As a medium, video gaming has seen plenty of flack over the years, for many logical and fair reasons. Plenty of our favourite games glamorise guns, blood and violence; some still insist on pushing archaic stereotypes into the twenty-first century; and many others visualise and sexualise anything with two legs - or more - with little shame.
For these reasons, the ire of media watchdog groups has never been too far. However, there have been plenty of instances where the media have shown a ridiculous lack of understanding of what they are criticising. Here are 5 of the most dumbfounding controversies of the last few years stirred up by media and political groups who simply don't know what they're talking about, or have actively chosen to gloss over the finer details.
Portal 2 "Adoption" Controversy | Portal 2 (2011)
Early last year, U.S. news station WBTV ran a report on Portal 2, claiming the game made unacceptable fun of adoption.
They interviewed a mildly upset father who felt the game was insensitive when a brief scene in the game made a joke about character Wheatly, for being adopted.
The father in question has an adopted Chinese daughter who was playing with him when he encountered the scene, and was admittedly just being a caring, if not slightly over-protective father.
Definitely a slow news day.
The transcript of the edited scene used by the news station was as follows:
Wheatley: All right, so that last test was seriously disappointing. Apparently, being civil isn't motivating you, so, let's try it her way, all right, fatty? Adopted... fatty! Fatty fatty no parents?
GLaDOS: What exactly is wrong with being adopted?
Wheatley: What's wrong with being adopted? Um, well, uh... Lack of parents?
GLaDOS: [to Chell] For the record, you are adopted and that's terrible, just work with me.
The video of the news report went viral over the Internet in a matter of hours, and many felt the station was simply looking for something to fill the time. Jokes about adopted kids aren't exactly unique to the videogame medium, and the fact that the station said nothing about the fat joke also used in the same edited scene they featured is just as dumbfounding. Shouldn't obese, overweight or just outright fat people also be interviewed on their feelings on the scene? Or fat, adopted ones?
The station's lack of research into the actual publisher of the game -- they contacted Sony and insulted them for "passing the buck" -- as well as the proper rating -- they cited the game as E for Everyone when it was rated 10+ and Up under the ESRB system -- subsequently lead to many angry online critics dismissing the report as just another uninformed attempt at ratings and unfair slight against the videogame medium.
Mario hates disabled people | Mario Party 8 (2007)
Mario is the last franchise anyone would expect to offend. But a group of people found something to complain about in 2007 when Mario Party 8 released in the UK and had a small scene where the Magikoopa said the word "spastic" in a short rhyme.
While the word was in reference to shaking a train the player was part of, it was interpreted by some of our UK counterparts as something terribly insulting, and enough of a slight to protest the release of the game.
The word... can be seen on the "Shy Guy's Perplex Express" board. If a player lands on one of several certain green spaces, Magikoopa will appear and, before rearranging the train cars, will say, "Magikoopa magic! Turn the train spastic Make this ticket tragic!"
...Last month, Ubisoft announced a recall of its PSP brain-training game Mind Quiz after a mother of a child with cerebral palsy complained because the game called her a "spastic" for not doing well. -- Original report by Wikinews
Nintendo felt the heat, and the game was recalled quietly upon its release on July 13, 2007. Nintendo cited the reason as an assembly error and avoided the true reason, but the truth eventually came out and the game was banned in the UK until its re-release less than a month later.
Considering the context in which the word was used, it was a major overreaction for protesters to actually get the game banned in an entire region. The fact that Nintendo responded quickly and quietly was probably indicative of them fixing the issue to get it over and done and focus on more important things instead of a bunch of over-analytical and hyper-observant whiners.
Cannibalism controversy | Stubbs the Zombie (2005)
Zombie-centric video games are a dime a dozen these days, and those loveable shuffling undead hordes are pretty much normalised in mainstream media as an essential aspect of popular horror films and television shows. But last gen, the criminally overlooked Xbox gem Stubbs the Zombie encountered abnormal controversy in November 2005 for its apparent dangerous encouragement of cannibalism amongst children. Yep, that's right, cannibalism.
