Times calls to censor games backfired

Cries for censorship can certainly negatively impact sales if they inspire major companies not to sell the offending game. Oftentimes, though, calls to censor, boycott, or ban a video game actually inspire people to go out and buy it. It's a point that's been made before, but it bears repeating, and it's often just this pushback that helps explain why games with remarkably controversial content become bestsellers.

No such thing as bad publicity, as the saying goes. Here's our list of times that calls to censor video games backfired in a big way.

Death Race started it all

A violent imagination appears to be an essential aspect of being human—and it's not Mortal Kombat or Call of Duty that made us this way. Death Race started the violent video game craze in 1976, or so the panic-peddling moral crusaders of yore would have it. As Chris Kohler of Wired points out in his prescient 2007 piece, critics interpreted Exidy's Death Race not as a game but rather a "murder simulation." The game featured a rectangular car and "gremlins," which looked a lot like human stick figures. The player steers the car into a gremlin and a tombstone pops up. Hit as many gremlins as you can. That's the game.

An unauthorized adaptation of the film Death Race 2000, the game caused a national uproar over its violent content. As one study puts it, "Public outrage not only fueled sales of the game and made Exidy a household name, but established a pattern by which controversial games receive a high level of press attention, which in turn drives these games' marketplace success." The same study suggests that Grand Theft Auto's controversy-driven sales are the logical extension of Death Race's success. As long as the game stays on the market, it seems, calls for censorship are good for business.

Self-censorship can sometimes be a means of advertising

In the years before the 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision that protected video games with the First Amendment, movements to censor and/or ban titles had a lot more muscle than they do now. (That said, the 2015 APA Review's alarmist conclusions, as well as world trends towards game censorship, have reminded gamers that our beloved medium is still under threat of censorship.)

Lawmakers, news media, educators, and watchdog groups (such as the once influential National Coalition Against Television Violence), have addressed controversies around games such as the Mortal Kombat franchise, the FMV interactive horror game Night Trap, Street Fighter, the Resident Evil series, Call of Duty, Watchdogs, the Grand Theft Auto series, and World of Warcraft. In all of these cases, the games went on to perform well in the market. In the U.S., the closest the forces of censorship have come to a victory was the establishment of the precursor to the ESRB in 1994.

Under the ESRB, self-censorship has replaced the threat of direct censorship imposed by outside forces. Major gaming outlets refuse to carry Adults Only (AO) games. Several major franchises have had to remove or edit content to avoid this dreaded designation. When this occurs, oftentimes the story finds its way into mainstream gaming news media, bolstering interest in the product.

The utility of ratings systems is a mixed bag for everyone involved: it's useful for consumers (to know what they're buyin'), it's useful to sales outlets (to know what they're sellin')—but it also provides what's essentially an index of offenders to censorious authorities. Without the ESRB or a similar ratings system in place, for instance, there would be no standardized way to enforce region-locked content.

At the same time, the self-censorship that the ESRB inspires has sometimes functioned as a form of advertising for game companies. In the most famous—but not the last—instance of ESRB-inspired self-censorship, Rockstar ceased manufacturing its initial PC build of GTA: San Andreas over an encrypted sex minigame PC modders discovered. For whatever reason, the minigame had been abandoned, but its assets and code remained on the discs in encrypted form, decryptable by the third-party Hot Coffee Mod. You needed the mod to access the minigame, which is why it was discovered after the game was ported to PC and not before.

Hatred's prefab censorship controversy gets it noticed

The gaming world is asphyxiating under the weight of an overburdened market for top-down, third-person, twin-stick shooters. It's a bad time to be a developer of twin-stick shooters—and that goes double for indie studios, unless you're willing to court controversy the way Destructive Creations did with the isometric shooter Hatred. A modern isometric ripoff of the 1997 pixel-art shooter Postal, Hatred is a game about a white man with long hair in a black trenchcoat murdering people—many of them unarmed and nonaggressive. By the looks of it, Hatred was deliberately contrived to be the game authority/society/your self-righteous congressperson/your poor mother warned you about.

As the Guardian pointed out in a December 2014 article, Hatred set out from the beginning to be "a cynical appropriation and encapsulation of a million furious games forums [sic] comments about 'social justice warriors'—feminists, white knights and beta males—ruining the industry by handwringing over sexist tropes and poor representation." The article documents "a series of PR coups" that the studio used to garner negative attention—and, indirectly, the reflexive support that lots of negative attention brings.

