Times that trying to censor games totally backfired

Like they say, there's no such thing as bad press. No matter how violent, erotic, or outright depraved a video game is, rallying the public in an effort to censor a title inevitably brings more attention to the game in question. People don't like being told what to do. If you tell them they can't play a game, they're going to want to play it.

Sometimes, controversy leads a game to better sales. Sometimes, it transforms a mediocre product into a beloved, time-tested classic. And sometimes, every once in a while, developers respond by going back and making the game even better—or by making it even more offensive. If you want to censor a game, do it on the down low. Otherwise, there's no telling what could happen.

Death Race

If you think public outrage over video games is a modern phenomenon, think again. People have been complaining about about gaming content since at least 1976. That's right: even before Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Asteroids, or Frogger burst onto the scene, moral authorities were already trying—and failing—to put the kibosh on the game industry's edgier titles.

In this case, the game in question is Death Race, an arcade title in which players zoom around a black and white screen, running over stick figures to gain points (officially, the creatures are "gremlins," but the graphics are so primitive that there's no effective difference between a monster and a normal human being). Death Race wasn't anything special—it's more or less the same game as Exidy's previous game, Destruction Derby, and was designed as a quick cash-in while Exidy worked on its next big hit, Car Polo. Once the Associated Press ran an article about Death Race, including a line that compared the game's digital beeps and bloops to the "scream of a child," it was off to the digital races.

While Exidy executives and many arcade owners dismissed Death Race as a joke, the national media saw things differently. Various articles denounced the game as "sick" and "morbid," and called for its removal from arcades. The end result? Death Race sold very, very well. Exidy founder Pete Kaufmann said "nobody wanted to buy it, but everybody kept ordering it." In 1976, Exidy made $3 million thanks to Death Race (in 1975, its revenue topped out at $250,000), and the damage was done. Violent video games were here to stay.

Mortal Kombat

Before Sony and Microsoft decided to try their hand at making video game devices, the game industry belonged to two companies, Sega and Nintendo, and in 1993 their rivalry was in full swing. On one side, Nintendo enjoyed a massive head start—in 1990, the house that Mario built controlled 90 percent of the United States' video game market. On the other, Sega managed to create a unique niche for itself by promoting its 16-bit console, the Sega Genesis, as a more mature product. The Super Nintendo was a toy created by a family-friendly company. If you wanted edgy, adult-oriented content, the Genesis was the only option.

While that strategy didn't work out in the end, for a good portion of the '90s-era console wars, Sega maintained a substantial lead over its competition. Mortal Kombat shows why. The fighting game, which debuted in arcades in 1992, quickly became known for its blood-drenched combat and violent finishing moves. When it came time for the inevitable home console editions, both Nintendo and Sega had to make a choice: the companies could either release Mortal Kombat in its entirety, risking the wrath of parents everywhere, or they could cut the game to make it more suitable for America's living rooms.

Sega chose the former (although players had to input an easy-to-remember cheat code to unlock everything). Nintendo chose the latter. As a result, not only did the Sega Genesis version of Mortal Kombat sell more copies than its Super Nintendo cousin, but Nintendo inadvertently proved Sega's point. The Genesis really was the system for mature gamers, and Mortal Kombat propelled Sega into first place, where it would stay until Donkey Kong Country put an end to the Genesis' dominance a year or so later.

The Punisher

Censorship isn't always a bad thing. Look at The Punisher. While Frank Castle started life as a typical vigilante-with-a-code in the same vein as Dirty Harry or Death Wish lead Paul Kersey, under the pen of creators like Steven Grant, Mike Baron, and Preacher co-creators Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, the Punisher quickly morphed into a gun-toting psychopath who kills because, deep down, he likes it.

That's the version of the Punisher that developer Volition based its 2005 action title on (with some of the 2004 feature film thrown in for good measure), and originally, the game was just as dark as its source material. Throughout The Punisher, Castle tortures criminals for information and dispatches them in ludicrously gruesome ways, including locking them in a coffin with a live grenade, feeding them to sharks, and chopping their heads off with ceiling fans. In other words, The Punisher is very, very violent.

Too violent, in fact. The Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB, gave the first version of The Punisher an Adults Only rating, which virtually ensured that no major retailer would sell it. In response, Volition and its publisher THQ slapped a black and white filter over the grossest interrogation scenes (in other countries, the game was cut even further to avoid equivalent ratings). That satisfied the ESRB, which gave the revamped—but still fantastically gory—game a retail-friendly Mature rating. By lightly censoring the game, Volition and THQ ensured that over one million people would step into Frank Castle's blood-soaked shoes, and helped spread violent content all around the globe.

Manhunt

The developers at Rockstar Games are well-acquainted with controversy—they're the people behind the Grand Theft Auto series, which has been a lightning rod for censorship since the very beginning. Despite critics' claims, however, Grand Theft Auto doesn't force you to run over sex workers or mow down innocent pedestrians. For the most part, the only people that you have to kill are other criminals.

