Video gaming has been around since the earliest days of computer systems, but since the 1980s, it has become a de facto part of the daily experience for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Smartphones and cloud-based gaming have continued to revolutionize the industry’s access to new gamers. Many great debates have been waged in the halls of political power over the costs and benefits that video games bring to our lives.
The following is a list of fifteen video games that existed or continue to exist at the fore of some of the most controversial discussions involving the industry, tackling everything from claims of Satanism in video games to concerns over depicted violence being a cause for actual violence, to deeply ingrained issues of civil rights, economic inequality, and corporate greed.
Through this list, it’s possible to see how video games are not merely a way to relax and waste some time, nor an art form for its own sake deprived of the interests of capital, but a deeply complex topic that intertwines with so many pressing social issues at work in the world today.
Note that a few of the gameplay images below display blood and violence in order to demonstrate the controversial aspect of certain games.
The Fallout franchise was one of the best 2D games in existence, and it became one of the best 3D games in existence with Bethesda’s 2008 release of Fallout 3. Since then, the Fallout games have had some hits and some misses, but thanks to a great modding community, the games have never lost their appeal. Traversing the alternate reality wasteland of post-WWIII America, with its delightfully bizarre 1940s aesthetic, has fired the imagination of fans for years. So what, then, could go wrong with an addition to the series meant to bring players together into a single MMO experience? Everything, as it turns out.
What makes Fallout 76 so controversial?
Upon release, Fallout 76 was not merely a buggy and glitch-filled extravaganza—it was boring. It lacked all the features that players liked about the series's previous games, like the character interactions and the quests. It felt like a weird bare-bones beta of a game designed primarily to give players space to “grind” their time into the creation of 3D settlements or in hunting one another across a somewhat generic map. And the game couldn’t even handle these things well, with frequent server crashes angering players who had spent a fair bit of money to purchase what they had assumed would be a working game.
But, as with so many other games on this list, the real trouble began when someone in the upper levels of the corporate hierarchy decided that Fallout 76 should get the microtransaction and pay-to-win treatment that had recently killed so many other potentially great games. Of course, it looks great on paper from a business angle: monetize the gamers and use them to fuel your CEO salary. This has, in practice, not proved so economical after all.
After massive fan outrage from the bugs and glitches, renewed outrage grew over charged features of the game, which allowed players to spend real-world money to buy in-game items. This led to a literal e-class war, where hoards of players who refused to pay real money for an in-game boost, but who felt it was unfair that others could literally pay to jump to the head of the line, spent their in-game hours systematically hunting down and killing the characters of anyone who paid for enhanced features.
All of this is pretty ironic for a video game series that is steeped in class-conscious humor and a dark satirical vision of why capitalism-run-rampant is never a good idea. Sadly, it also means that Fallout 76, despite the eventual addition of NPCs, quests, and stable servers, remains a game that sure to be enjoyed mostly only by those who have the real-world privilege to make it worthwhile.
BioWare has had a rough few years. The company is responsible for some of the best games in the RPG category to ever be released. Its last two major releases, Anthem and Mass Effect: Andromeda proved to be unmitigated disasters for the studio. The Mass Effect series encountered its own fair share of problems, especially with regards to Mass Effect 3, which originally contained an extremely lackluster ending that let long-time fans down. But Andromeda was supposed to be a new hot take on the universe, a chance to get back to one of the things that Mass Effect was originally supposed to be all about: exploring alien environments. With an original concept featuring a massive storyline and deep character interactions spread across a procedurally generated galaxy of the hundreds of visitable planets, Andromeda was surely the most ambitious game concept in some time.
What makes Andromeda so controversial?
In a superb article on Kotaku by Jason Schreier, he mentioned that someone who worked on the game said the following, with regards to the thinking the team had when they first set out: “Lots of people were like, ‘Hey, we never fully tapped the potential of the first Mass Effect. We figured out the combat, which is awesome. We figured out the narrative. Let’s focus on bringing back exploration.’”
