If there’s one thing video games have a long-running relationship with, it’s censorship. Ever since the days of old arcade games, censorship has been a hot-button issue in the video gaming world. The fire of controversy in games is usually lit by adult content such as intense violence, graphic adult themes, unsavory themes or depictions of criminal activity such as gambling, drinking, use or even trafficking of narcotics, and so forth, and the effects these have on society and the youth in particular. Of course, you’ll see a lot of examples of these reasons on this list, but there are less immediately obvious reasons a game can get banned or even voluntarily pulled from the market. Some of them are just flat-out strange.
While gamers usually feel betrayed when developers decide to censor their games to remove controversial elements, the alternative of outright banning or state censorship is often worse. All over the world, video games have had government censorship crack down on them and have been pulled from retailers’ shelves when the controversy surrounding them proved too much. But whether censorship is justified or not, it’s fascinating to examine why games stir so much passion and disagreement in people, even to the point that the developers or the government of the country itself has to intervene.
While there have been many publicly divisive and edgy games over the years, here are 20 of the most controversial games that ended up being banned, pulled, or cancelled due to a storm of controversy, and why.
20. Custer’s Revenge
This entry is a serious contender for the worst game ever made. 1982’s Custer’s Revenge for the Atari 2600 has become synonymous with racist and offensive video games, quickly stirring controversy upon its release for its depiction of the sexual assault of a Native American woman. It was sold in a sealed package with the phrase, “NOT FOR SALE TO MINORS” emblazoned in huge letters, which should tell you something.
Women’s rights groups, Native American groups and spokespersons, and activists protested the game, and legislators actually outlawed it in Oklahoma City. Atari itself even tried to sue the game’s creators after receiving numerous complaints. Eventually, the game was pulled from the shelves, but the controversy and media attention caused it to sell over 80,000 copies.
19. Pakistan Army Retribution
An Android game based on the 2014 Peshawar massacre, it goes without saying that Pakistan Army Retribution is a first-person shooter. The game depicts the massacre, the deadliest terrorist attack in Pakistan’s history. After the Pakistani national anthem plays, the player goes through nine levels, shooting Taliban militants along the way.
While it’s easy to think of this game as another project by edgy kids on the internet like the countless “Columbine” shooting games, believe it or not, P.A.R. was conceived as part of the Peaceful Pakistan campaign. Commemorating the one-year anniversary of the massacre, the game was designed to teach school children that “the pen and the book” were the greatest weapons and to promote peace and tolerance in Pakistan. After bad reviews and criticism that the game was in poor taste, the developer apologized and the game was removed from the Google Play Store.
Often credited with popularizing the first-person shooter, Doom is easily one of the most popular and influential video games of all time. However, despite critical acclaim, it soon became notorious for its graphic violence, gore, and what some perceived to be satanic imagery, becoming one of the first games to be rated M for Mature. The first-person shooter format was criticized by many religious and advocacy groups for being a “mass murder simulator” and being too realistic in its depiction of killing.
Even after its initial release, Doom caused controversy again in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre after it was discovered the shooters were huge fans of the game. Both Doom and Doom 2 were banned in Germany upon release, and the ban was only lifted 17 years later in 2011 after it was decided the historical importance of the game outweighed any potential negative effects.
17. Survival Island 3
Another app game for IOS and Android platform, Survival Island 3 was a 3D first-person survival-action game where the fair-skinned player must shoot or beat Indigenous Australians to death in order to survive and earn points. Yeah, it’s every bit as racist as it sounds. It’s not made better by the warning that pops up telling players to “beware of Aborigines” or the fact that the Natives in the game are depicted with grass skirts, spears, and body paint.
Soon after it was published on the App Store and Google Play in December 2015, Survival Island 3 drew strong criticism and a petition circulated calling for the game to be removed, which went on to gather over 20,000 signatures in less than 24 hours, and 84,000 signatures in total. On January 16th, 2016, the game was removed from the Apple App Store and Google Play.
16. Rule Of Rose
Rule of Rose‘s brand of creepy survival horror may have been ahead of its time, but it was also criticized for its poor controls and mechanics. Getting your hands on a copy is not easy (they sell for around $200). Why is obtaining a copy of this Lord of the Flies-esque PS2 game so difficult? In a word: it’s one thing when you have implied sexuality and violence with adults in video games, but having children do it is a whole different matter. And in a game with a cast mostly consisting of female minors, the erotic undertones and violence didn’t fly with authorities.
Rule of Rose spurred debates on whether video games were corrupting the youth; it was banned in the UK less than one week after its release, and legal battles about it erupted in France, Australia, New Zealand, and Poland.
15. Playing History 2: Slave Trade
While at first this game might look like an offensive flash game, Playing History 2: Slave Trade is actually an educational game aimed at elementary and middle school children to teach them about the horrors of the slave trade. In it, you work as a young slave steward on a ship crossing the Atlantic. But the game attracted controversy for a puzzle segment in which you stack cartoon slaves inside the ship. Dubbed extremely insensitive by some people, the segment earned the game the unflattering title “Slave Tetris.”
