Video game controversy

From Academic Kids

Critics say that games such as  advocate real-life crimes, like .
Critics say that games such as Grand Theft Auto 3 advocate real-life crimes, like carjacking.

Computer and video games have been the subject of frequent controversy and censorship, due to the presence of graphic violence, sexual themes, advertising, consumption of illegal drugs, consumption of alcohol or tobacco, propaganda or profanity in some games. Among others, critics of video games sometimes include parents' groups, politicians, organized religion groups, and other special interest groups.

Video game censorship is defined as the use of state or group power to control the playing, distribution, purchase, or sale of video games or computer games. Video game controversy comes in many forms, and censorship is a controversial subject, as well as a popular topic of debate. Proponents and opponents of censorship are often very passionate about their individual views.


A brief history of notable criticism

In 1976, Death Race became one of the first controversial video games; based on the film Death Race 2000, it allowed players to drive around in a car, in order to run down "gremlins." However, many players and critics inferred that the game actually simulated vehicular homicide—particularly considering that the game's original title was Pedestrian. Its implied violence was immediately decried.

Criticism waned in the early 1980s when less representational, more kid-friendly games, such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, became popular in arcades. However, with the advent of the Atari 2600, more production companies resulted in more controversial material. In particular, a video game company known as "Mystique" began producing sexually explicit games which contained images of exposed genitalia and lewd acts. From a modern point of view, it may seem laughable that the blocky graphics could be construed as being erotic; however, at the time, these games did receive some media attention for their ribaldry (see "Criticism of sexuality in video games" below).

As more sophisticated video game consoles were released, some measures were taken to ensure the moral quality of games. Nintendo had a licensing system that required games to pass their various tests of blood, nudity, and religious themes to be licensed. All licensed titles for the Nintendo Entertainment System featured Nintendo's "Seal of Quality" and were produced on cartridges compatible with the 10NES lock-out system, nearly disabling the production of unlicensed and thus so-called inappropriate titles, though some companies managed to break the code and produce their own unlicensed games. Some of these unlicensed titles were adult or violent titles, including various strip poker or extremely violent titles. This practice was dropped when the rating system was later implemented.

As the video gaming industry grew even further with even more advanced graphics, it faced increasing pressure from concerned special interest groups. In 1992 Mortal Kombat, an arcade and console fighting game, was controversial for its copious amount of simulated violence and blood; US Senator Joe Lieberman spoke out against the game during a Senate investigation into video game violence. Another game under public scrutiny was Night Trap, a game using filmed footage of actors such as Dana Plato, criticized for its sexual themes and often implied violence. Night Trap is often considered the catalyst for the establishment of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which employs an age-based ratings system, not unlike the MPAA system for movies.

The ESRB silenced many critics, or at least reduced the exposure of the controversy in the media for about four years, until games such as Postal, Carmageddon and GTA were suddenly released in 1997, attracting the attention of the general media to the issue again. The commercial success of these titles (especially of Carmageddon and GTA), combined with the "free advertisement" provided by tabloids and detractors opened the market to violent games in the following years.

Video games received scrutiny in 1999, following the Columbine massacre, as some commentators accused violent games such as Doom and Quake as playing a causative role in that massacre and others, sparking heated debate between proponents and opponents. A few days prior to the events in Columbine, lawyer Jack Thompson had filed a multi-million dollar product liability suit against several entertainment companies (including video game producers) on behalf of the family of the victims of a 1997 school shooting. Thompson claimed that the game producers had caused harm by training users to enjoy killing. The case was dismissed in 2002.

In October 2001, Grand Theft Auto 3, a console and PC game, was released, allowing the player to control a criminal whose Mafia-related jobs often required him to steal cars and murder rivals. The game revived ongoing video game controversy in the public eye for its violent and anarchic nature. Furthermore, In August 2003 the Entertainment Software Association reacted against these accusations and began to battle against governmental regulation of video games.

Further analysis of the games mentioned and criticism thereof are described in the remainder of this article.

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. Since 1992 the series has rewarded players for beating up an opponent with martial arts moves, and then for executing a "Fatality" move. A Fatality is a particularly gruesome killing of the defeated character; for example, one Fatality involves the player ripping out the head and spine of his opponent.