To my mind, the danger that lies ahead exists right here in the heart of this quote. “We figured it out.” The Mass Effect games did so well because the story was great, the characters felt real, and the interactions and choices that the player made felt real. That was one of the most thrilling things about ME3’s “Indoctrination Theory” that got tossed around (spoilers there, so don’t look it up if you have yet to finish the first three games). With Andromeda, not only was a new team being placed in charge of the game, they were high off of the success of the previous games and thought they had it all under control. As it happened, they did not.
Pressure from EA started things off on a bad foot, too (EA, as you’ll notice from this list, is one of the major reasons games end up with problems). EA demanded that BioWare use the Frostbite game engine to create Andromeda, which the powerful engine was not prepared for.
Designed to run shooter games, Frostbite couldn’t handle the mechanics of an RPG, and BioWare needed to spend their first months coding it all themselves. Then stresses got worse, many key people left, and mismanagement occurred. The result was that almost all the early work on the actual game needed to be scrapped, and the lackluster result was due to eighteen months of extreme overwork and terrible pressure on the design teams.
Big studios coming in to demand things of the designers rarely comes with a happy ending, and sadly Andromeda was added to the list of games that EAs involvement has managed to break.
For a game series as relatively innocuous as this one, as well as one so well-established, it came as a bit of a surprise to everyone when it started getting a huge surge of online complaints from fans. A wrestling game that caters to all the things wrestling fans love, this one managed to upset just about everyone and prove that even established series can fail on the open market.
What makes WWWE 2K20 so controversial?
In the last decade, a culture of “early release” games has saturated the market with games that are basically beta-builds (or even alpha-builds). For small, indie studios, buying into these games means enhancing the potential that their teams will be able to complete work on them and release versions that an active gaming core has heavily tested. But this culture has also allowed major studios to slip with their offerings, allowing them to slip in substandard games amid a cloud of occlusion. Rushed out before its time, WWWE2K20 managed to be one of the buggiest, glitchiest games ever, with several fans reporting that they had even received refunds from Sony after complaining about the lackluster state of the game. Clearly a reminder to studios that it’s better to spend a few extra months polishing things than to release a game at full price that feels like something still in development.
Battlefront 2 is a confusing name for a game that’s technically the fourth in the series. A game named Battlefront 2 was originally released in 2005 to massive critical, commercial, and game-community success. In fact, the game remains popular today despite being over fifteen years old. But, after The Force Awakens proved a renewed cash cow for Star Wars merchandise, the notorious game company Electronic Arts (EA) slapped together a lackluster and fan-hated reboot of the Battlefront series. The rebooted Battlefront might have been a total flop, but Battlefront II proved to be a whole new can of worms.
An MMO (massively multiplayer online game), Battlefront II delivers a 3rd or 1st person combat experience across several Star Wars-themed locations. Players control a character with different weapons and abilities and fight in battles against other players from different Star Wars factions. The concept isn’t remotely new, but the game type remains one of the most popular around.
What makes Battlefront II so controversial?
It all started with EA tried to monetize their game at the expense (quite literally) of their players. Micro-transactions and in-game purchases have been proved as a powerful method of generating financial stability for a game company, look at early popular examples like EVE-Online or World of Warcraft, but Battlefront II entered a whole new field when the anti-gambling authority of Belgium stepped in and launched an investigation into the studio’s practice of creating a “pay to win” environment.
Jimmy Pitaro, Disney’s head of consumer products and interactive media, got involved.
Before Belgium, players and critics had been up in arms with limited success; EA, knowing they could Public Relations their way to eventual success, met honest customer complaints with a volley of marketing-speak and PR flash grenades, likely hoping to get away with things in the end. But the Belgium investigation changed everything. After that, Hawaii launched its own investigation, and the argument got reframed as “EA and Disney promote gambling to minors.”
