Video games have long been considered (by some) a less-than-worthy pursuit. For years now, there have been concerns that gaming can rot your brain, stunt development, desensitize children to violence, and even turn them into criminals. Luckily for gamers, more and more studies are starting to show that gaming can improve your hand-eye coordination, slow the aging process, improve memory and problem-solving skills, reading skills, and increase brain “flexibility.” Gaming is increasingly being recognized as a beneficial hobby, and gamers are getting more credit for their talents.
Some games, however, are still on the no-fly list for many parents. Games filled with excessive, purposeless violence, racism, casual sex, and criminal activities continue to spark controversy as we wonder how rewarding a player for murder and theft could impact their real-world interactions. Some games seem designed to shock and offend, and they do it well. While there have been many controversial games over the years, these are the ones that are the most appalling (or were at the time of their release).
Here are Screen Rant's 15 Most Controversial Video Games.
15 The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (2011)
The Witcher series, based on the fantasy novels of the same name are generally considered to be fantastic action RPGs, with complicated storylines, rich graphics, and difficult combat scenes right from the start. The games have received critical acclaim, even being mentioned in a speech by President Obama as a fantastic example of “Poland’s place in the new global economy." So why are we including it here?
While The Witcher series may be extremely popular around the world, it was banned in Australia due to the sexual nature of some of the storylines. Sex as a game play element was deemed inappropriate, courtesy of Australia’s rating system for games. However, the ban was later lifted, with a special Australian release that modified the game to remove the offending sexual side-quest.
14 Shadow Man 2econd Coming (2002)
The follow up to the 1999 comic book-based game Shadow Man, 2econd Coming continues the adventures of Michael LeRoi, a voodoo warrior battling forces out to destroy the world. The game takes place in both the world of the living and that of the dead (Liveside and Deadside), and involves souls and magic. In general, the games are inoffensive, with concepts and graphics similar to other games we've seen before.
However, the release of 2econd Coming brought with it one of the worst concepts for an ad campaign that a video game has ever come up with. Acclaim Entertainment put ads for the game on actual gravestones in the UK, in the form of small billboards. While the company did offer to pay the families of the recently deceased for these ads, the church was furious at this sacrilege, and refused to let any of its churchyards display the ads.
13 Saw (2009)
Based on the film franchise of the same name (that is dogged by its own fair share of controversy), Saw is a survival horror game. The game takes place in an asylum filled with people whom the player must save, and of course, others that are trying to kill him. As in the films, the asylum is full of brutally violent “tests” and traps, along with plenty of blood and gore.
Much of the controversy surrounding the game is the same as that that plagues the films. The game’s ultraviolence is considered inappropriate by many, with violence and mutilation featured that has no purpose other than for the sake of shock. Like the films, it has been dubbed “torture porn."
12 Leisure Suit Larry (1987)
Based on an earlier text adventure titled Softporn Adventure (which should really tell you all you need to know about why this game was controversial), the Leisure Suit Larry games have a simple premise: Larry wants to get laid. Larry is a middle aged virgin with terrible taste in clothing and puns, who explores a variety of settings in an attempt to seduce women. To achieve this, the player must gamble with Larry’s starting fund in order to earn money for gifts, or to hire a prostitute (who will give him a deadly STD unless he also buys a condom).
With extremely simple graphics, there is little actual sexual content in the game – compared to modern games, this is almost prudish, with only a few pixelated breasts here and there. However, the focus on sex still bothered many people, and the premise of the game is of course deeply sexist. Not only do women exist purely to be “won” by a man, their willingness to have sex with Larry is dependent on how much he buys them. Clearly, it’s problematic.
11 Duke Nukem 3D, Duke Nukem Forever (1996, 2011)
Duke Nukem first appeared in 1991, set in the “near future” (now very much the past!) where the titular character has to save the world from various evils. Duke Nukem follows a very standard format, as the character collects items and weapons and works his way up to killing the big boss.