Another frequently-cited violent game is the extremely popular Grand Theft Auto 3 by Rockstar Games, in which the principal game activity is carjacking, and once a car is stolen, the player is allowed to run over pedestrians. The player may also purchase guns to shoot at and kill rival gang members (or pedestrians) as he runs missions for crime bosses. The game also became a center of controversy concerning attitudes toward women, because the player is allowed to pick up a prostitute, have sex, then kill her to take back the money spent. It should be noted, however, that any activity of this sort in the game is done completely by choice and players are punished for committing crimes by the police. Considering this game allows one to freely choose, it could also be noted that the game is similar to real life.

The game's sequel, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City came under similar criticism, also for implying allegedly racist hate crimes: The game, taking place in Florida in 1986, involves a gang war between Haitians and Cuban refugees, and the player often serves both gangs to plot against one another. Haitian and Cuban anti-defamation groups highly criticized the game for these actions, including using phrases such as "kill the Haitians" (which was actually referring to the Haitian gang which the charecter is currently in a shoot-out with...) After the threat of being sued, Rockstar removed the word "Haitians" from this phrase in the game's subtitles, and changed it to "Canadians".

Lt. Col. David Grossman, a former West Point psychology professor, has written several books that pertain to the subject of violence in the media, including On Killing and Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill. During heights of video game controversy he has been interviewed on the content of his books, and 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.

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.

Defenders of video games, 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." Some defenders of video games even dislike the term "violent video games" since it carries a negative connotation.

Comedian Marcus Brigstocke half-jokingly (and with some irony) says, by way of dispelling common criticisms of violence in video games, that "If Pacman had affected us as kids we'd be running around in dark rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive music." [1] ( (compare with Dance music and Rave culture).

Over two hundred studies have been published which examine the effects of violence in entertainment media and which at least partially focus on violence in video games in particular. Though some studies have purported to show a correlational link, the vast majority have been unsuccessful in establishing causation. Many studies even explicitly deny that such a connection exists, most notably Anderson and Ford (1986), Winkel et al (1987), Scott (1995), and Ballard and Lineberger (1999).

On March 6, 2005, the television program 60 Minutes tackled on the case with 18-year old Devin Moore, as plaintiffs believe Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City inspired him to kill three police officers that came to arrest him for stealing a car. That episode of 60 Minutes has been criticized by the video game community.

Even if video games promote violence, another argument in their favor is that the real world is violent, games are simply a reflection of it, and children exposed to such games will grow into psychologically resilient adults better able to defend themselves if attacked. Finally, a law and economics argument is that video games may still be economically efficient even if it is proven that they cause a certain small percentage of users to go on homicidal rampages. That is, the minuscule number of lives that could theoretically be saved by banning certain categories of video games must be weighed against the huge number of jobs that would be certainly lost (and resulting homicides and suicides), as well as the psychological damage to an entire generation of gamers and long-term damage to the evolution of human creativity (because certain genres will go undiscovered or unexplored). With many other technologies, like automobiles, airplanes, and certain experimental pharmaceuticals, we routinely accept much higher casualties (which are a statistical fact) in exchange for the enormous economic benefits and convenience that such technologies provide.

Criticism of sexuality in video games

Western video game publishers have not explored sexuality in video games to nearly the degree seen in movies, books, or even television shows. Almost no American video games display nudity. However, sexual themes are very common in Japanese bishōjo video games, although companies such as Nintendo and Sony refuse to publish these games. The following is a list of the few American games containing sexual elements.

Custer's Revenge was a game for the Atari 2600, released by Mystique 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, while television news coverage on the subject featured game animation, parts of the screen were concealed with black rectangles in order to avoid showing nudity.

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

Acclaim released a BMX 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. The game was originally intended to be a Dave Mirra title without nudity, but it is generally believed in the industry that the game was of low quality - its average review in the gaming media was about 55%, while in most gaming publications 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, although the publicity achieved was of the wrong sort of Acclaim; 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.