Along with the original F.E.A.R., the National Institute on Media and the Family and US Senator Joe Lieberman criticised the games and their graphic scenes as "cannibalistic" and harmful to underage children, with the latter believing "It's just the worst kind of message to kids, and furthermore it can harm the entirety of America's youth".
Because kids are so going to be allowed to play this.
Stubbs the Zombie was a different sort of game in its day in that it allowed players to play the role of an undead zombie rather than as a survivor, but it didn't take itself too seriously. It was widely praised for its comical retro-futuristic setting and humorous dialogue alongside its very cool, but admittedly graphic gameplay.
Stubbs wasn't a game made for under-age children, let alone to encourage gamers to eat other people. Maybe if undead walking corpses existed and the game encouraged kids to act like one, then these guys would have some solid basis of argument.
Wideload Games were just as dumbfounded but amused by the reports, judging by their witty response to both groups:
The current kerfuffle in the US media about Stubbs the Zombie can be summed up in one word: semantics. Stubbs, they say, is a cannibal.
This is nonsense, as anyone with a working knowledge of cannibals can tell you. Stubbs fails all the classic litmus tests for cannibalism. He does not wear a bone through his nose. He does not help FBI agents track down serial killers. He has not written a cookbook. He is not named Jeffrey Dahmer. The list goes on and on.
Stubbs is a zombie. Thus the title "Stubbs the Zombie." Zombies eat brains. That's what they do. Stubbs cannot just saunter into the cafeteria and order a plate of freedom fries. He has to fight for his meals. In fact, actual cannibals only make it harder for Stubbs to eat, which is why this "cannibalism" story is insulting as well as injurious.
It's no surprise that the all-human media cartel resorts to distortions and name-calling; their anti-zombie bias has been evident for decades, and Stubbs is just the newest target.
If you're a thinking adult, you're probably ready to hear the other side of the story. You'll find it in Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse, in stores now for Xbox, PC and Macintosh. Don't let the humanity-centric media tell you what to think about zombies. A free mind is a tasty mind.
Resident Evil is racist! | Resident Evil 5 (2009)
Resident Evil 5's Africa setting sparked a series of online debates regarding the 2007 E3 trailer's depiction of a white protagonist killing black enemies in a small African village, started by Newsweek editor N'Gai Croal, who believed the game had "a lot of imagery in that trailer that dovetailed with classic racist imagery."
The trailer that started the racial outrage.
When the second trailer for the game released and introduced Sheva, the player's black co-operative partner, many assumed Capcom had responded to the complaints. But designer Jun Takeuchi denied it, but admitted that the company was surprised by the controversy.
A Eurogamer preview in 2009 by Dan Whitehead continued the controversy, with Whitehead writing:
"Since the Majini are not undead corpses, and are capable of driving vehicles, handling weapons and even using guns, it makes the line between the infected monsters and African civilians uncomfortably vague. Where Africans are concerned, the game seems to be suggesting, bloodthirsty savagery just comes with the territory".
"[It] plays so blatantly into the old clichés of the dangerous 'dark continent' and the primitive lust of its inhabitants that you'd swear the game was written in the 1920s" and "there are even more outrageous and outdated images to be found later in the game, stuff that I was honestly surprised to see in 2009."
Once Resident Evil 5 released, the controversy completely faded into obscurity when everyone saw there were no underlying racist messages embedded in the African setting or multicultural Kijuju population and all the critical analysis on Capcom's direction ended. The fact that it was a shit sequel with a shit story instead rightly took the spotlight.
Jon CJG, the creator of machinma Arby n' the Chief, joined in on the parody fun and dedicated an episode to the over-exaggerated controversy for a bit of fun, showing players protesting in-game against the alleged racism, following what they have heard from media outlets rather from their own experience of the game.
"Virtual orgasmic rape" controversy | Mass Effect (2007)
The original Mass Effect expanded upon BioWare's tradition of implementing romance gameplay mechanics in their games with a substantial, but ultimately optional romantic subplot with one of two human squad mates -- depending on the player character's chosen gender -- or an asexual alien who resembles a female human. The subplot can conclude with an intimate, but fast-cut cinematic cutscene which obviously suggests a sexual encounter, but there are no acts or explicit nudity shown at all.
