Censorship with media tends not to be worthwhile. In the short run, unless you have an absolutely monolithic political machine, you often open yourself up to the Streisand Effect. Long-term, things usually get released anyway. So it's often a wonder why governments do it at all; ideas permeate from even a single failure and, in ostensibly free nations, you risk your legitimacy by engaging in activity that could be considered authoritarian.
This is particularly true for video games, as the justifications countries use to halt dissemination are often so wide-reaching. You’ll hear a country say something is too violent, sexually explicit, or otherwise subversive for consumption, and yet it’s hard to pin down exactly where that line lies. Still, sometimes a nation’s censors know exactly what they’re doing and exactly why they’re doing it, and, the more specific you get, the weirder things become.
In this list, we’re going to be looking at 15 games governments really don’t want you to play. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill blood and guts. Each of these games did something to infuriate, disgust, and perhaps even scare governments around the world, leading to some very unique bans by governments both aggressive and not so aggressive -- and maybe some incentive for you to try them out yourself.
If you're still itching for controversy, check out our take on the best and worst controversial games.
When Pokémon was first released, a lot of groups took issue with its use of “evolution” mechanics, even though the game didn't worry too much about making sense. Even despite getting a papal thumbs up in 2001, many fundamentalists in the United States and abroad have claimed that the game is subverting children’s minds into believing an evil secularist agenda. Saudi Arabia, however, might be the only one to claim it’s pushing Zionism.
The Saudi government made an official announcement in the wake of the game’s release, banning it for public consumption under the pretense of Jewish mind control. That’s right folks, Pikachu wants you...to support Israeli supremacy. Even though Saudi Arabia has relaxed its controls on the franchise over the ensuing years, it reinstated them once again following the explosive popularity of Pokémon Go. You can just never please some people, though Go does provide multiple reasons to be displeased.
Brazil is no stranger to having...let’s call it finicky censorship laws. They banned Bully, only to let it be released on Steam. They banned Counter-Strike, until they didn’t. But one really odd ban came from a ruling one judge gave against EverQuest, meant to protect citizens. What could have possibly led the judge to feel such a strong need to protect the country? Underground gambling rings? Sexually explicit mods? Hyper-violence?
No, the judge just didn’t think you could handle making basic moral choices. At least, not without developing psychosis. In his own words, because the quests “may be good or bad” the game “takes the player to total nonsense and heavy (psychological) conflicts.” I’m starting to get the feeling Brazil, or at least this judge, doesn’t think too well of its gaming populace.
If there’s one major country you don’t want to be in as a gamer, it’s probably Australia. China might get up in arms at the mention of Tibet -- as you’ll see later -- and the US might get squeamish about male genitals, but the slightest whiff of violence or sexuality is justification for a refused rating in Australia.
So while Getting Up being banned might seem like just run-of-the-mill Aussie prudishness, the reasoning behind it is anything but ordinary. While the game has violence and language typical of a mature game, the decision against it was considered by many, including the game’s creators, to have been because of a asserted glorification of street art. Whether or not you buy the idea that street art is a legitimate form of expression, the fact that its inclusion rendered it unsuitable for consumption, according to the courts, continues to be a point of contention.
Iran isn’t exactly known for the freedoms it affords its citizens. Political and religious dissenters face heavy marginalization and it ranks among the lowest on many indexes cataloging various human rights abuses. So when Iran decided Battlefield 3 didn’t make the cut, few people were surprised. What is surprising is just how much the Iranian government hates it.
For context, Battlefield 3 has a story involving a US invasion of Tehran. While the Battlefield series has taken players to a number of exotic locales in its 15-year history, DICE seems to have a knack for annoying whatever country they portray—they would annoy China for a perceived “cultural invasion” one entry later. Picking the right time and location for a shooter is always a challenge, but Iran took unusual offense to the game; they didn't just ban the game, they also implemented strict anti-piracy measures to ensure no-one played the game. Unlike many of the other entries on our list, it seems like a lot of Iranian gamers supported the decision.
