspect of the debate. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair found it in poor taste.

Eventually Sony apologized for offending members of the church, but rebutted by saying there was no “connection between contemporary issues of a 21st Century Manchester and a work of science fiction in which a fictitious 1950s Britain is under attack by aliens.”

The church wasn’t entirely satisfied with the apology, and asked Sony to sign a “sacred digital guideline” document in order to prevent “virtual desecration” in the future. Sony refused, but did promise not to use the Manchester Cathedral in future games.

Despite the apology, Sony ultimately won. It’s argued that the controversy helped sales, and Resistance was even nominated for a BAFTA award that year.

Mass Effect (2007)

Little boils the blood of gamers more than uneducated public figures latching onto video games as talking points. Psychologist and television personality Cooper Lawrence falls into this category by her own admission – but only owned up to her mistake after smearing BioWare’s hit Mass Effect on Fox News.

The infamous encounter took place during Fox’s segment “The Live Desk with Martha MacCallum,” with industry icon Geoff Keighley brought on to balance out Lawrence’s viewpoint. The biased tone for the segment was set early, however, as the sensational header “SE’XBOX: New Video Game shows Full Digital Nudity” scrolled across the screen even prior to introductions.

MacCallum launched the segment by claiming that the scene in question allowed players to engage in full and graphic sex and that critics argued the game was being marketed at teens and children.We could continue on with the description, but it’s much easier to simply watch the clip yourself.

The long and short is, Lawrence didn’t take the time to research her subject matter, even laughing audibly when Keighley asked her if she had played the game. Still, she used her allotted time to rail against the game and the so-called explicit sex scene. Four days later, Lawrence retracted the statements she made on national television, only after watching someone play through the scene in question. She admitted that her opinion had been formed from word of mouth, and that the actual scene was less racy than content she’d seen on the popular primetime television series Lost.

The damage was already done, however, as thousands of gamers took their revenge on Lawrence’s recently released book The Cult of Perfection: Making Peace with your Inner Overachiever, via Amazon, rating it one star out of five.

Fallout 3 (2008)

Concept art is routinely the most impressive visuals tied to a game – forgoing technical restrictions of 3D rendering in favor of the limitless creative scope of an artist. It’s only natural for a game set in a post-apocalyptic setting to depict a barren wasteland. For Bethesda’s title Fallout 3, the concept art specifically showcased the skeletal remains of a post-nuclear Washington DC.

The full piece of art in question was impressive. So impressive, evidently, that it caught the attention of Al-Qaeda, who allegedly began using the concept piece as propaganda, through no fault or intent on Bethesda’s end. The Fallout image was found by SITE, the Search for International Terrorist Entities Intelligence Group, who regularly tracks the online activity of terrorist organizations. SITE said that they found the image and a video along the same vein on an Islamist militant forum, behind several password protected pages, and shared it with the FBI. 

Several international outlets picked up on the story, many of which used the key imagery in their coverage. Still, there’s a good chance that this story never made it onto your radar. Good reason, too. Once it was made public that the image was in fact, concept art from an American-produced video game, many of the original news stories were pulled completely. There is debate if SITE ever explicitly claimed that the image was created by Al-Qaeda, as opposed to just being found on an associated forum, but either way, the image stirred up some major controversy.  

A few unadulterated stories remain on the web, but for the most part the entire encounter is nothing more than a ghostly memory.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time games have been linked to real terrorist concerns. And it probably won’t be the last.

LittleBigPlanet (2008)

Even industry darlings make mistakes, as evidenced by LittleBigPlanet back in 2008. The much anticipated game was delayed from mid to late October when it was discovered that one of the background tracks (licensed from a record label) included verses from the Islamic Koran.

The verses were called to Sony’s attention by several concerned Muslim forum users, who saw the mixing of music and words from the Koran as offensive. Responding swiftly and immediately, Sony announced that they would delay the game, which was slated to ship less than a week later. Via the official PlayStation blog:

“During the review process prior to the release of LittleBigPlanet, it has been brought to our attention that one of the background music tracks licensed from a record label for use in the game contains two expressions that can be found in the Qur'an. We have taken immediate action to rectify this and we sincerely apologize for any offence that this may have caused. We will confirm the new launch date shortly.”

Sony opted to recall all the games that had already shipped to retailers worldwide, replacing the disks instead of offering a downloadable patch at launch. The resulting delay was small, instead shipping on October 27. Still, the push was enough to madden those eagerly awaiting the game.

Sony’s strong reaction isn’t surprising, considering a past controversy involving the game Kakuto Chojin: Back Alley Brutal. The game was pulled from the shelves in 2003 for the same offense – using verses from the Koran in a theme song for a Muslim fighter. The verses were discovered right before launch, and Microsoft decided that an unaltered version would go unnoticed in the U.S market. It didn’t – instead becoming front page news in the Middle East and resulting in a global recall. The game was never re-released. Rounding out the big three console developers, Nintendo has also found fault in one of their games, pulling copies of Ocarina of Time for the same offense.

Six Days in Fallujah (TBA)

While the first two world wars are acceptable fodder for video games, it may be too soon for some of our country’s more recent military exploits – specifically those of Operation Iraqi Freedom. For that reason, Six Days in Fallujah received plenty of attention from enthusiast and mainstream press alike.

A third-person shooter by Atomic Games, Six Days in Fallujah follows the events of the second battle in the namesake city, also known as Operation Phantom Fury. The game follows a squad of U.S. Marines from the 3rd Battalion 1st over six days. According to Atomic Games president Peter Tamte, the game is a direct result of prior relationship with the United States Marine Corps. Atomic Games had already been working with the marines, developing training tools for them until the division assigned to aid them was deployed to Iraq and participated in the Battle of Fallujah. Tamte maintains that when the troops returned, they asked Atomic to chronicle their experiences in a game, and that is how the project was born.

The goal for the game was to make it as realistic as possible, relying heavily on first-hand accounts from returned soldiers and even using the names and likenesses of specific individuals. In issue #248 of GamePro, it was revealed that Atomic Games had interviewed not only marines, but Iraqi villagers, enemy insurgents, war historians, senior military officials and more to make it as accurate as could be. Tamte considers the project so realistic, in fact, that he brands it a survival horror game instead of a traditional shooter.

Obviously, the public debut of the project was marred with controversy, many of the most vocal those who had lost loved ones in the war. The outcry didn’t fall on deaf ears, and this past April it was announced that publisher Konami would no longer be backing the project, leaving Six Days in a sort of purgatory.
As a result, Atomic Games was forced to cut staff and resources, and IndustryGamers has reported that Atomic is currently all but dead. The state of Six Days in Fallujah is unknown.

There are dozens of other cases of controversy throughout the past decade, including allegations of racism in Resident Evil 5, the “EA Spouse” debacle and the still fresh Modern Warfare 2 “No Russia” campaign. But there isn’t enough time in the day to explore them all. If one thing can be said, however, it’s that video games will continue to push the envelope, and the public will continue to push back.