Eventually, Jimmy Pitaro, Disney’s head of consumer products and interactive media, got involved, and EA dropped the Loot Box feature that functioned like a gambling mechanic. It was not the first ethical and legal issue around the monetization of video games to emerge, nor will it be the last. Still, it was an important landmark event in that arena that suggests that corporate desires to turn players into hamsters on a wheel might be a little harder than previously thought.
Before E3 in June of 2017, BioWare staff received promotional T-shirts for the studio's latest game: Beyond. By the time E3 arrived, the name had changed to Anthem, a backup name that basically held no real connection to the game. Whereas Beyond was meant to indicate the gameplay's primary focus, exploring a vast open-world continent beyond the safe limits of a colony’s walls, Anthem meant comparatively little. Was this just the tip of the iceberg for BioWare’s massive online cooperative shooter? Unfortunately, no.
What makes Anthem so controversial?
Unlike some of the other games on this list, Anthem isn’t filled with excessive blood, gore, or sexual themes. Anthem makes this list for two important reasons: it was released in an incredibly buggy state (and still has the lowest rating of any BioWare video game, even Mass Effect Andromeda). But the second and more insidious reason is what it represents: a game studio culture of extreme stress, overwork, profit-based mismanagement, and an emphasis on money-making features above and beyond actually producing art.
Throughout Anthem’s development, team members faced constant stress and panic attacks, many being forced to outright leave due to doctor-mandated “stress breaks,” with some never to return. This dark underbelly of game design, which has always struggled to balance art and designer-wellbeing with the corporate-level desire to make as much money as fast as possible, is not limited to BioWare and Anthem, either. Sadly, this is a story that has been repeated across the decades and one that will need some serious restructuring of the entire industry before things can begin to change.
Now we’re going to spin a bit away from violence in video games in order to discuss one of the most pressing problems with the intersection of capitalism and video games: micro-transactions.
Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled was a graphically gorgeous reboot of the Playstation 1 classic kart racing game, heralded by critics as a beautiful and faithful rejuvenation. However, the inclusion of micro-transactions, when the developers had explicitly said that there would never be any micro-transactions, made a pretty big wave not long after release.
What makes Crash Team Racing so controversial?
Micro-transactions in video games are nothing new, but they are one of the most insidious aspects of the gaming industry, allowing developers to rake in massive amounts of money for things as benign as new targeting reticles in shooter games or, in the case of Crash Team, new character skins. The basic premise is: pay real-world money to get ahead in the game.
Crash Team managed to remain successful despite the controversy. However, the publisher Activision still severely damaged fans’ trust and renewed the discussion about the implications of making players constantly pay for game features post-release and encouraging players to one-up each other by buying into better in-game bonuses using real-world money.
It’s not surprising that a game intentionally designed to be a reaction to “political correctness” would make this list. The developer said they wanted to make a game that would actively eschew politeness and the idea of video games as art. Jarosław Zieliński, CEO of the studio, said: "I don’t want to justify anything. I want the player to ask: why."
What makes Hatred so controversial?
The game's whole point is to take the character on a joyless killing spree throughout New York City, violently massacring anyone and everyone possible. It’s pretty twisted, and the game's supporters routinely vibe with the worst elements of the Gamergate crisis (again, not unexpectedly). Plus, the gameplay was cited by critics as being pretty poor, so it didn’t even manage to be a good game in the most technical possible sense. The voice actor who lent their voice to the main character clearly understood what they were getting into, too, because they only agreed to work under a pseudonym to avoid their real identity being attached to the game. Thankfully, with the streaming service Twitch’s 2015 ban on all Adult-Only games, there’s a slightly smaller outreach for this creation.
Doom is, perhaps, one of the best-known videogames of all time and one of the first major shooters to take the world by storm. It’s also quite violent, with the player taking on all manner of ghoulish underworld demonic entities with the help of a select arsenal.
What makes Doom so controversial?
Another of the games that got pulled out for the 1993 Congressional hearings, Doom, played a much larger role in the wake of the tragic 1999 Columbine High School massacre due to the fact that the assailants were avid players of the game. In one of the killers’ troubling journals, repeated references to Doom were made, suggesting that killing people in real life would be just like playing Doom.
