Who has sparked more controversy than any other developer in video game history? Who is the favored punching bag to those who blame video games for every act of violence across the U.S.? Why, Rockstar Games of course!
With names like Grand Theft Auto, Bully and Manhunt proudly presented alongside their iconic logo, it's only natural that this Scotland based company would be paraded on every news station around the globe. But which controversies will they be remembered for in years to come?
5 Times Rockstar Games Shocked the Industry
Manhunt & Its Brutal Violence
Probably the most famous discussion around violence in video games centered around Rockstar's Manhunt (2003), a brutal game that involves a whole lot of murder. But this was no surprise to the development team. In fact, they too were horrified by its content.
"There was almost a mutiny at the company over that game. It just made us all feel icky. It was all about the 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." - Former Rockstar employee Jeff Williams
Within the walls of Rockstar itself all hell broke loose upon the game's release. Manhunt became emblematic of everything that was wrong with video games.
Many people of various stature campaigned for the game to be banned all over the world. For example, U.S. Representative Joe Baca, who was the sponsor of a legislation to fine those who sell adult-themed games to players younger than 17, said of Manhunt, "it's telling kids how to kill someone, and it uses vicious, sadistic and cruel methods to kill."
Here are all of the places that took extreme measures with the game and how:
- UK: Following the murder of 14-year-old Stefan Pakeerah by his 17-year-old friend Warren Leblanc in Leicestershire, England, which was linked to Manhunt, stores around the UK (such as GAME and Dixons) started to pull the title from shelves. However, police eventually denied any link between the murder and the popular video game and stores started to restock the product.
- New Zealand: In New Zealand, the game was banned on December 11, 2003, with possession deemed an offence. The Chief Censor in the country at the time, Bill Hastins, stated that Manhunt is a game "where the only thing you do is kill everybody you see [...] You have to at least acquiesce in these murders and possibly tolerate, or even move towards enjoying them, which is injurious to the public good."
- Australia: Manhunt was on sale for almost a year in Australia with the classification of MA15+ (restricted to ages 15 and over). However, on September 28, 2004 the game was "refused classification" by the Classification Review Board.
- Canada: On December 22, 2003, following a meeting between officials from the Ontario Ministry of Consumer and Business Services, Manhunt became the first video game in the area to be classified as a film. It received an adult rating which meant that the game was restricted to adults. Remarkable how certain places react to video games.
- Germany: Numerous games have been banned permanently in Germany. In fact, you still can't buy Manhunt there to this day. The Amtsgericht in Munich confiscated all versions of the game on July 19, 2004 for violation of the "representation of violence" act. The game portrayed the killing of humans as fun according to the court and they ultimately declared it harmful.
So much controversy and I have yet to play the game at all. Should I? Let me know!
Hot Coffee & GTA: San Andreas
Probably one of the most scandalous things to ever surface in video game history, the controversial cut mini-game in GTA: San Andreas was one of the most damaging things to happen to Rockstar's reputation and its personnel.
"It was draining and upsetting – a tough time in the company."
These are the words of Dan Houser, co-founder of Rockstar Games. He's referring to the time when Hot Coffee spilled out of San Andreas, even though the mini-game had been cut from the final product. It involved the protagonist engaging in crude sexual activity with some of the game's female characters—the player was tasked with getting them excited by hammering buttons.
Uncovered in the code of San Andreas, Hot Coffee was released as a mod authored by 36-year-old Patrick Wildenborg, a Dutch gamer and a member of the modder community, and his publication of the content changed Rockstar's relationship with the press forever.
"We never felt that we were being attacked for the content, we were being attacked for the medium, which felt a little unfair. If all of this stuff had been put into a book or a movie, people wouldn't have blinked an eye. And there are far bigger issues to worry about in society than this."
Though Houser may be right, this was no trivial issue for a lot of people. The sex acts portrayed in the game had people like Jack Thompson and even Hilary Clinton calling for stronger regulations.
GTA: San Andreas was eventually recalled by Rockstar, who ensured that all future copies of the game had no trace of the code within them, thus allowing it to receive a more relaxed rating around the world.
GTA V Torture
From the game's deplorable portrayal of women to the Lindsey Lohan lawsuit, GTA V was no stranger to controversy. But the one aspect of the game that generated a great deal of concern was a scene involving Trevor, during which he tortures an innocent civilian.
"By The Book" is the name of the mission that has a government agent torture a civilian, or rather has Trevor do it for him. The player is forced to engage with the scene and asked to choose which weapon they'd "like" to torture the man with. Throughout the scene the man professes his innocence and maintains that he'll tell them whatever they want and they needn't torture him.
The scene caused quite a stir. Keith Best of Freedom from Torture was appalled that Rockstar felt it was appropriate to force the player into the role of a torturer, stating that the developer "crossed a line." Keth Vaz, a British labour MP, was also "astonished" by the mission's violence. But Rockstar maintained that it was satire and that the scene has a lot to say about those who torture.
“The media and the government would have us believe that torture is some necessary thing. We need it to get information, to assert ourselves,” Trevor says. “Did we get any information out of you?”
“I would have told you everything!” the man replies.
“Exactly!” says Trevor. “Torture’s for the torturer. Or the guy giving the order to the torturer. You torture for the good times! We should all admit that. It’s useless as a means of getting information.”
Was it justified? That much is up to you!
Bully, Homosexual Content and, Well, Bullying
Rockstar's Bully turned 10 recently and fans were sure to show their love for the PlayStation 2 classic. But the game wasn't very warmly received for a number of reasons.
The game was considered to be trivializing or even glorifying bullying, with groups such as Bullying Online openly critiquing the title even prior to its release on the PS2. But the most famous individual who went after Rockstar's Bully is Jack Thompson, a Floridian lawyer.
The man was furious over the age rating that Bully received—T for Teen—and sought to have the game banned entirely in the state of Florida. His case was ultimately thrown out, with the judge overseeing the case stating that late night TV had a lot worse. Thompson went on to compare the release of the game to the Iran nuclear crisis and felt that it was a kind of "Columbine simulator".
After the game was released, his voice joined a chorus of people when it was revealed that the lead character could court some of his male counterparts and kiss them. Homophobes everywhere united, and Thompson sent a letter to the ESRB president at the time, Patricia Vanice, stating:
"Dear Ms. Vance,
We just found gay sexual content in Bully, as Jimmy Hopkins makes out with another male student.
Good luck with your 'Teen' rating now, Patty."
Patricia and the board were well aware that specific content was present in the game when it received its Teen rating. Take that, Thompson!
Hilary Clinton & The Statue of Liberty
The Hot Coffee mod was something that clearly offended Hilary Clinton. She led an investigation into the scandal and is actually seen to have launched a "war" on video games in the past. During Clinton's Senate era, she put forward a bill that proposed the following:
- A prohibition on selling games to minors, where retailers could be heavily fined for selling M or AO games to those under 17
- An independent analysis of the ESRB’s ratings system to figure out if it was actually accurate
- Authority for the FTC to investigate misleading game ratings
- Authority for consumers to register complaints with the FTC for misleading game ratings
- An audit of retailers including possible “secret shoppers” to see if underage kids can buy M or AO games from stores
She was adamant about criminalising the selling of violent video games to the underage. But her attack on Rockstar's Hot Coffee was the strongest. So the developers responded with this in GTA IV:
The now Presidential Candidate was none too happy about the inclusion, to say the least.
Oh, and if you find yourself interested in how the Supreme Court took on Clinton's bill, they ultimately decided to strike down her suggestions effectively giving video games that same degree of free speech rights as books, movies or TV shows. It established that video games were a protected art form.