The plethora of top-down shooters with near-identical gameplay means it's getting harder for an indie studio like Destructive Creations to get its game noticed, unless it can cause a stir. The studio would do anything—offend anyone—to disguise the fact that its game is "an isometric third-person twin-stick shooter that adheres to the conventions of that ancient genre with obsequious rigidity."

The controversy came to a head when Valve temporarily removed it from Steam Greenlight, which spawned a backlash from outraged opponents of "political correctness." The removal from Greenlight appeared to be content-related—an uncommon act of censorship for Valve. In the end, the game's fans won. Not only did Valve reinstate the game the very next day, but Valve boss Gabe Newell issued an apology to the studio via email—which the studio promptly made public in another PR coup.

By all appearances, the studio's cynical plan to piggyback on a pre-existing controversy has worked. Steam users have purchased more than 135,000 units of Hatred, a substantial number for the genre, and sales continue as new features are made available, such as the first-person mode mod released in June 2016. In contrast, the isometric shooter Halo: Spartan Strike, which has a much lower price ($1.49 versus Hatred's $8.99), has been out longer, has a virtually identical Steam approval rating (75.85% versus Hatred's 75.52% as of February 9, 2017), and has the name recognition of the Halo franchise, has sold just under 100,000 units as of February 9, 2017.

Rockstar cashed in on multiple controversies involving the GTA series

Rockstar Games is infamous for its games' controversial violent and sexual content. Amid the Hot Coffee Mod scandal, the ESRB re-evaluated GTA: San Andreas and replaced its M (recommended for ages 17 and up) rating with an AO rating (recommended for ages 18 and up), which inspired the recall. It's just a year's difference but the AO rating has enormous ramifications, since it effectively categorizes the game as pornography. Ultimately, Rockstar made the decision to recall the game, self-censoring to appease big stores like Gamestop and Wal-Mart, which refuse to sell games rated AO.

Despite its best efforts to appease the ratings board and politicians, Rockstar was slapped with an FTC complaint and a class-action lawsuit for marketing pornographic material to minors. It seemed the powers that be would tolerate a game built around grisly murder and graphic violence, but a comic minigame featuring consensual sex between adults? That's going too far! In the long run, though, the moral panic seems to have turned things in Rockstar's favor, with GTA: San Andreas going on to become the top-selling PS2 game of all time, according to the Guinness World Records 2009 Gamer's Edition.

It wasn't the first time Rockstar self-censored. In 2003, the controversy surrounding some infamous missions involving Cuban and Haitian gangsters in GTA:Vice City prompted dialogue changes in future releases of the game. It didn't hurt sales, nor did the numerous times its opponents tried to blame it for inciting crime in the real world.

Blaming games for mass murderers' actions doesn't stop sales

Lots of people play violent video games. A few people who've played violent video games have gone on to do some seriously heinous violent stuff in real life. While the coincidence might provide a cheeky headline for a think piece, the actual data are not suggestive of a causal link between playing violent video games and committing actual violence; in fact, violent gaming might make us better, less violent, more "morally sensitive" human beings in real life. But why should advocates for censorship let inconvenient facts ruin a perfectly good scapegoat?

The power of moral panics to increase, rather than decrease, sales of controversial games was evident ten years ago. Commenting on the battle to censor Rockstar's Manhunt 2, Seth Scheisel of the New York Times wrote in October 2007, "Manhunt 2 has received free publicity and media attention it would have never enjoyed were it not for the presumably unwitting complicity of the ratings boards and self-appointed media watchdogs." If violent games remain on the shelves, people with keep buying them—and toothless calls for censorship become accidental advertisements for them.

In the following examples, the ensuing moral panics about violent video games probably fueled sales of the games they railed against. (In each of these instances, we're not going to waste the internet ink it would take to reprint the killers' names.) In 1999, the teenage shooters at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado were fans of id Software's Doom series. One of them even made WADs—downloadable user-made levels—for Doom II.

On June 7, 2003, an 18-year-old shot and killed three police officers at the police station in Fayette, Alabama. Later, at his arrest, he reportedly said, "Life is like a video game. Everybody's got to die sometime." (This case led to the downfall of the once and future enemy of gaming, dirty trickster and then-lawyer Jack Thompson.) Then, in December 2012, a weird kid who'd played violent games such as Call of Duty went on to murder toddlers at Sandy Hook elementary school. (Call of Duty, an immensely popular franchise, received a ton of free publicity from that tragedy, taking over headlines and inspiring major pushback from its massive fanbase.)