The game’s initial and perhaps most vocal assailants were not anti-violence activists, however. Still, certain religious groups pointed out the “satanic imagery” within the game.
Being able to murder people in various ways is nothing new for video games, but what if the depiction of those murders is hyper-realistic? In Manhunt, players take on the role of a character blackmailed into taking part in a “snuff film” where he must slaughter members of various gangs to keep his family alive. Ultimately his family is killed anyway, so it’s all rather horrible.
What makes Manhunt so controversial?
There was almost a mutiny at the studio designing the game because the designers were uncomfortable with the level of violence in the game. Employee Jeff Williams is quoted as saying that the game "just made us all feel icky. It was all about violence, and it was realistic violence. We all knew there was no way we could explain away that game. There was no way to rationalize it. We were crossing a line."
It gets worse. In 2004 a young British boy named Stefan Pakeerah was killed by his older friend who possessed a copy of the game and killed Pakeerah in a fashion similar to those used within the game. The police ultimately dismissed the connection though not everyone was convinced that the linkage was so mall. Rockstar Games, the studio responsible for the game, ironically stated in one breath that they didn’t believe that there was a link between games and violence while stating that the game should not be in the hands of minors.
The Call of Duty games are rife with simulated violence — that is, after all, the whole point of the series. Shoot enemy soldiers while they shoot at you. But in Modern Warfare 2, the game went to a whole new level (pun intended) with its depictions of violence, such that the offending scene from the game was ultimately cut from the Russian release version entirely. The game is cited as having helped open up the discussion on the role of violence in video games as interactive narratives.
What makes Modern Warfare 2 so controversial?
The “No Russian” level of the game lets players take on the role of a terrorist who opens fire into a civilian crowd and then wanders through the game environment hunting down survivors. It’s a brutal and vicious depiction of callousness and received plenty of condemnation upon release. Worse, this scene and the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games as a whole have been called a “training simulation” for terrorists with real-world linkages being found between the games and actual real-world terrorist attacks.
In Postal 2, the player can choose to have their character react to experiences in increasingly violent ways. Though the basic premise of the game is just the character “The Postal Dude” going about their day, it is the increasing violence that impacts the open world, dramatically affecting the state of that world as the game progresses and the acts of violence increase.
What makes Postal 2 so controversial?
The utterly repugnant levels of sexism are a good start, with casual violence against and hatred of women displayed throughout the game, but always under the guise of “dark comedy.” Animal violence, violence in general… this game has it all. The game has so much violence, in fact, that New Zealand not only banned the game, it made distribution or purchase for personal use a criminal offense punishable by up to ten years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
Night Trap, released in 1992, is actually an interactive movie released on Sega CD. In it, the player, acting as a special agent, must protect a house of scantily-clad teenage girls from a clan of vampire beings by watching them on video cameras and activating traps at specific times.
What makes Night Trap so controversial?
Not that much, as it turns out, but it still found itself caught up in the 1993 US Congressional hearings regarding violence in video games. The most controversial thing about this game is that it was cited as evidence against violence in video games during these hearings, despite its relatively cheesy grade-B schlock. Indeed, the chief figure in the hearings admitted that he had never even played the game, and his evidence came from out-of-context footage. Ironically, this lackluster attempt to understand the context of the game and the lack of violent content throughout (especially in comparison with Mortal Kombat) likely did more harm than good when it came to the discussion of allowing harmful acts to be carried out in games.
The Mortal Kombat franchise has long been at the core of violent video gaming and includes some of the most iconic video game characters ever made. It has taken extreme flack over the years for its unabashed promotion of extreme violence and sadism. All iterations of the franchise are arena combat games where characters face off using several attack and defense moves to beat each other into bloody pulps. But it was the “finisher moves” that really made Mortal Kombat infamous, where extreme gore effects would take place upon a character’s use of a “finishing move” against a defeated opponent.
