Why We Game - Murder Simulators Pt2

In part two of Murder Simulators, FBT looks back fondly at all the murders he didn’t commit.

Part two - Killographic.

The mother of all game-related meltdowns is of course, GTA San Andreas (2004). Surprisingly, it wasn't over the violence. In most video games, you just got your character where they needed to be and sat back to enjoy the cutscene. But this time, we helped CJ get lucky. And Hillary Clinton thought she’d get lucky too. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Senator Lieberman had gotten close to stamping out the murder simulators, but now it was lawyer and moral crusader Jack Thompson’s turn.

Thompson, who had previous waged war on the music industry, began focusing on video games, berating them in the press and popping up on the news to warn of the dangers, while offering his services in reportedly game-related crimes. And that’s where it got nasty.

In 2003, he offered to defend a 16-year-old who was charged with murdering another teenager after playing GTA III; seems odd for Thompson to side with the attacker, but his obvious intent was to blame the game, not the gamer. He came unstuck when it was revealed he’d also legally advised the victim’s family; by playing both sides, he created a conflict of interest - yeah, the conflict was the family wanted justice, he wanted a platform. Then the accused, who had been in the juvenile system and abused before becoming a runaway, claimed he insinuated himself into the family purely as an opportunity to kill, an obsession he’d had since he was young; he asserted GTA III had nothing to do with it.

Meanwhile, GTA Vice City was released, and oh boy did Thomson not like it. It caused quite a lot of controversy but as gamers know, it’s not real; we’re playing Tony Montana wearing a Hawaiian shirt while driving a Lambo in an 80s setting. But, also in 2003, Devin Moore - who has been arrested on suspicion of stealing a car - grabbed an officer’s gun and killed two police officers and a dispatcher before stealing a patrol vehicle. When recaptured, the Vice City fan claimed "Life is a video game. Everybody's got to die sometime."

Here was the truth the campaigners had been seeking, in perfect soundbite form. The media storm was huge and Thompson quickly filed a suit against GTA VC’s publisher, Take Two. Moore’s lawyer claimed he was suffering from PTSD after neglect and abuse, and escaped into the world of GTA, becoming disconnected. The jury rejected that plea, including GTA being an influence but forever more, GTA was known as a game that led a boy to reenact what he saw in a video game. Thompson’s hysterics continued until the Judge revoked his licence to practice in Alabama. Thompson went looking for another Murder Simulator. Rockstar did too.

Thing is, there was so much outrage that ‘Murder Simulator’ had lost its impact. So in 2003, the National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF), a family-values pressure group, renamed gaming as … Killographic. It was intended to define games as having the same impact as pornographic material, calling both disconnecting and unhealthy. It doesn’t make a lot of sense but that doesn’t matter. It was all over the news again, Gaming was evil. And to prove it Rockstar released Manhunt – the very definition of killographic.

Manhunt (2003) was always going to be a tough sell. You played a death row inmate, who awoke from his supposed execution to find himself on the set of a snuff film – forced to kill to survive, it was so violent it almost murdered gaming.

There aren’t a lot of redeeming qualities to it, and even some within Rockstar felt Manhunt went too far; it is a grotesque game and it’s questionable if you actually enjoy it – but that is the question Manhunt asks; how did violence become entertainment? It feels like a deliberately contentious piece of art, and it has subtext; but the reaction was simple-minded hysteria – Manhunt didn’t just teach you to kill, it desensitised you to it, then set you lose. It was too dangerous to be left in the home where a kid might pick it up. Well, don’t leave it lying around. But then, it happened.

In 2004, a 14-year-old boy in the UK was murdered, and Manhunt was reportedly recovered from the accused’s bedroom. Rockstar tried to argue that the game was rated 18 and shouldn’t have been in the possession of a teen, but such was the media firestorm that Manhunt was withdrawn from shops (but not online; out of sight again). The parents sued Rockstar, and guess who represented them.

Problem was, just as Thompson dusted off his soap-box, the police clarified that the game had been found in the victim’s room not the killer’s, who had never played it. The killer lured him to a park and killed him for money. Despicable, but nothing to do with Manhunt. But the damage was done. The media dubbed it ‘the world’s most dangerous video game’ and Germany banned it outright. In New Zealand, owning Manhunt is an offence that can net you ten years in prison (the same sentence for committing an actual murder). In Australia it was released as a 15, then banned based purely on the controversy.

Games might be protected by freedom of speech, but some just needed to shut up. Whereas Postal at least could be argued as satire, Postal 2 (2003) just tried to offend. The central premise, a guy tries to get through the week doing mundane chores without losing it, was a work of genius; every time you start a day you say ‘I’m gonna do it without killing someone’ and always end up killing someone. The reaction was huge; never mind Thompson, even the Black Eyed Peas idiotically got in on the action, showing P2 being played by kids in the Where is the Love? video. Where is the Love? Where are the parents? It’s rated Mature. You wanna ban something rage-inducing, ban Will.I.Am.