As part of a series of educational games developed by Danish company Serious Games, Slave Trade didn’t spark controversy until it was added to Steam in 2013. Twitter users roasted the game and the outrage went viral all around the world. Eventually, the company removed the “Tetris” segment, claiming it was meant to highlight the brutality of slavery.
14. Silent Hill: Homecoming
While Homecoming raised little ruckus in the United States for its violence, it had difficulty getting past censors in other countries. The Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) refused to classify the game due to scenes involving body parts being drilled into and the bisection of a character, effectively banning the game. The German version was also rejected by censors, which forced the game to delay release until 2009, so cuts and edits could be made (eventually it got the highest age rating, or 18+, in both countries).
13. Postal 2
Every few years, a game comes along that pushes the boundaries of bad taste and becomes known as the most depraved and violent video game ever made. But none have pushed the envelope quite as much as the Postal series. With its graphic violence, racial stereotyping, cruelty to animals, dirty jokes, urination, homophobia, and pretty much every other offensive description that exists, the first-person shooter sandbox follows Postal Dude during his everyday activities, though you can also commit mass murder.
Postal 2 has been banned by many countries, including Sweden, Germany, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Australia. Distribution or possession for personal use is frequently punished by a hefty fine or even jail time. Nevertheless, the game has a huge cult following and they even released a film adaptation directed by Uwe Boll.
12. Six Days In Fallujah
In some ways, Six Days in Fallujah could be considered revolutionary: it was the first FPS to focus directly on the Iraq War. Apparently made by Konami at the request of the U.S. Marines who actually fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah over the span of six days in November of 2004, the aim was to create the most realistic military shooter possible. Six Days would feature a meticulously accurate in-game version of the city, real life Marines and their likenesses, and recreations of the events of the battle.
However, the idea became highly divisive, with some people objecting to the subject as inappropriate given that the true events depicted in the game were still recent and the war was still going on. In 2009, Konami backed down from publishing the game. Atomic Games announced that the game is finished and still coming out, but has no release date.
11. Mass Effect
Microsoft and BioWare’s sci-fi action role-playing game Mass Effect has enjoyed immense popularity for its expansive storyline of alien invasion, extensive dialogue trees, and, of course, numerous romance options. But not all countries share the positive view of the latter. Commander Shepard can be a male or female in the game, and romance options exist for a variety of characters of different genders and races. This didn’t sit well with countries with more conservative views on sexuality.
Mass Effect was banned in Singapore because of the possibility of homosexual (and specifically lesbian) and cross-species encounters between a female Shepard and the feminine Liara T’soni, though the ban was later lifted in favor of an M18 rating. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates still bans it for homosexuality, though the ban does not extend to digital versions for some reason.
10. Night Trap
While video games have a long and sordid history with politics and the law, not many games can brag they were the subject of an actual Senate hearing. The schlocky interactive game Night Trap was initially released in 1992 to mixed reviews, but became well-known after a 1993 U.S. Senate committee hearing on violent video games alongside titles like Mortal Kombat. Despite the fact that the goal of the game is to keep the scantily clad young women from being hurt by vampiric Augers, Night Trap’s combination of violence and sexuality rubbed Senators, among them Joe Lieberman, the wrong way.
Following the hearing, the Sega CD version was pulled from the shelves of Toys “R” Us and F.A.O. Schwarz, though Sega eventually completely pulled the game only to re-release it with new box art. Night Trap helped inspired the ESRB ratings system for video games still used today.
9. Manhunt 2
No surprise to see this one here – not just because it’s a Rockstar game, and a survival-horror one at that, but because it’s a Manhunt game, that dives head-first into the dark world of snuff films. The Manhunt series follows a death row inmate who is captured by a mysterious man called the Director and brought to a place where he must kill in extremely brutal ways to survive. The murders themselves are shown in a hyper-realistic manner, with stars awarded for more graphically violent kills.
The second game in the series ramped up the gore and extreme violence even more, and was banned in Germany, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Ireland, and South Korea. Manhunt 2 was refused classification in the UK and even given an Adults Only (AO) rating in the U.S. until it was censored with graphical filters to obscure the gore.
Rockstar Games are going to appear on this list more than once; they’ve made some of the edgiest and most popular games of the last two decades. But while it’s no surprise to see countries and government banning Grand Theft Auto or Manhunt, it may seem surprising to see their 2006 classic Bully, about an English schoolboy working his way through the boarding school system, on here. What’s so problematic about Bully, exactly?
Well according to the government of Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost province of Brazil, the main issue is that it shows violence and harassment in a school setting, and that could be “potentially harmful” to teenagers. The game was banned in Brazil shortly after its release, with a fine of 1,000 Brazilian reals being levied on anyone selling or owning it. The ban was lifted in 2016.
