Video game controversy

Video game controversy is any criticism or moral panic involving video games or computer games. Computer games and video games have been the subject of frequent controversy, often involving religious figures, parents' groups, or politicians, especially in 2002. The video game controversy outside the video game community usually originates from religious discourses, assemblies, and publications, political speeches and publications, and the news media. It usually comes from Silent and Baby Boomer generations in the United States. The video game Death Race was probably the first video game to inspire a video game controversy.

Table of contents
1 Criticism of violence and crime in video games
2 Criticism of sexuality in video games
3 Criticism related to children's social development
4 Criticism from religious organizations
5 Typical criticism within the industry
6 Controversial Videogames
7 Timeline

Criticism of violence and crime in video games

Video and computer games are periodically criticized in the media by some parents' groups, psychologists, religious organizations, or politicians for the level of violence, cruelty, and crime that some games allow players to act out. Examples are trivial to find, including Mortal Kombat and its sequels, a series of fighting games by Midway Games which since 1992 has rewarded players for beating up an opponent with martial arts moves, and then for executing a "Fatality" move, a particularly gruesome killing of the defeated character, in which the head and spine of the victim is ripped out of his body, the victim is beheaded with blood gouting out of his neck stump, and so forth. Another frequently-cited violent game is the extremely popular Grand Theft Auto 3 ("GTA 3") by Rockstar Games, in which the principal game activity is carjacking, and once a car is stolen, the player is rewarded for running over pedestrians and shooting rival gang members to death as he runs missions for crime bosses. It is sometimes claimed in the media that in GTA 3, players have to steal a car, pick up a prostitute, have (implied) sex with the prostitute, then kill her and steal her money. All of this is indeed possible in the game, but the player is not actually required to do so.

Critics of video game violence generally agree that violent video games are at least as bad an influence on children as are television shows with the same level of violence and cruelty, and most seem to believe that video games are more threatening to a child's well-being, because the video game player uses the controller to make his on-screen persona act out the violence personally. It was widely reported that the killers in the Columbine High School massacre were fans of first-person shooter games, and had recorded a videotape before the massacre in which they said they looked forward to using their shotguns just as in the game DOOM. One former West Point psychology professor, seen to be interviewed several times after school shootings in the United States, has repeatedly used the term "murder simulator" to describe first-person shooter games. He argues that video game publishers unethically train children in the use of weapons and, more importantly, harden them emotionally to the task of murder by simulating the killing of hundreds or thousands of opponents in a single typical video game.

Defenders of video games in this respect, and video game publishers, state that video games are harmless entertainment, similar to the previous generation's childhood "violent" play of "Cops and Robbers", and that playing video games does not cause acts of violence, but indeed may be a cathartic way of expressing frustration or anger without harming any people. They say that video games are sometimes singled out unfairly from other forms of entertainment that show violence, such as movies, television shows, and even the news, which suffuse the culture, and that even if exposure to violence in the media were proven to cause more violent behavior, then video games should be subject to no more restriction or scrutiny than movies, television shows, or the news. They note that millions of children and adults enjoy video games every day, and the vast majority of them do not become criminals; and that no correlation has ever been shown between the rise of video game popularity and crime statistics. They also note that using a video game controller's or a mouse's buttons to shoot an opponent on a screen is a far different experience than shooting a man with a gun in the real world, and that it seems far fetched to believe that this would harden one to killing, or qualify as a "murder simulator".

Data on the effect of video game violence is scant. To date, some studies have shown that correlate children's exposure to violent video games and violent television shows with increased aggression on the playground, but studies have not focused on video games alone.

United States

In the United States, the ESRB ratings system was established in 1994 as the video game equivalent to the MPAA film rating system. The ESRB was created as an industry response to criticism from politicians, notably Senator Joe Lieberman, over the easy availability of violent video games such as Mortal Kombat to children, and over the resulting alleged corruption of public morality. At the time, some politicians who lent their voice to this cause threatened legislation relating to video game violence. Nearly all video games are now rated with ESRB ratings, which are primarily intended to inform parents about the content of the games that their children have purchased (or want to purchase). Some important retail chains, such as Wal-Mart, have a policy to check the identification of young purchasers of games rated "Mature" to ensure that the purchaser is at least 17 years old, as recommended by the "Mature" rating. Senator Lieberman stated in 2002 that in his opinion, the video game industry's rating system had become the best rating system of any medium, including the film industry.

Interestingly, video game violence was not an issue of public concern until the technology improved and characters started to appear more photographic in quality. There were video games before Mortal Kombat that had high levels of violence -- for example, The Bilestoad for the Apple II computer featured a top-down view of two knights in combat with battle axes, with pools of blood forming on the ground and limbs regularly amputated -- but the game looked like an animated cartoon and not at all photorealistic. This may imply that most people are not actually concerned about children acting out violence as long as it looks fake.