What makes Mortal Kombat so controversial?
The United States Congress even held a hearing about the game that directly led to creating the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) in 1994. During these hearings, evidence was brought that showed that video games in general catered to violence, racism, and sexism. TIME in 2012 commented that "the reason the 1992 classic remains seminal is that it broke an implicit taboo about what was okay to put in a game."
Since then, Australia, Germany, and South Korea have all been leaders in banning or severely restricting the Mortal Kombat series from reaching gamers' hands. The series was also a major point in the 2005 attempt of US State California to ban the sale of violent video games to minors… a fight which the State lost to a Supreme Court ruling that upheld video games as qualifying for First Amendment protections. At the end of the day, it’s hard to argue with Mortal Kombat’s co-creator Ed Boon who said that he actually sympathized with the critics and wouldn’t want his own kid to play the games.
A video game set during an actual incursion by United States forces in the city of Fallujah in 2004, it used deep research in an attempt to capture the full realism of the conflict in a way that other combat simulation games never had before.
If it seems like an odd decision to create a video game set during a real-world ongoing conflict, based on events from an actual combat situation from that conflict, censor out some of the less-tasteful events, and generally turn real-life suffering and horror into a chance to try out a game engine which (in the words of the designing company’s president) “gives us more destructive capability than we've seen in any game”… well, it turns out you’d be right. The game went into a state of deep dormancy after its initial publisher dropped it, and its original studio went bankrupt. In 2021 it was resurrected, but it’s hard to say where the game will go from here.
What makes Six Days in Fallujah so controversial?
Aside from the iffy concept of pushing such a charged game during a politically-charged period of United States history, the game received criticism for censoring United States war crimes from its storyline, whitewashing the actual events of Fallujah and directly undermining its entire premise of showcasing a fully realistic experience of that battle.
Peter Tamte, who led the creation of the game originally (and is behind its 2021 resuscitation), tried to play off the criticisms by first saying, “this isn’t about politics, it’s about events on the ground,” but then, when confronted with problems inherent in the game’s lack of realism regarding US war crimes (such as the use of white phosphorous) he stated that he did not think there was a “need to portray the atrocities.” Ultimately, no matter how it’s done, this game is clearly a lose-lose proposition, though there may be enough real-world time in between the 2004 events for it to finally get made.
It’s honestly difficult to think of a video game series more infamous than GTA, given that it’s managed to be banned in multiple countries, with numerous attempts at banning or restricting the game continuing into 2021 (Chicago link). For many, these games are the moral equivalent of pro-violence training material, with the player base rewarded for undertaking increasingly violent and heinous acts against innocents. Furthermore, these games provide a platform of normalization for this violence in the real world, promoting “positive conversation” about violence and illegal acts between peers who play these games.
What makes GTA so controversial?
In Australia, GTA III was banned for its abysmal treatment of women and female characters, including the ability to solicit prostitutes in-game. The feature was removed at first but then re-added when the game was re-released in 2018 (though it did receive a higher rating than its original MA15+).
In Germany, four different incarnations of the GTA franchise have been banned at various times. All were banned specifically for their “gory violence.” These bans were lifted after censored versions of the games were released.
Fifty (yes, fifty) countries banned GTA Online when Rockstar games made plans to release an in-game casino where players could engage in gambling. Thailand, Venezuela, Pakistan, South Africa, and Argentina are among the countries that banned the game. This further spilled into the issue with microtransactions within video games, a hot-topic that brings several other games to the top of our list.
In the United States, there’s yet to be a successful ban, but in 2005, GTA San Andreas did get pulled from the shelves and reserved as “Adult Only” due to hidden content buried deep within the dev code that allowed for exceptionally graphic content to be viewed through a user-created modification.
Japan has long stood as one of the strictest countries when dealing with portrayals of violence in video games. GTA V could only be released thereafter, receiving a total makeover that removed almost all of the offending violent content, such as blood and gore effects.