Speaking of China, a great example of the authoritarian superpower’s severe reaction to alleged threats to its territorial sovereignty comes in their clash with the Hearts of Iron series. Paradox Interactive’s World War II simulator already took great pains to balance historical accuracy and the potentially unreasonable demands of countries involved -- such as censoring the name “Hitler” and refusing to display swastikas -- but China took things a bit too far.
The first two entries were definitively banned in the country for displaying Manchuria under Japanese occupation (it was) and Tibet as an autonomous country (it also was) at the onset of WWII. Sporadic reports suggest that this extended to third entry, but government censorship of media and the internet makes a definitive answer difficult. In all this time, Paradox refused to make the jump into historical inaccuracy, even if that meant cutting off a key market. Surprisingly, the most recent fourth entry appears relatively unscathed and freely distributed -- for now.
Of course, Paradox isn’t the only developer forced to contend with Germany’s pervasive censorship laws regarding Nazism. One of the earliest examples of a game banned for their use of Nazi symbolism was Wolfenstein 3D. Nevermind that the game is about killing Nazis, the simple inclusion of swastikas at all made it ineligible for sale according to the German government. The laws are so draconian, in fact, that, until 2007, anti-fascist symbols such as crossed-out or fist-smashed swastikas were subject to the same restrictions -- up to and including arrest.
While subsequent titles, such as The New Order and The Old Blood, have created specifically German-tailored alternatives, the worldwide releases of both titles are still banned, despite retaining the anti-Nazi sentiment inherent from the series’ inception. While the intent is surely in the right place, maybe a little context would benefit German law.
Nobody’s going to argue that energy drinks are good for your health. Not only are they packed with enough caffeine to wreak havoc on your sleep schedule, but one of the main ingredients, guarana, is known to cause such severe reactions as heart disorders. People susceptible to heart conditions or who are allergic can even die. But is the product really so bad that it’s mere mention is worth banning a game?
Denmark seems to think so because that’s exactly what they did to EA Sports MMA. Admittedly, the game did a little more than “mention” energy drinks, but the in-game advertisements are typical of MMA matches on television. Why was there such a visceral reaction to a seemingly innocuous inclusion and, further, why are video games the main target? Maybe it had something to do with a recent pledge it and two other European nations took to fight energy drink production. Only the Danish parliament knows for sure.
The USA is a surprisingly difficult place to outright ban a game. Despite a storied history of book-burnings and the near-constant presence of film censorship, video games are almost universally subject only to the ESRB -- a self-regulatory organization not directly subservient to the government. One thing that will get your game banned -- and not just banned, but entirely erased from existence -- is threatening a corporation’s livelihood, particularly in the form of copyright infringement.
That was the harsh lesson learned by Silicon Knights in a breach of contract dispute with Epic Games over Too Human. Silicon Knights sued Epic, arguing they didn’t provide the services they agreed upon. Epic counter-sued, claiming Silicon Knights owed them royalties. Epic won the corporation throwdown and the judge presiding over the case issued a decree that Too Human was to be recalled, all copies destroyed, and removed from the means distribution -- even digital. Perhaps a bit of an overkill?
The United Arab Emirates, like many Middle Eastern nations, takes cultural considerations into account in their censorship practices. It is somewhat unusual in that it often does not explain why media has been banned from the country, leaving many to question for what reason a film, book, or game was denied release. This is particularly true for video games, which are often subject to harsher regulations than their media counterparts in many parts of the world.
Spec Ops: The Line gives an authoritarian government numerous reasons for banning, including execution-style killing of helpless NPCs and the murder of civilians. But the UAE made a point to establish the reason for the game’s banning -- portraying a war-ravaged Dubai -- and even actively led a successful campaign to get the game banned in the surrounding Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Now that’s a vendetta!
The federalism inherent in the Mexican government makes this entry somewhat different from the rest of the list, in that it allowed for a partial ban of Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2. That ban extended to the state of Chihuahua, spanning the middle of the United States Southern border; Chihuahua, known as a hotbed of gang violence in its titular city and particularly the city of Juárez, was portrayed in the game as the center of conflict for Mexican rebels.
