Controversy is an interesting thing to discuss when it comes to video games and with how politically and emotionally charged they often are we can't help but watch. There are a lot of politics behind these controversies, and with a lot of people looking to either make a quick buck or push a larger agenda in the process, from attempts to stifle artistic freedom for developers, to outright bans of specific games from entire countries these controversies have always been interesting to me, and to read about.
While reading social media's reaction the latest controversy about Baldur's Gate: Siege of DragonSpear, an expansion to a nearly two-decade old game, in response to issues of alleged transphobia, alleged tokenism of characters representing the LGBT community, changes to the game have been announced and an alleged controversial joke is being removed. So I decided to look at some of the more famous, or infamous if you will, gaming controversies, and how they have been covered, and the discussions they have sparked.
“Custer's Revenge” is one of the earliest and most famous controversies in video games. Released in 1982, a game where you play as General Custer who would dodge a hail of arrows in order to claim his reward, a young naked Native American woman, you would then process to have sex with her for your game reward. Interestingly there does seem to be some level of historical accuracy in this game.
Box Art of Custer's Revenge. You can practically taste the controversy.
At the time Andrea Dworkin, a social worker, feminist, and Women's Right's activist alleged the game had generated gang rapes of young native American women, which is also found in her book along with accounts of young women claiming to have been raped while the men doing so made mention of the game or other references to specific pieces of pornography. You can find specific mention of “Custer's Revenge” on page 317 and surrounding it are the various testimonies and pleas for understanding. The chapter detailing these accusations begins on page 308.
Developers at the time wanted to create a game that was for adults, and wanted the game to be entertaining leaving people laughing and smiling as games with Rocket ships “move too fast.” This game is presented in a way where it is extremely difficult to discern any distress of the woman in question to call it a rape simulator, though this can be due to graphical limitations and the seemingly comedic handling of the game, this all seems part of developer intent for it to be for entertainment and pleasure
Eventually the game would be removed from distribution after having sold 80,000 copies, though the game did make a return in a remake aptly named “Custer's Revenge: The Remake” there was so little controversy or even mention of the game upon its release. I did not even know it had been made until five years or so after it had been put out on the internet when I saw a very brief mention of it on a forum almost five years after its appearance. (Warning NSFW)
Now believe it or not I view the Custer's Revenge controversy as a very important piece of video game history, because it gives us a foundation to work with in understanding how these controversies play out, and how controversies in video games have changed and shifted over time. It also gives us details on where the blame is going, and how they do or do not tend to resolve themselves. Notice the blame placed on the game as a cause for the alleged rapes that occurred, as an example of this. Oddly, I am unable to find any information on if the alleged rapes were ever reported to the police, or if there was even mention of reports to the police during the case being made against “Custer's Revenge”. However, this can easily be attributed to the increased difficulty of reporting rape at this point in history.
Fast forward through history some decades into the 1990's and 2000's there was seemingly a never ending stream of video game controversies. From “Pokemon” being the world of the “Satanic” to first person shooters and fighting games being blamed for school shootings, something that has perpetuated to this day, to Jack Thompson. This two decade time period was rife with controversy for the video game industry and gamers to argue against, with the advent of the Internet making us more connected then ever the ability for us all to participate in this discussion increased exponentially.
With that came a barrage of blame being placed on gamers, with Jack Thompson blaming popular gaming website Penny Arcade for being one of the alleged causes that made individuals threaten his person and even threatened to file a lawsuit against them in 2005. This on top of people blaming video games on individuals violent actions in schools, it seemed society had gamers on the defensive, trying to defend both their hobby, and themselves from a multitude of accusations.
A Photo of Jack Thompson Holding Grand Theft Auto IV
Games like “Doom” “Duke Nukem” and “Wolfenstein 3D” and tangentially "Mortal Kombat", were all blamed both by news outlets, and studies which suggested the violence in the games were played out, and acted upon, in mass school shootings, with the Columbine Shooting in 1999 being the most commonly cited, the children in question responsible for Columbine were fans of these games barring "Mortal Kombat". These connections would later be shown to be largely inconclusive yet it remains a point of contention for gaming to fight to this day.