Anyone who has played Mass Effect knows how tame and far from sexually outrageous these scenes are. However, despite this, a conservative blogger, a Fox News anchor and a psychology author somehow managed to turn this single aspect of the game into a media shitstorm.
A brief still of the scene in question.
The blogger, Kevin McCullough and his article, "The ‘Sex-Box’ Race for President", notoriously started the entire controversy when he turned the game into a presidential campaign issue:
It's called 'Mass Effect' and it allows its players... to engage in the most realistic sex acts ever conceived. One can custom design the shape, form, bodies, race, hair style, breast size of the images they wish to 'engage' and then watch in crystal clear, LCD, 54 inch screen, HD clarity as the video game 'persons' hump in every form, format, multiple, gender-oriented possibility they can think of..."
"Here's a question [for the candidates]... How much moral judgement should the President push into legislative issues that are likely to severely damage our children's innocence, function, and capability?..."
Perhaps his most criticised statements were:
"Mass Effect can be customized to sodomise whatever, whomever, however, the game player wishes," and "with its ‘over the net’ capabilities virtual orgasmic rape is just the push of a button away."
Soon after, Martha MacCallum on her news segment, "Live Desk With" and her author guest Cooper Lawrence went on to argue against invited video game journalist Geoff Keighley on how Mass Effect "features full digital nudity", "leaves nothing to the imagination" and grants players "the ability for players to engage in full graphic sex" and that the M-rated game was being marketed shamelessly to children and young teens.
Watch the media firestorm for yourself. Warning: prepare yourself for self--induced facepalms.
As if it all wasn't cringe and facepalm-worthy enough, Lawrence went on to preach on MacCallum's show segment about how the game was desensitising men to treat women only as objects of desire, due to the player character being able to choose how many women he wants, completely disregarding Keighley's counter-argument that the game lets you play as a male or female.
Here’s how they’re seeing women: They’re seeing them as these objects of desire, as these, you know, hot bodies. They don’t show women as being valued for anything other than their sexuality. And it’s a man in this game deciding how many women he wants to be with."
When Keighley asked them both on whether they had ever played the game, Lawrence and Cooper said no, with the former laughing on air. Instead they based their opinions on what they had heard so far from critics such as McCullough.
A few days later, Lawrence watched two-and-a-half hours of gameplay and retracted her earlier statements, amusingly stating that "Before the show I had asked somebody about what they had heard, and they had said it’s like pornography" and that "I’ve seen episodes of ‘Lost’ that are more sexually explicit." McCullough soon also admitted he had never played the game after the gaming community went apeshit on his blog. He followed up by posting a half-assed apology.
"I DO apologize to the gaming universe!"
"I still do concur with my original position that the objectionable content in Mass Effect is still offensive."
McCullough and his article comments were heavily parodied by Penny Arcade and other online websites, and even Jack Thompson, the activist who himself is widely criticised for his almost relentless and notorious activism against Grand Theft Auto and Rockstar dismissed MuCullough for his ignorance:
"The guy who shot his mouth off about it had no idea what the Hell he was talking about. This contrived controversy is absolutely ridiculous."
As much as I dislike Thompson, at least he knew the subject matter he was criticising, and had valid points and arguments. It's the ignorance of news organisations like Fox and a few bloggers who leave me and gamers across the globe flabbergasted and face-palming time and time again.
Classic Penny Arcade response comic.
However, there were a few good things to come out of it. McCullough's article was taken down and he was blasted back into obscurity -- though he had a few more responses before he shut up -- the alien sideboob meme was born, and Lawrence had her latest book at the time, advertised on Amazon, bombarded with one star reviews from the gaming community. Most comments satirically said they had not read her book, but heard from someone else that the book was bad, and thus voted it low. One Amazon comment summarised the whole laughable media shitstorm perfectly:
I know all about this book but have never fully read it. Why? Due to the overwhelming backlash, I have no choice but to agree with the 1 star ratings. The rumors are rampant that this book was poorly written and poorly researched. So without verifying the contents myself — I give it a 1 star. Good thing video games aren’t judged in this manner — whew!!!"
This pretty much represents the birth of nearly every video-game controversy ever.
What are some other video game controversies that have irked or flabbergasted you?
By Nathan Misa