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Controversial Games

Some games push all the wrong buttons. Check out this rundown of gaming's biggest offenders.

From the very beginning, video gaming has managed to stir up controversy. Exidy's 1976 arcade game Death Race raised the ire of the National Safety Council by rewarding players for running over gremlins. The 1982 Atari 2600 game Custer's Revenge angered women's rights groups for its tasteless depiction of non-consensual intercourse. Regardless of whether or not you happen to believe that video games are a valid form of artistic expression, you can't argue with their ability to tick people off.

And over the past 15 years, they've gotten really, really good at doing just that. So grab your picket sign and get ready to march as we look at some of gaming's most controversial games.

Night Trap

(1992: Sega CD)

If it weren't for controversy (and the fact that it starred ill-fated actress Dana Plato), this throwaway Sega CD game would have drifted into obscurity as merely another failed attempt at marrying gameplay with live-action video. But from the moment legislators caught wind of its premise -- young co-eds being hunted by vampires in a deadly house -- it became a touchstone of media tolerance and censorship. Senate hearings led by Joseph Lieberman called the game's content "sick" and "shameful," and while they inaccurately claimed that players were encouraged to trap and kill the unfortunate starlets (players were actually trying to trap the vampires, duh), the damage was done as the game was quickly yanked from retail shelves. The nail in the coffin? Damning testimony by none other than Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan. Ouch.

Mortal Kombat

(1992: Arcade)

Don't let the bad grammar fool you: Midway knew exactly what it was doing when it unleashed this brutal challenger to Capcom's coin-op champ Street Fighter back in 1992. Thanks to incredibly lifelike graphics made possible through digitizing human actors, Mortal Kombat quickly became a breakout hit, but its sheer brutality and chilling "Fatalities" made it an easy target for anti-violence crusaders. Along with Night Trap, Mortal Kombat was singled out as a prime example of inexcusable game violence during heated Congressional hearings in 1993, the result of which led to the formation of the ESRB ratings system. Not a flawless victory.


(1993: PC)

When fledgling developer id Software cobbled together the landmark Martian monster mash Doom back in 1993, they were simply building on the success of their previous game, Wolfenstein 3D. But Doom took off like a bat out of you-know-where, quickly becoming the most downloaded PC shareware program of the era. Its initial release prompted outcry from various religious groups for its violence and satanic imagery, but none of that would compare to the flood of criticism following the tragic 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. Once word spread that perpetrators Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were fans of the game, including a wildly disseminated rumor that they used it to design levels based on the school's layout (since proven to be untrue), lawmakers and activists labeled the game a murder simulator and several victims' families filed lawsuits against the film and video game industries, which were eventually dismissed.


(1996: PC)

Before Rockstar was scalded by Hot Coffee, sim developer Maxis was burned by Hot Guys In Speedos. Upset with what he considered unfair working conditions (i.e. too many hours, not enough margaritas), a SimCopter programmer named Jacques Servin decided to play a bit of a prank by making a few alterations to the game code just before it shipped: on certain dates, scads of shirtless male sprites (dubbed "himbos") would gather in great numbers to hug and kiss. When word of the unauthorized code leaked, sales skyrocketed and Servin was summarily fired. Where's the love?


(1997: PC)

You have to hand it to Running with Scissors and now-defunct publisher Ripcord Games - they knew how to drive people crazy. For instance, call your ultra-violent action game "Postal," a term coined after a series of homicides by disgruntled U.S. Postal employees during the '80s and '90s. Though the game's cartoonish graphics and disconnected isometric viewpoint made light of its insidious undertones, no one was laughing - especially not the U.S. Postal Service, who promptly sued the pants off the developers for trademark infringement. Though Running With Scissors have somehow managed to crank out a few sequels and even a feature film, the Postal series has remained an example of shock over substance.

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Posted: 17 Sep 2007

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