Manhunt is different. "With GTA, we always had the excuse that the gameplay was untethered…. You could play completely ethically if you wanted, and the game was parody anyway," a former Rockstar employee said. "Manhunt, though, just made us all feel icky. It was all about the violence, and it was realistic violence." Inside the company, employees threatened to "mutiny." The outside world responded similarly. Inspired by Manhunt, which tasks players with stalking and butchering gang members while producing a snuff film, politicians introduced legislation to fine retailers that sold mature games to kids. After an alleged Manhunt fan murdered a 14-year-old with a hammer, mimicking one of Manhunt's grisly kills, some stores pulled the game entirely.

But Manhunt also sold well over a million copies, and Rockstar decided to press ahead with a sequel that was even more depraved than the original, much to the chagrin of the first game's critics (Rockstar did cave to public pressure before release, blurring out Manhunt 2's most violent executions and cutting a fair amount of content). The studio didn't even have to do much marketing. As the New York Times noted, "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."

Night Trap

There's only one reason you've heard of Night Trap, and it's not because the 1992 full-motion video game is any good. After all, developer Digital Pictures created a number of games that, like Night Trap, use live-action video to create Choose Your Own Adventure-style interactive movies, including games like Corpse Killer, Double Switch, Prize Fighter, and Slam City with Scottie Pippen. None of them caught on like Night Trap, and very few players remember them today.

But Night Trap lives on while Digital Pictures' other games disappeared, and here's why: in 1993, when the United States Senate held a hearing about the effect of video games on players, politicians singled out Night Trap and Mortal Kombat as particularly egregious examples of video game violence. The commission accused Night Trap's "shower scene" of promoting violence against women (in reality, the scene is fairly tame—the woman never gets undressed, and she's simply dragged offscreen), and called the whole game "disgusting" and "offensive."

Complaints from parents followed, and Sega pulled Night Trap from store shelves right before Christmas, promising to release a censored version down the line. But instead of keeping Night Trap's dangerous content under wraps, the Senate hearings boosted the game's profile. When Night Trap came out for PC and Mac in 1994, Digital Pictures printed ads calling out the Senators who tried to censor the game, and used the controversy as a selling point. More recently, developer Screaming Visions announced that a Night Trap 25th anniversary re-release is on the way.

Oh, and the real kicker? The ESRB, which was founded as a direct response to the '90s Senate hearings, rated the Night Trap remaster "T for Teen"—i.e. appropriate for players 13 and up.  

HuniePop

It's not just violence in games that attracts censors. Sex is a big no-no, too, especially in North America. That can cause problems, especially given that the gaming market is a global one, and attitudes towards what is—and, more importantly, what isn't—appropriate in entertainment vary by region.

Take HuniePop, for example. Mechanically, HuniePop fuses match three puzzles with a visual novel, asking the player to seduce ten different women (plus a few hidden characters) by taking them on dates and solving Candy Crush-like challenges. Succeed, and you'll not only sleep with your target, but you'll also unlock some explicit illustrations of your partner in the process. HuniePop is a good puzzle game—embarrassed critics tend to give it begrudgingly kind reviews—but at its core, it's porn, pure and simple.

While HuniePop is right at home among various visual novels produced in Japan (it's available entirely uncut on MangaGamer), it's awfully racy for mainstream American outlets, and it's been both banned from Twitch and heavily censored on Steam. Not that de-eroticizing the game has slowed sales at all, of course: according to SteamSpy, HuniePop moved around 540,000 copies in its cut form, which isn't bad for a niche title.

Of course, there's a catch: shortly after HuniePop arrived on the Steam storefront, the game's developers released a free patch that restored the hidden content, rendering the Steam-imposed censorship a big ol' waste of both the developers' and the customers' time.

Hatred

Many games, even ones filled with sex and violence, are labors of love, and require lots of time and energy to make them as fun as possible. Even with its edgy content, Grand Theft Auto wouldn't be the cultural phenomena it is today if it wasn't fun to play. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is full of bloody combat and explicit love scenes. It's also one of the best-reviewed games of all time.

But are also games like Hatred, which only exist to get everyone riled up—and subsequently profit off the outrage. Hatred's initial trailer shows a man in a black trenchcoat stalking and murdering police and civilians for no reason. Developer Destructive Creations positioned Hatred as a response to "polite, colorful, politically correct" games with artistic aspirations, claiming that the isometric shooter would be a "pure, gaming pleasure" that "takes no prisoners and makes no excuses."

Or, the Guardian notes, Destructive Creations deliberately set out to exploit the "the ongoing culture war between entrenched 'hardcore' gamers and liberal critics," exacerbated by GamerGate and the alt-right, in order to make a quick buck. The game industry played right into Hatred's hands. In 2014, curators at Valve removed Hatred from Steam Greenlight, citing the game's content. Fans accused the company of censorship. Ultimately, Valve reversed its decision, and head honcho Gabe Newell personally apologized.