The choice to ban the game specifically in Chihuahua might be seen as somewhat confusing, considering that GRAW2 actually has the player support the Mexican army. However, the call came from the governor of Chihuahua specifically, who himself was under pressure by the mayor of Juárez, in an effort to correct the state’s image abroad.
Another country very particular about the image it cultivates is South Korea. As the Korean War never officially ended and, especially because tensions have been on the rise due to North Korean nuclear showmanship, South Korea has been precise with media that deals with territorial sovereignty. Homefront was a perfect storm of Korean political catastrophe.
Much of the foreign policy South Korea maintained in the 21st century either was the so-called Sunshine policy of non-interference in North affairs or influenced by it. Homefront presented an image of a unified Korea (strike 1), under Northern rule (strike 2), that has the military power to attack the US (you’re out!). Rightfully, South Korea foresaw its use as a propaganda tool for the North. What’s more contentious is the complete ban it received. Smart policy move or overreaction?
The controversy surrounding Fallout 3 is often better remembered for the widespread contempt it earned due to in-game drug use. Interestingly, the main complaint of most governments and watchdog organizations was not the fact that the game used drugs, but rather that it named one of the drugs morphine and was thereby encouraging its use (the game has addiction mechanics that give significant debuffs, though this was often omitted reported).
Though Japan also jumped on the censorship bandwagon, it had a much more topical issue: the many, many references to atomic bombs. Since atomic destruction is at the heart of the Fallout series, it was impossible to create a Japanese version that completely edited this out, so the Japanese censors settled for two major changes: an alteration to the in-game weapon titled “Fat Man” (a reference to one of the bombs dropped on Japan in WWII) and a mission in which you can destroy a town in-game with a nuclear bomb.
New Zealand is often unremarkable in its video game censorship, perhaps owing to its close proximity and ties to the censor-happy Australia. So it’s a rare sight for a game to get harsher treatment in New Zealand than Australia, just as was the case with Reservoir Dogs. But, since Australia already gave the game the proverbial axe, what could possibly be worse?
Citing the game’s encouragement of “extreme violence and extreme cruelty,” New Zealand not only made the game illegal to purchase, but also illegal to possess or import -- a common way to skirt consumer restrictions. What’s even weirder is that the film the game is based on, which any Tarantino fan knows is chock full of violence, is completely legal to watch and own. Another example of double standards?
Of the countries in Eastern Asia, Singapore is the highest in Human Development Index -- fifth highest in the world. One thing that hasn’t quite caught up with their advanced development is their social policies, ranking among the lowest on qualities such as press freedom and limited civil liberties. Remarkably, this usually hasn’t translated to video game censorship, with very few outright bans. Mass Effect was one of the few exceptions, on somewhat peculiar grounds: lesbianism.
This may seem somewhat surprising in a country that prides itself on religious diversity and which, in general, is much more lenient on lesbianism than homosexual male relationships (the former is legal while the latter is not), but overall the country largely supports such measures. Still, the relative mildness of the game’s content -- no other country in the world banned it -- led to some confusion and frustration within the Singaporean gaming community. Ultimately, the country relented, but not until massive censorship reform and still justified it under trying to preserve the "family." Gay or not, video games don't always meld well with that.
While many countries have taken drastic measures to curtail video game distribution, or have long histories of censorship, never has there been a more incredible overnight limitation as Venezuela’s 2010 bill to ban all violent games. The bill, originally intended to target gun violence in video games, was ostensibly a governmental measure with the purpose of minimizing Venezuela’s rampant violence. The situation has gotten so bad, the country’s capital became the world’s most dangerous city last year.
In reality, the Venezuelan government simply continued in a long tradition of failed policies aimed at mitigating the country’s domestic problems; this time, they just did it in a much more reactionary way. Beyond the obvious dilemma this brings up in regarding civil liberties, there’s a looming specter of the now-deceased Hugo Chavez’s possible reasoning behind the measure, as he’s the one who pushed it: online satire in which he’s the target. What is it with tin pot tyrants having thin skin?