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Video Game Violence: The Savage Se7en


Video games have been, and will continue to be, controversial. As times change, so does the definition of "too much." Often, what looked like brutal excess in 1992 looks as tame as a tiny widdle bunny wabbit in 2004. This is especially true for video games. As technology advances and graphics become more realistic, yesterday's digital depictions of violence, gore, and debauchery are about as offensive as kindergarten crayon drawings. In this day and age, does anyone think Mortal Kombat is really korrupting our children? And as "bad" as people think, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is, there's still plenty of envelope left to be pushed.

Let's take a trip back in time and revisit seven of the most "controversial" titles in video game history. While some of them may look silly now, all of the games on the list were big news at the time in both the gaming biz and American culture at large, either for their "disturbing depictions of violence" or their "questionable ethics and bad taste."

Running With Scissors ignited controversy with its Postal series (Postal 2 shown above), in which players were invited to go on killing sprees.

7. Postal

PC, 1997
This series is a perfect example of the power of hype and media coverage to completely and totally obscure whether a game is good or not. Conceived in an era when postal workers were the butt of every joke--not for being late all the time or getting bitten by dogs, but because they were known to go on mass killing sprees in the home office--the game rode a tidal wave of free publicity thanks to its allegedly extreme over-the-top-ness, once even landing on the front page of The Wall Street Journal as the anchor of a story about PC game violence. Indeed, players were encouraged to destroy everything in their path on a bloody rampage, mowing down innocents who'd spew lots of blood, but left out of the discussion was whether the game was any good or not. The answer: meh. When nobody really cared that Postal 2 was equally excessive, developer Running With Scissors recruited Gary Coleman to do some PR work for them. No Wall Street Journal front page that time. Go figure.

Headshots turned out to be the most merciful way you could dispatch enemies in SoF.

6. Soldier of Fortune

PC, 2000
Damage to specific parts of the body of an enemy was starting to become more widespread in games, but RavenSoftware took that to the next logical level in this first-person shooter. You could blow off arms, legs, heads, and cause gory explosions on any part of the swarming bad guys. Intestines drained out of stomachs, brain matter scattered from head shots, and you could continue to shoot the lumps of dead flesh till they were reduced to nothing but pulp. While Soldier of Fortune didn't create a huge media storm for its violence, it did mark a quiet turning point in how far this sort of violence could be taken. Gamers and developers could see that the gimmick of excess violence wears off quickly, and so bodily damage to this Nth degree is fairly rare nowadays.

The illustrious Dana Plato helped pave the way for both Mark Hamill's performance in Wing Commander 3 and the formation of the ESRB.

5. Night Trap

Sega CD, 1992
Back in the early 1990s, Sega had this crazy notion that the future of video games was full-motion video displayed in 64 colors in a little tiny eensy window. At the forefront of this "revolution" was a company called Digital Pictures, who specialized in taking washed-up actresses and even more washed-up extras to create "interactive movies" masquerading as video games. For some inexplicable reason, one of their games--Night Trap--found itself mentioned in the same breath as Mortal Kombat by Senators with names like Lieberman who were using it as a poster child for video gaming's total lack of morals. Why? All because a bunch of girls were walking around in conservative nightgowns in a horrible B-grade horror movie. Men wearing black panty hose on their heads would occasionally "attack" the girls or hang them upside down in a closet for dramatic effect, but there was nothing even remotely classifiable as nudity--and what "blood" there was looked a bit like chocolate fudge. Yet there Night Trap was, mentioned in the paper, on C-SPAN, and on the local news on an almost nightly basis. Believe it or not, this game is quite literally 50 percent responsible for the current ESRB ratings system.

The game that changed first-person shooters forever

4. Doom

PC, 1993
Blamed for everything from promoting devil worship to the tragic shootings at Columbine, Doom is still one of the key games critics target when discussing societal violence. Honestly, we're not entirely sure why. Sure, there are scores of demons, but that's because you're in Hell or somewhere similar that space marines have access to. You run around and activate doors, but for the most part you just shoot lots of pixelly brown and pink things. The game was more world-changing on the basic gameplay--the stunning new (at the time) world of 3D that Doom introduced raised the bar for immersion in games, and as a result Doom is an industroy icon. To this day, the basics of the game are still implemented in countless titles.

Controls were stiff and animations stiffer, but damn if we didn't keep playing until we saw all the fatalities.

3. Mortal Kombat

Arcade, 1992
Mortal Kombat (a.k.a. the mother of all game controversies) is the fatality that sparked a Congressional hearing and the secret blood code that shifted power in the 16-bit generation. It's easy to see why the game caused so much attention, what with the use of realistic, digitized human fighters and new levels of heretofore unseen carnage--ripping out spinal cords, decapitations by uppercut, that sort of thing. Never mind that it's all the comical look or the fact that it was damn hard for the average person to actually pull off said "fatalities." Mortal Kombat spawned a couple me-too clones, including a fighting game called Time Killers (awful, but it introduced us all to "limb removal" as a gameplay element), but fatalities haven't really become a mainstay in games. The most lasting legacy of MK was the birth of the rating system that became known as the ESRB rating.

To grandmother's house we go?

2. Manhunt

PS2, Xbox, PC 2004
Banned in New Zealand and blamed for a murder in the UK, Manhunt is the current scourge of the video game world. Thanks to Moore's Law we've come leaps and bounds from Night Trap's laughably un-scary pixilation, and now live in an age where gory murders are rendered with terrifying precision. Manhunt's premise is thus: You play an escaped convict who is mysteriously freed from death row and tasked with creating snuff films for your psychotic benefactor. Unmatched in brutish repugnance, Manhunt gives modern-day censors all the ammunition they need to shock and awe the public into moral outrage. After all, the use of ever-more-gruesome torture and killing as entertainment is "likely to be injurious to the public good," as the Kiwis put it. Manhunt makes Mortal Kombat's fatalities look like child's play.

Time to stick it to the Man!

1. Grand Theft Auto III

PS2, 2001
No, it wasn't a sequel to the campy Ron Howard film from 1977 (his directorial debut, if you can believe it!). Grand Theft Auto III did more than just set off a shit-storm of controversy. It also fundamentally changed the level of interactivity players expected from their game world. Everyone from The Simpsons to Tony Hawk, not to mention such transparent fakers as True Crime, tried their hand at replicating GTA III's patented "free-roaming" gameplay. But what the public mainly noticed was that Rockstar was leading millions of children into a moral sewer of lurid crime and lawlessness. After all, it was telling kids that prostitution was life-renewing and carjacking was much cooler than riding the bus. Few games in history have been as lauded/reviled as Grand Theft Auto III.