Duke Nukem 3D was the first FPS (First Person Shooter) for the franchise, and was attacked by critics for its violence and sexual themes. The women in the game are treated appallingly – the majority are strippers or eye candy, and Nukem famously tells them to “shake it baby." The character can also kick and punch the women for no real reason, although the game doesn’t give any particular reward for doing so. It was called pornographic, and was banned in Australia (although that ban has since been lifted).
Duke Nukem Forever, the long awaited sequel to Duke Nukem 3D, also received criticism for sexism, as Duke scooped up struggling women and smacked them to stop them from trying to escape. This was named "Capture the Babe," with a woman being used as a Capture the Flag style trophy.
10 God of War (2005)
God of War is an action-adventure series based on Greek mythology. Players take on a series of story-based revenge missions as Kratos, a Spartan warrior and demigod. The majority of the game play is comparatively inoffensive. While the game is somewhat violent and the focus is on vengeance, players also use problem solving to move the story forward.
There has been one major controversy in the series, around a specific trophy in God of War: Ascension, the series' prequel game. At one point, Kratos earns a trophy for winning a battle – a common event in the game. However, this particular trophy was named “Bros Before Hos,” and was awarded for brutally beating up a female character, Fury. The name and triggering event were deemed offensive and misogynist, and fan anger prompted the game creators to release a patch which changed the name to “Bros Before Foes."
9 Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009)
Call of Duty is an immensely popular franchise with a multitude of first person shooter games within it. While all the games have come up against some murmurings of disapproval for violent and graphic content, one in particular caused outrage because of one specific mission. For the most part, COD missions are set within realistic war environments, and targets for the player are enemy soldiers. However, in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a mission called "No Russian" was included, where the player is deep undercover with Russian ultra-nationalist terrorists. The group enacts a massacre in an airport.
The controversial issue was that although the mission does not require the player to kill civilians, it allows it. Where killing the “enemy” is generally deemed acceptable, the disturbing mission where civilians are being shot as they scream and run crossed the line. Although the level can be skipped, it was removed entirely from the release in Russia, and the game was modified elsewhere to give players a "game over" if they killed a civilian.
8 Custer’s Revenge (1982)
Also called Westward Ho and The White Man Came, Custer’s Revenge was never intended for sale to children. Marketed specifically toward adults, the entire premise of the game is to control a nearly-naked Custer (wearing only his boots, bandana and hat) as he attempts to overcome obstacles in order to rape a Native American “maiden,” usually tied to a pole, tree, or cactus. This wasn’t a side plot or a secret mission — the entire game centers around raping a woman.
Unsurprisingly, the game caused outrage, especially among women’s rights groups and Native American groups. The game was blamed for causing Native American women to be raped (although a direct link was never proven), and came under so much fire that it was quickly pulled from shelves.
7 Ethnic Cleansing (2002)
The title really says everything you need to know about this first person shooter, which was (of course) developed by white supremacists. Created by the National Alliance and Resistance Records (a record label specializing in neo-Nazi and white separatist musicians), the game revolves around shooting minorities. The player (who can choose to play as a Klansman or a Skinhead) kills Latino and black characters in the “ghetto," Jews in the subway, and finishes off with the “big boss” – former Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon.
The game obviously led to outrage for being explicitly racist (given that that is the point of the game), and was attacked by various anti-racism and anti-Semitism groups. The Anti-Defamation League lobbied Genesis developers to ban the use of the system to develop racist games after this release, but were unsuccessful.
6 Man Hunt (2004)
This horror-survival game has the player take on the role of a death-row inmate who is captured by a sinister man called the Director. The Director takes him to a series of locations, where the player must find ways to kill various enemies in order to survive. Stars are awarded in each level, based on the brutality of the execution. The game is graphically violent, and encourages the player to use readily available objects (blades, plastic bags, baseball bats) to commit murder.