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"- and "NC-17"-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 seen as hypocritical by some. Because video games have a rating system roughly equivalent to the movie rating system, the two are roughly analogous.

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. They claim that video games can be even more addictive to children than television, and therefore more likely to isolate them socially in this way. Some studies have purported that there is a correlation between depression and playing computer games.

Many respond 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 television too much, as well. Additionally, with the advent of online video gaming, it is not difficult for children to find others to play with.

Criticism from religious organizations

Much of the criticism of video games from outside the video game community originates from religious sources, often in similar response to claims of violence, crime, sexuality, nudity, rebelliousness, materialism, occultism, and unflattering references to religion in these games.

Such references to religion found in games are often criticized by religious groups of specific denominations. Games such as Xenogears, Final Fantasy Tactics and Grandia II contain references and even outright criticism to Christianity and organized religion in general. Often, RPGs in particular make use of a corrupt and powerful church as the game’s antagonist.

In response to potential criticism, religious content has been censored in some US releases of Japanese-origin video games. Nintendo in particular would censor many of its US releases back in the NES and SNES era. Castlevania, Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy and other games containing such references as crosses, the words holy, monk, and names of Biblical figures were censored for their US release.

The video game criticism outside the video game community usually originates from religious and political sources. Because of that, the origin of the video game controversy has influenced gamers to discuss religion and politics.

See also Censorship by organized religion.

Criticisms of alleged dishonouring

The humorous real-time wargame Cannon Fodder originally had a picture of the poppy flower on its cover, an obvious reference to the British war dead memorance, which uses the poppy flower as its symbol. This caused a controversy in the United Kingdom, as various newspaper claimed the game dishonoured the British war dead and even urged their readers "not to buy this shameful game". As a response, the game's cover art was changed prior to release, to instead feature a camoflaged soldier.

Criticisms of the gameplay in and of itself

Sometimes there has been criticisms of the gameplay in and of itself by non gamers. This primarily is focused towards RPG's, especially traditional Pen and Paper and MMORPGs, whose level grinding gameplay critics feel causes obsession or addiction. Another criticized aspect of RPG's is the immersion factor, or virtual reality, which is seen by critics as escapist. Finally, as most RPG leveling mechanics allow for getting stronger by repetitive fighting of weaker enemies for a long time, this is seen as discouraging risk taking or instilling a fear of losing in the gamer.

Video game legislation around the world

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. However, many video game players have criticized him, citing his work as too broad and unaware of the industry as a whole.

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 children 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 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.

Canada also uses the ESRB ratings.

It is also worth mentioning that before the ESRB's rating system, there was a previous one used by major companies. It would gauge the game in a variety of topics such as violence, blood and gore, sexuality, and the like by using thermometers with levels 1-4, with 1 being the least and 4 being the most. However, this received criticism as it was not enforced at all over the software industry (unlike today, where all games released by a major company have to have an appropriate rating), and also ended up being too harsh in many ways. Companies like Maxis would not use it for their games like Sim City, as stated in an interview with Family PC, for it would receive a 1 in the violence area because you could destroy your own cities, and then schools would not buy it. Shortly after the ESRB's rating system came out, this one died out of use.


In Australia video games are rated by the Office of Film and Literature Classification, which also rates other media. Unlike movies however, no R18+ or X18+ category exists for video games, and as such if they do not fit into the MA15+ category (suitable for 15 year olds and over), they are effectively banned. This means that games deemed unsuitable for 15 year olds are banned entirely from sale and distribution within the country, even for use by adults. This has been a point of much debate for many years now, and recently the Victorian government has announced plans to try and get an R18+ category introduced. A comprehensive list of games that have been banned in Australia can be found at

In 2002, Australia banned Grand Theft Auto III for its actions against virtual prostitutes; the game was later reinstated when this action was removed.


In Germany, video games, as with other media, are subject to censorship, or "decency standards", that are strict by the standards of other European nations. For video games there is the index, which is a list of video games, movies and other media considered having bad influence on children and therefore unsuited for anyone under 18. Articles not suited for anyone under 18 cannot be sold through mail order in Germany. Games showing the killing of humans with blood or severed body parts involved, or in general showing cruelty to humans, are examined by the BPjM and then in some cases 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. For example, the Contra series, known as Probotector in Europe, repeatedly replaced the heroes and many enemies throughout the series with robots.