From time to time, local officials attempt to restrict the playing or selling of violent video games. Predictably, video game publishers always oppose this, and retailers usually do as well. For example, the city of Indianapolis, Indiana in 2000 passed an ordinance barring minors from playing arcade games with graphic violence unless parental consent was given. It was generally thought that this law was intended to target the game The House of the Dead, in which players use plastic guns to shoot at the game screen in order to mow down hundreds or thousands of zombies that have returned from the dead and try to kill the player. The ordinance was struck down at the appellate Federal court level, on the grounds that in the United States, video games enjoy some measure of First Amendment free speech protection because they contain real expression of ideas, and children have constitutional rights before the age of 18, and given this, the city did not demonstrate an overriding public interest in passing the ban.

Germany and Korea

In Germany, video games, as with other media, are subject to censorship, or "decency standards", that are strict by the standars of other European nations. For video games there is the index, also known as the "banned" list, which is a list of video games considered immoral. Games showing the killing of humans with blood or severed body parts involved, or in general showing cruelty to humans, are placed on the index, at which point it becomes illegal to advertise the games, display them on store shelves, or sell them to anyone under 18. This of course dramatically impacts sales, so most video game companies selling games into Germany elect to create a special German version that narrowly avoids the index by changing the graphics. Instead of red blood coming out of a wound, green blood is shown, implying that aliens are being killed and not humans; or gears and springs are shown coming out of the wound, implying that the victims are robots.

It is not clear how many German video game players skirt the intention of the index by purchasing their games from other countries, by mail order or by taking a shopping trip.

Video game violence is similarly controversial in South Korea, and similar "no blood" regulations apply.

Criticism of sexuality in video games

Video game publishers have not explored sexuality in video games to nearly the degree seen in movies, books, or even television shows. Almost no video games display nudity. Sexual themes are seen sometimes in role-playing games, but are rare elsewhere. This lack of history, and perhaps a perception that video games are a children's pastime, are probably the reasons why any graphic sexual content is shocking to some people.

Custer's Revenge was a game for the Atari 2600 released under the brand "Swedish Erotica" that featured a naked General Custer advancing across the screen, dodging arrows, until he could mount a naked Native American woman who was apparently tied to a pole or cactus. The game was controversial for its racism as well as its sexuality, and in television coverage in the United States, when game animation was shown, parts of the screen were concealed with black rectangles in order to avoid showing nudity. This seems unnecessary from today's standpoint, because the graphics on the Atari 2600 were very crude and blocky, and one video game critic has described the naked woman as resembling "a hot dog made of Legos".

Sierra's Leisure Suit Larry computer games were popular tongue-in-cheek adventure games for adults in which the protagonist constantly attempted, usually without success, to convince women to have sex with him. The games did not excite much controversy despite showing partial nudity with increasing graphical quality over the years.

Eidos's Tomb Raider series of games were action-adventure games which featured a woman protagonist named Lara Croft with improbably large breasts. The game series did not explore sexual themes at all, but Lara Croft was featured in video game magazines as a sex symbol of sorts, and it is generally believed that the success of the game series over the years was due to the prominence of her breasts in the game's advertising and packaging.

Acclaim released a bicycle motocross game called BMX XXX in 2002 which included a topless woman as the game character riding a bicycle, and rewarded players with video footage of topless strippers. It is generally believed in the industry that the game was of low quality -- its average review was about 55% in an industry where a 70% score is considered poor -- and that Acclaim decided late in the game's development to attempt to stir a controversy and hopefully prop up sales by including some nudity. The attempt at publicity was rather successful, with television reports that Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, and a few other major retail chains in the United States declined to carry the game in their stores due to the nudity. Consequently, sales were poor: under 100,000 copies were sold. The game was not greeted with controversy or with much sales interest in Europe.

Industry response to controversies over sexuality is generally in the form of indignation that video games are singled out where movies, books, and television shows are not. Retailers have sold "R"-rated movies showing nudity for the past several decades without any moral problem in doing so, and the moral problem they claim to have over video games with nudity is therefore hypocritical.

Criticism related to children's social development

Some psychologists and parents' groups have criticized video games because they believe they cause children to sit alone in the television room for many hours in a row, interacting with a machine rather than running and playing outside as they exercise and improve their social skills by playing with other children. This sounds like the same effect that television shows have on many children, but some claim that video games are more addictive to children and therefore more likely to isolate them socially in this way. Some studies have claimed that there is a correlation between depression and playing computer games.