The shooting that happened at a camp in Norway in 2011, though, was altogether different. The shooter wasn't just a self-professed gamer; in April 2012, he gave sworn testimony that he had used Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for training purposes. As a consequence, Norway banned the series, which did have a negative effect on sales. Actual censorship is rarely good for game companies.

Sexually explicit games use censorship and controversy to their advantage, too

Let's start with a classic. Released in 1982, Custer's Revenge (link contains NSFW pixel art) has no silver lining. The game allows players to participate in an alternate history in which General Custer did not die in a "wholly unnecessary" act of pompous idiocy at Little Bighorn but, instead, used rape as a weapon to avenge his fallen comrades on the naked body of a stereotypical American Indian woman. It's a celebration of the ugliest racist and sexist tropes of the American Old West, but notoriety proved relatively lucrative for the makers of Custer's Revenge.

In a contemporary example of a sexually explicit game using controversy to its advantage, 2015's HuniePop, a dating simulator with Match-3 gameplay and scandalous hentai drawings as rewards for success, has become a phenomenon on Steam. Numerous critics have awkwardly praised the tactical elements of its addictive Match-3 gameplay. The Valve-censored (but still very much NSFW) version of HuniePop has sold in excess of 500,000 units on Steam alone. One of the reasons for this is the censorship is completely meaningless, as HuniePop's developer posted a workaround for Steam users who want to play the game in its uncut form.

In fact, the successes of HuniePop and other sexually explicit games and visual novels on Steam appear to have convinced Valve to relax its unwritten rules about censoring provocative sexual content. We say this based on the waggling male appendages of Genital Jousting and Conan: Exiles, and the October 2016 addition of the queer female-focused content-equivalent of HuniePop (minus the Match-3 schtick), Ladykiller in a Bind—a game originally expected to be banned from the platform.

Ladykiller in a Bind's discussion page illustrates the complexities of self-censorship for making or breaking a game's success. The January 2017 build of Ladykiller in a Bind features scene which was rewritten following fan feedback. Based on the explanation given by the developer, however, it doesn't appear to have been an act of censorship or self-censorship, but rather an effort to improve a scene which didn't fit the developer's original vision. The developer has released the deleted content as a script for the sake of full disclosure (effectively as an optional "uncensored" patch). That said, this wasn't an Early Access title; the game had already been been released, whose content was radically changed, and some purchasers feel cheated. Had the so-called "censorship" been imposed to appease the ESRB or Valve, perhaps the fan response would have been more positive.

The crusade against THQ's The Punisher turned it into a cult classic

Retrospectives have placed Volition's remarkably controversial adaptation of The Punisher in the pantheon of great Marvel licensed games. Its interrogation, torture and execution mechanic has been co-opted by open world action titles like The Godfather, the Grand Theft Auto series, the Saints' Row series and even Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor.

To avoid an AO rating from the ESRB, Volition put a black and white filter over The Punisher's most brutal content: its executions. The game would endure even harsher edits in the U.K. and elsewhere. It went on to sell a million units, far more than it would have if its developer hadn't chosen to self-censor for the M rating, a "moderate" success from the developer's point of view. While it almost certainly sold better than it would have with an AO rating, the released game isn't what the developer originally envisioned.

Controversial gamers get more popular after they're banned, too

As documented by Polygon, Tyler1 is a League of Legends player who plays as Draven—or he did until April 2016, when he was banned for toxic behavior such as "inting," or intentionally feeding his team's chance of success by running down the middle lane while carrying a bunch of sweet loot over and over again, artificially inflating the opposing team's score while sabotaging his own team's chances of success. Despite—or because of—his unpredictable, often toxic behavior, he remains a popular streamer on YouTube and Twitch. Each of his streaming profiles mentions the ban as if it were a status symbol.

And it is. Tyler1's popularity has continued to grow and, despite the unprecedented lifetime ban from Riot, makers of League of Legends, he continues to play and stream the game via throwaway accounts. In this case, to ban the troll is to feed him.

Although League of Legends has been rated T (recommended for ages 13 and up), the ESRB and similar ratings boards know they can't control the content generated by players in online multiplayer games—a small minority of whom are responsible for generating the most repugnant content to ever affect the gaming world. Tyler1's story adds a new and troubling level of complexity to the problem censorious authorities face when they try to regulate controversial in-game content. It makes you think: why even bother with censorship at all?