7. Duke Nukem 3D
The original Duke Nukem appeared in 1991 as a parody of over-the-top 80s action heroes, with the titular character saving the world from evil. This style continued until 1996’s famous Duke Nukem 3D, which was praised for its satire, humor, environments, gameplay, and level design, but criticized for its violence, sexual themes, and portrayal of women as strippers and eye candy. It was also the first FPS in the franchise, which is always good for attracting more negative attention.
Duke Nukem 3D came to symbolize video game violence alongside Mortal Kombat and Doom. It was accused of promoting violence and ‘adult’ content. The game was banned in Australia and Brazil, and censored versions were released for various retailers in the United States. Germany prohibited its advertisement to the public, though not its sale.
6. Too Human
Too Human could have been just another action role-playing game for the Xbox 360. Instead, it got Canadian developer Silicon Knights in some serious hot water when it was recalled as the result of court orders. After ten years in development hell, Too Human seemed promising. It was supposed to be the first of a trilogy combining futuristic sci-fi with Norse mythology. Instead, the mechanics of the game were a mess and it was released to mediocre reviews.
But that’s not the interesting party of the story. The short version is this: Silicon Knights sued Epic Games for breach of contract, and they counter-sued S.C., claiming they were using the Unreal Engine 3 without purchasing a license. Epic Games won, was awarded $4.5 million in damages, and the studio was ordered to destroy all unsold copies, materials, and source code for the games, including Too Human.
5. The Guy Game
The adult video game The Guy Game was an example of what can get a piece of entertainment outright banned in the First Amendment-loving United States. Another entry pulled from the shelves because of a lawsuit, precisely what was it about 2004’s The Guy Game that generated so much controversy? Was it the multiple choice trivia competition where if you answered questions correctly your reward was live-action video footage of nude models taking their shirts and bikinis off?
Well, kinda. Unfortunately for developer Top Heavy Studios, one of the models sued over use of her likeness, since she was 17 (underage) at the time and legally could not consent to depiction in an “adult” production. Now in violation of different laws, a judge in Travis County, Texas forbade all additional sales of the game. It was quickly pulled from the shelves and fell into obscurity.
4. The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings
CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher series, based on the fantasy novel series of the same name, has a lot to be proud of, as they have received critical acclaim for their complex storylines and lush graphics, and won Game of the Year for the third installment. But while The Witcher is extremely popular and has fans from all around the world, The Witcher 2 was banned in Australia.
The reason? Well you see, there’s a consistent game play element where potential sexual partners are frequent (and rewarded with achievements), and sexuality and nudity are sometimes used as incentive to complete quests. The ban was later lifted when a special release for Australia also edited an offending side quest.
3. Mind Quiz
Also known as Mind Quiz: Exercise Your Brain, this inoffensive educational single-player puzzle game for the Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable is surely the most out-of-place on this list. No violence, no guns, no sexuality, no racism or misogyny – in fact no adult themes whatsoever. It’s simply a brain-training game that gives a variety of exams and puzzles. Why on earth would Mind Quiz have been pulled from the market?
Publisher Ubisoft voluntarily pulled the game from the UK store shelves after complaints about the use of a single word – “spastic.” It turns out that it’s considered an offensive term in the UK, and the fact that the game used it when players didn’t perform well on certain questions left a bad taste in some peoples’ mouths. Ironically, the only country where the original English version is sold is ban-happy Australia.
What’s that? Another mass murder simulator game that’s not Postal 2? Yes, comparisons between Hatred and Postal are inevitable, given that both received negative critical reviews and seem to exist for no other reason than to shock. Hatred is an isometric shoot-em-up starring a misanthropic sociopath who goes on a self-proclaimed “genocide crusade” to kill everyone in the world. Oh, and health is regenerated by executions on helpless incapacitated victims, so it’s easy to guess why this one was controversial.
How hated was Hatred? Well, Epic Games, creators of the Unreal Engine 4 the game uses, demanded that their logo be removed from the trailer, and Valve Corporation removed it from their Steam Greenlight service, though it was soon brought back. Steam still region-locks it in Australia and Germany, since the developers didn’t even bother trying to get it classified there.
1. Grand Theft Auto
We’ve arrived – Rockstar’s franchise recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most controversial video game series of all time. The Grand Theft Auto series has been the target of censorship all over the globe from the very beginning for its depictions of violence, sexuality, mayhem, organized crime, and pretty much everything amoral, and been accused of glamorizing violence and leading to real-world crimes. Brazil banned the first one, Haitian and Cuban anti-defamation groups criticized Vice City, U.S. politicians threw a fit over the Hot Coffee mod for San Andreas, MADD, Freedom from Torture, Common Sense Media, etc.
However, only one country has outright banned the entire series: Thailand, after the series was blamed for the stabbing murder of a Bangkok taxi driver committed by Polwat Chino in 2008. The government responded by outlawing all GTA games.
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