As the Guardian points out, that's exactly what Destructive Creations wanted. Because of the manufactured controversy, Hatred looks like the rebellious, subversive game Destructive Creations promised, and not the mediocre twin-stick shooter it actually is. It's a cynical strategy, but it worked: Hatred sold almost 150,000 copies, although very few players spent more than a handful of hours with it. Marketing can only take a game so far.

Postal 2

The first Postal received mediocre reviews and didn't make much of an impact. Its sequel, Postal 2, spawned a feature film spinoff, broke sales records, and continues to receive expansion packs and new content from its developer, Running With Scissors, even though the game is practically 15 years old. So, what changed? Postal 2 is bigger and better made than its predecessor, but at its heart, it's really just more of the same.

The difference is easy to spot. While the original Postal didn't receive much attention from moral crusaders (although Joe Lieberman did try to get the game banned), the sequel was a lightning rod for controversy. The New Zealand government banned Postal 2 on the grounds that "the game is designed, and has the capacity, to allow the player to test how much violence and humiliation he or she can inflict on human beings." The Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification refused to certify the game, effectively making it illegal in the country. The Swedish government tried to sue Postal 2's local distributor for selling violent content, but the case was thrown out by the court.

And thus, Postal 2 became a global brand. It hasn't always been smooth sailing for the franchise— the Postal film was an unmitigated disaster both creatively and at the box office, while Postal 3, which was made by an outside developer, was disowned and ultimately discontinued by Running With Scissors over quality concerns. So far, that hasn't been enough to kill the series. Postal 2 received an expansion pack in 2015. A modern remaster of the first game arrived in 2016. Plans for Postal 4 are reportedly under way—and, if history is any indication, it'll piss people off all over again.

Final Fight

Thanks to censorship, Capcom accidentally created a video game icon. In 1989, when the developer decided to release its brand-new brawler Final Fight in arcades, they had a problem: allegedly, developers worried that one of the enemies, a pink-haired streetwalker named Poison, would draw the ire of feminist groups because "hitting a woman was considered rude." Its solution wasn't politically correct, but for the time, it worked. Capcom made Poison transgender and called it a day.

It was an act of self-censorship designed to call attention away from the character (when Final Fight made its way to the Super Nintendo, Capcom replaced Poison entirely with a new, male character), but the change had the opposite effect. After Birdo, one of the enemies in Super Mario Bros. 2, Poison became the first visibly trans character in video games. Over time, it stuck. While Capcom likes to play coy regarding Poison's gender identity, in 2007, Capcom employee Yoshinori Ono confirmed that Poison is "a post-op transsexual" in America, and a transgender woman in Japan.

While there are a number of issues with how Poison is portrayed—the idea that it's "okay" to beat up a member of a marginalized group, but not a lady, is troubling, and Poison's heavily sexualized appearance feeds the stereotype that transgenderism is about sex, not identity—the character has gone on to become a role model, if a controversial one, for trans gamers. While talking to Kill Screen, trans blogger Morgan McCormick credits Poison for helping her come to terms with her own trans identity, saying "When I first heard about her, I was like, 'So the video game industry has trans people in their games? Then maybe it's okay for me to be trans.'"

Is Poison problematic? Absolutely. Can she be ignored? Given the general lack of trans characters in games, absolutely not.

Carmageddon

For developers of games with sensitive material, ratings boards like the ESRB or the British Board of Film Classification (which handled video games with extreme violence or graphic sexual situations until 2010) can be a major pain in the butt. If a game gets the wrong rating, many retailers will refuse to carry it, and developers are forced to change or cut content until the ratings board deems to appropriate for sale.

But in 1997, Stainless Software and its publisher, SCI, actually wanted its controversial driving game Carmageddon to receive a mature rating. A mature rating, the companies figured, would help display just how violent and depraved Carmageddon was—and since the game's controversial nature was the cornerstone of Stainless' design philosophy and one of the game's big selling points (like Death Race two decades earlier, Carmageddon is all about running over pedestrians), the rating could be used as a selling point. Stainless didn't have to submit Carmageddon to the BBFC, but did so anyway.

According to developers, the plan "backfired terribly." While the BBFC members laughed and enjoyed their time with Carmageddon, they refused to certify it, forcing Stainless to make changes before the game was released. As the press piled on with increasingly sensationalist headlines, Stainless changed Carmageddon so that players hit zombies, not living people, which was enough to get a 15-and-over rating and secure a release. Still, Stainless persisted, and after 10 months of appeals the original version of Carmageddon made its way into the wild—and sold over two million copies, thanks largely to the controversy. "We weren't known, the brand wasn't known, SCI wasn't known," one developer admits. "The game had to stand on its own two feet and it might not have done that without the violence."