A typical industry response is that video games can enhance children's social interaction because many video games are multiplayer games, where two or four players can have fun competing on the same television screen, and that if a child is isolated and antisocial, this is not the fault of video games, but perhaps of the child's inborn disposition, or perhaps of the parents' lack of attention to making sure their child has enough opportunities for social interaction with other children. Presumably, parents who allow their children to play video games too much would also allow them to watch too much television for their own good.

Criticism from religious organizations

Much of the criticism of video games from outside the video game community originates from religious sources. Some Christian denominations, usually Restorationist such as Jehovah's Witnesses (with December 22, 2002, issue of Awake!) and Seventh Day Adventists, and some fundamentalist denominations, based on the teachings of religious artist Jack Chick and preacher Al Menconi, impose lifelong restriction and scrutiny on video games, especially through the belief that parents should impose or inculcate their religious beliefs onto their children. Some video game proponents call these religious denominations mind controlling and enslaving cults and enemies of the video game community, and they consider video game criticism from religious organizations an offense to the video game community. They usually oppose religious criticism and restriction on video games. The criticisms originating from religious sources are aimed at violence, crime, sexuality, nudity, human castration, rebelliousness, materialism, occultism, and references to Christianity. Many of those who criticise Grand Theft Auto: Vice City are religious figures.

The Japanese video game and anime industry have been playing with Christianity. Many Japanese-origin video games and animes, such as Xenogears and Princess Mononoke contain references to Christianity. References to Christianity in video games have done a long time since the NES era. Religious content has been censored in many U.S. releases of Japanese-origin video games.

Because of all that religious criticism and its disappointment from video game players, religion has been a critical issue to the video game community, whether one's religion despises or restricts video games or is referenced in a video game.

Typical criticism within the industry

Within the video game industry, there is not much self-criticism about excessive sexuality or violence, as it is known that video games are not exclusively for the consumption of children, and hence it is generally believed that video game publishers have as much right to explore adult-oriented, mature themes as do movie studios or book publisherss. Some developers and publishers find some of this type of content distasteful and do not produce it, but in general there is not much agitation to set limits on adult content for the industry as a whole, beyond the presence of the ESRB rating system, which has come to be viewed by most people as a good move for the industry. There is some criticism over the use of violence in games as a crutch for creativity; it is alleged that if a developer cannot invent an original, fun activity for the player, he'll end up giving the player the time-honored task of shooting a monster.

Most criticism of video games from within the video game community usually has to do with game quality: linear story structure without much plot, lack of originality, lack of character development, unrealistic aspects of graphics or game play, or simply not being fun to play.

Other criticisms include an apparent lack of games that appeal to women and girls, and a strong and increasing tendency of video game publishers to avoid risks, and only fund games which are practically guaranteed success prior to the expenditure of any development dollars. In particular, there has been an increase in:

  • Sequels to, prequels to, and enhanced remakes of previously successful games
  • Games which use a licensed intellectual property from some other medium, often movies, comic books, television shows, or books
  • Games whose game play is more or less copied directly from previously published games that were successful. It is generally agreed that in the early days of video games there seemed to be an explosion of creativity with genuinely new types of game play appearing in some new game every month, and now a new type of game play is seen only a couple of times per year.

Controversial Videogames

  • BMX XXX (for nudity in the game and in video clips) (banned in Australia)
  • Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball (DOA:XBV) (for ogling bikini-clad women and sexual themes)
  • DOOM series (for violence)
  • Duke Nukem 3D (for violence, sexuality and nudity)
  • Ethnic Cleansing (for neo-nazi propaganda, racism and crimes against humanity)
  • Grand Theft Auto III (for violence, crime, and sexual themes) (banned in Australia)
  • Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (for violence, crime, and sexual themes)
  • House of the Dead (for graphic violence)
  • Manhunt (for graphic violence) (banned in New Zealand)
  • Mortal Kombat series (for graphic violence)
  • Postal (for violence, banned in many countries)
  • Resident Evil series (for graphic violence)
  • Tomb Raider series (for violence and large body parts)


  • 1978, Death Race, an arcade game inspired a video game controversy
  • 1993, Mortal Kombat, an Arcade and console game, inspired a video game controversy, having Senator Joseph Lieberman speak out.
  • 1994, the establishment of the ESRB
  • 1999, the Columbine massacre inspired a video game moral panic
  • 2002, Grand Theft Auto III, a PS2 and PC game inspired an ongoing video game controversy; banned in Australia.
  • August 2003, Entertainment Software Association battles against governmental regulation of video games.
  • December 2003, Manhunt, a PS2 game, gets banned in New Zealand.

See also: Entertainment Software Ratings Board, media controversy, school massacre, moral panic

copyright 2004