The problem with the index is that games cannot be examined by BPjM (Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien) prior to their release, even if requested by the manufacturers, as that would be considered censorship by German standards, which is clearly illegal by the German constitution. However, this has lead to many publishers thinking with "scissors in their heads" and removing more content than would have been necessary.

Recently, the index has become a little redundant regarding video games, as the USK's (Unterhaltungs Software Kontrolle = Entertainment Software Control) ratings have been made obligatory. Before 1.4.2003 these ratings had been merely suggestions for gamers.

Also, because of Germany's law banning public displays of Nazism and the swastika, several games have been banned for using these symbols, even if the rationale behind their use is clearly critical of the Nazi philosophy. Games such as Wolfenstein 3D and its sequel Return to Castle Wolfenstein, which involve American soldiers on missions to kill Nazi soldiers, are banned, and such software often reminds the player of its illegality in Germany. The display of Nazi symbols in an accurate historical context is permitted nevertheless. Films, including World War II films of German origin, have proven this point, although the situation with video games is less clear-cut. There are few World War II video games that are deemed to be historically accurate, but the backgrounds of titles such as Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and Commandos: Beyond The Call of Duty do operate on a historically true background, even if the stories central to the games are exaggerated or fictional for purposes of entertainment. Nonetheless, the symbols were removed, although all other references to the Nazis were kept.


Due to cultural preferences, Japanese video games tend to be less bloody than their American counterparts, so Japanese critics tend to focus instead on the brutal pornography found in some adult Japanese computer games (which have generally not been released outside of Japan). However, this does not mean the violence is welcomed. Both the Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto series were highly criticized for lacking ethical reasons for their acts and they never became popular as in other countries. Since 2002, a non-governmental organization CERO is reviewing games and issuing an age recommendation for all products that have been submitted.

Violently pornographic games came to national attention in Japan in 1986 with the release by dB-soft of 177, a game where the player takes the role of a rapist. (The game's title originates from the number of the Japanese law criminalizing rape.) 177 was not actually the first game designed around this premise, but it was unusually explicit for that time. The game caused debate in the Japanese parliament and was eventually recalled and re-released with the most controversial scenes removed. In 1992 the pornographic game industry formed the "Ethics Organization for Computer Software", setting industry guidelines for acceptable content and packaging. Those game deemed inappropriate by this organization for minors are released only to 18 years or older.

See also bishōjo game and hentai game.

United Kingdom

The introduction of controversial games featuring photo-realistic images, such as Mortal Kombat and Night Trap, led to calls from the tabloid press for games fall under the Video Recordings Act. The UK games publisher trade body ELSPA responded by introducing a voluntary age rating system in 1994. The ELSPA ratings were succeeded by the pan-European ratings system, PEGI, in 2003. However, although games are generally exempt from the Video Recordings Act, those depicting sexual content, or gross violence towards people or animals, must still be submitted to the BBFC for consideration.

Carmageddon, in which the gameplay involved mowing down innocent pedestrians, was the first game to be refused classification in 1997 (effectively banning it). It later received an 18 certificate when a modified version, replacing the pedestrians with zombies, was submitted.


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

In July 2002, the Greek Parliament passed Greek Law Number 3037, entirely outlawing electronic gaming. This controversial law has been frowned upon, not only in Greece, but elsewhere in Europe and in the United States, and petitions were made against it. In December 2003 it was restricted to only affect Internet cafes in accordance with a letter from the European Union.

In December of 2003, Manhunt, a PS2 game, was banned in New Zealand.

Typical criticism from within the industry

Within the video game industry, there is not much self-criticism about excessive sexuality or violence, as it is generally believed that video games are not exclusively for the consumption of children, and that video game publishers have as much right to explore adult-oriented, mature themes as do movie studios or book publishers. 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.

Other controversial video games

Video game rating systems

Video game censorship around the world

See also

External links

Supporters of video game censorship

Rating systems


Opponents of video game censorship


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