Cover Art for Doom
Specific games like “Carmageddon” generated quite the moral panic with claims of it being so violent and disturbing with its grotesque depiction of pedestrians being run over and brutally ripped apart that it ended up being the first game ever refused by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) a certification which would allow it to be sold. It would later be given the certificate after 10 months of appeal however.
What kind of controversy article would this be though without the infamous series “Grand Theft Auto”, and the even more infamous “Hot Coffee” which was part of “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” which allowed for you to participate in a crudely animated sex scene interestingly only accessible through hacking devices on Playstation 2 and XBox, or digging through the PC version's files to find the assets, and not being normally accessible, the appearance caused it to be re-rated adult only until an updated version with all the content removed from even cheated access which returned it to the original M rating.
Cover of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
During these periods of time we saw an increased level of blame leveled against individuals who had committed wrong doing, while games were, and still are being heavily blamed for events that transpire in violent crimes, and social unrest, the focus started to turn on the individuals while placing what seemed like an equal amount of blame on video games. With threats of censorship looming in 1999 the video game industry turned to a self-policing strategy which we currently know today as the ESRB. Yet it would not be until after 2010 that a seeming war on video games would ramp up and become focused on blaming video games, and gamers for a majority of social woes.
In 2011 Video games would be declared art in part with help and statements made from the late Justice Antonin Scalia. While this was a large victory for video games and the first amendment, this did not stop a seemingly endless furor of claims that video games were the cause of so many social woes, with demands of video games being censored, Or completely pulled from shelves in Australia. A very different controversy is taking place in the world of video games. No longer seemingly limited to violent crimes being blamed on video games, but now video games would be the cause of social issues, such as racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, verbal and online abuse would all be attributed to video games, and the gamers that played them.
Current ESRB Rating System
You can see countless articles about how sexism is keeping women out of gaming with just a cursory glance around the internet despite all the contradictory statistics and data which suggest gamers who are female make up at least 50% of the overall gaming population, and with over 150 million gamers in the US alone it would be nearly impossible for gaming to be anything but extremely diverse. So the question becomes, why is the controversy being brought to gamers? Why are gamers being blamed for a lack of diversity in gaming despite every study and piece of evidence suggesting otherwise?
It has both a simple answer and a complex answer, despite the fact that gaming is as diverse as the population of earth itself, is the existence of "online bullying" and "online harassment" causes people to perceive an unwelcome environment when it is simply not the case. Simple online comments stated by a handful of users are seen as evidence of a whole despite the near constant reminder that most people who enjoy video games very rarely participate in online discussion when they happen to be pleased with the outcome of a video game expansion. So issues like perceived transphobia by gamers only has to be three or four loud individuals picked up by a handful of news outlets to make gaming and gamers seem unwelcoming to people who would otherwise likely not be exposed to this kind of behavior elsewhere. Because of the constant barrage of articles and claims that gamers are unwelcoming the controversy against video games seems to have expanded beyond video games and the sole blame, and as such, the focus of the controversy is less put on the game, but more gamers as a whole.
Video game controversies themselves have also changed, where it was once news outlets blaming the video games for societal problems, it now seems to be a loud minority of gamers and critics of video games who now blame gamers for these problems and insist that changing the video games themselves is the answer for a more tolerant society and that the current way video games portray individuals and minorities is the cause of perpetuated negative stereotypes. This ignores that a large portion of negative portrayals of characters in video games also involve poor representation of white male characters as well, which is commonly hand waved with the idea that it is simply a male power fantasy.
Hatred Screenshot (Image from http://destructivecreations.pl/)
Video game developers themselves have also been able to use these controversies largely created by upset gamers or critics sometimes to their advantage as was seen with the video game “Hatred” which got such a ridiculous amount of negative attention and an AO rating by the ESRB; the second only video ever to receive an AO rating strictly for violence that it is likely it gained quite a bit of sales on notoriety alone.
What will the rest of this decade see when it comes to video game controversies? Well it's really hard to say, but one thing I can guess for sure is I expect a lot of unnecessary blame to be placed on gamers, and video games for societal woes. If I had to guess the biggest cause of video game controversy I would guess it would be social media and the mean words seen online, more so then the actual video games themselves.
Controversy in video games, love it or hate it, is here to stay, and whether we like it or not, it's up to us to keep proving these nay-sayers wrong on their assertions.