Controversial for its extreme violence, there were calls for the game to be banned, and reports that even the employees of Rockstar Games (more on them later) were uncomfortable with the level of violence. This controversy peaked in the UK, when the murder of 14 year old Stefan Pakeerah by his 17 year old friend was connected to the game. A judge later found that the game was not a contributing factor in the murder, but the damage was already done, with some retailers pulling the game from shelves.
5 Death Race (1976)
Based on the cult film Death Race 2000, Death Race was one of the first truly controversial video games. A two-player arcade game, the purpose of the game was to use a steering wheel and accelerator to navigate the screen and run down “gremlins.” Tombstones would pop up when a “gremlin” was hit.
The controversy surrounding the game was based primarily on the fact that the “gremlins” looked suspiciously like stick figure humans (graphics being very simple at the time). The working title for the game was also “Pedestrians,” and the game was festooned with skeletons. 60 Minutes did a piece on the violent game, and the National Safety Council called it “sick and morbid.” Other major media outlets followed suit, but this just served to increase the game’s popularity and recognition.
4 Night Trap (1992)
An interactive movie game based on schlocky horror flicks, Night Trap became embroiled in the same scandal as the likes of Mortal Kombat and Doom, making it one of the games to inspire a ratings system for video games in the '90s. The basic premise of the game is that a group of scantily clad young women are in a house together and are being pursued by Augers (sci-fi vampire types) who are out to get them. The player, by activating traps, must save the girls.
It’s a relatively mild premise, given that the point of the game is to prevent the characters from being hurt, but the game was still described as “shameful,” “sick,” and “disgusting” in a Senate Committee hearing on violent video games. The combination of B-movie horror and half-naked girls clearly overshadowed the lack of any actual gore, and Night Trap became known as one of the most violent games of the ‘90s.
3 Doom (1993)
The game that put first person shooters on the map, Doom is credited with changing the entire video game industry. Although it wasn’t the first FPS made, it was definitely the first to achieve mainstream success, as the player navigates through labyrinthine levels, killing various zombies and demons with explicit, graphic violence and a an array of weaponry.
The game was condemned for its violent imagery and for putting the player in the shoes of a killer, but also for “satanic imagery.” Church groups spoke out against the game, and Germany even banned it in 1994 (the ban was only just lifted in 2011). Doom was also linked to the Columbine High School Massacre in 1999, as the teens responsible for the shootings were passionate Doom fans. In 2011, CNN named Doom the third most controversial video game of all time.
2 Mortal Kombat (1992)
One-on-one fighting games had been around for some time before Mortal Kombat appeared, but none were as bloody, brutal or violent. Mortal Kombat not only involved much more graphic violence and lashings of blood, but it debuted the now-famous "Fatality" move. At the end of a final match, the game would boom “Finish Him!” and the player was able to slaughter their opponent – ripping out hearts and chopping off heads.
Despite being somewhat tame by today’s standards, the game was shocking at the time, and caused outrage. The blood was later turned green to lower the realism, and the fatalities were edited (although not removed). Still, the changes weren’t enough to calm the outrage, and Mortal Kombat was one of the games that inspired the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board – a ratings system for video games.
1 Grand Theft Auto (1997 – present)
Grand Theft Auto (and its various spin offs and sequels) seems to be constantly at the center of legal battles and controversy. It’s not surprising, given that the entire purpose of the game is to rise through the ranks of the criminal underworld, usually through violent crimes, assassinations, and of course, stealing lots and lots of vehicles. The game is famous for allowing players to not just purchase and enjoy the services of prostitutes during gameplay, but to make it possible for players to then run down the prostitute, killing her and taking back their money. Players can also drive drunk, sell drugs, and torture people in the game.
The series has been banned in Brazil, and condemned in various countries, as well as by specific groups. MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), Common Sense Media, Freedom From Torture, and Haitian and Cuban anti-defamation groups have all taken issue with various elements of the games. Grand Theft Auto (or, more accurately, creators Rockstar Games) has been sued repeatedly for being responsible for inspiring teens to kill and holds the record for Most Controversial Video Game Series In History according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Did we miss any of your controversial favorites? Let us know in the comments below.