Thing is, P2 forces your hand. While there is something cathartic about jumping a queue, killing your boss, shooting Campaigners, the actual gameplay isn’t about that – everyone’s armed, everyone’s pissed off and it’s easy to rampage. It’s not you slowly losing it, compromising as you slide into madness, it’s just a badly-judged, deliberately provoking shooter. It’s schoolboy not satire; there’s a great moment where killing someone triggers a bystander to yell ‘call Lieberman!’ – but that’s about it.

Then, in 2006, a 20-year-old stormed a Synagogue in Russia, stabbing eight people before being disarmed – the attack was racially motivated, by a schizophrenic man influenced by far right and Nazi propaganda discovered in his room. They also found a copy of Postal 2.

Thompson went into overdrive, asking how much more evidence did we need? Postal 2 does feature a scene in a Church, where you can slaughter those getting in the way of your Confessional before Al-Qaeda launches a suicide attack, but that’s not the same. But it was enough. Thompson ignored the attacker’s mental state, his belief system, the materials he’d read – it was Postal 2.

Running with Scissors made a statement, one far more eloquent than Thompson’s rhetoric, reiterating that P2 is a reflection on society, that you’re ‘accountable’ and that considering modern times it’s a politically correct game; I’d not go that far, but I’d also not go so far as to pull out an AK while standing in line for milk. Talking of milk, let’s have that coffee break.

In 2004 GTA San Andreas was released. By now, the outcry aimed at a new GTA was old news, but Rockstar inadvertently handed the campaigners a whole new outrage. A side-game would have seen CJ getting it on with his side-chicks, with you controlling his moves. The developers, Rockstar, cut access but the scene remained, behind a closed door. Someone unlocked it and hey-presto, a ‘hidden’ sex game was revealed. The 'Hot Coffee Mod' was so big it caught the attention of our old friend Lieberman, who duly lost his shit and sponsored then-Senator Hillary Clinton to motion another bill in Congress, the ‘Family Entertainment Protection Act’ (FEPA).

FEPA would have seen the ratings system overhauled, fines imposed on those who sell Mature games to the underaged and the FCC given oversight. Actually, that doesn’t sound so bad – it would have legitimised games and kept them away from kids. But let’s be honest, the FCC aren’t known for their calm and considered approach – just look at Janet Jackson’s nipple. Besides, all the best TV Shows are on cable.

FEPA didn’t pass and Clinton let it expire despite being an outspoken critic of sex in the media (but not in the White House it seems), who often spoke about her concerns to voters. Odd that she’d let the high-profile FEPA die but, her re-election was a sho-in by 2006.

Not willing to let it go, in 2006 Thompson brought a $600 million lawsuit against Rockstar/Take-Two and Sony, the makers of the PlayStation, claiming a 14 year old, Cody Posey was driven to killing three people including his father due to GTA VC. The defense claimed his father was abusive and Posey was on Zoloft. The case was dismissed. As was any discussion around parental abuse and over subscription of drugs to teens. It wasn’t Take Two’s day in court either; GTA:SA was recalled and republished, and Take-Two has paid over $20 million in class actions since.

Thompson then, rather cleverly, started launching suits against shops and advertisers to scare them off supporting the industry, such as sending his pre-teen son into BestBuy to buy GTA. He once said “GTAIV is the gravest assault upon children in this country since polio”, and claimed the series was Japanese company Sony’s Pearl Harbour 2. Such were Thompson’s vitriolic attacks that NIMF posted an open letter telling him to stop dragging them into his drama. Now even the outrage groups were outraging each other.

By now, the outrage was as fantastical as the games they attacked. In 2005 NIMF exposed a game that encouraged kids to try cannibalism; had they rediscovered the infamous Harvester (1996), a FMV point and click horror that made you witness kids eating their own mother alive? No, what they were upset about was … Stubbs the Zombie (2005). Clue’s in the title. When it was pointed out to them that it’s a comedy game about a zombie, they didn’t admit to being wrong, only that gamers had tricked them. Brains.

In response, the ESRB satirically gave NIMF an “F” rating (NIMF published an annual rating for each form of entertainment), highlighting NIMF’s “misleading statements, omission of material facts, and flawed research” and gave them “a demerit for elevating its political and media agenda over their stated concerns for consumer welfare, particularly those of children and teenagers”.

Sorry, what?

Postal 2 and Manhunt were considered dangerous to kids, yet the ratings system remained intact; ‘Mature’ is advice not a restriction and the industry tried to argue games aren’t aimed at kids; and then Rockstar went and set a game in school. You’re not helping, Rockstar.

An anti-violence youth group called 'Peaceaholics' formed protests against Rockstar and Bully (2006), while Thompson forced a court hearing and got so carried away he even attacked the judge, who called him "inappropriate … unprofessional and contemptible". Undeterred, he wrote to the ESRB gloating that he’d ‘uncovered’ gay themes in Bully, using that to challenge their Teen rating; they responded saying they knew, get over it.

(Sidebar; Thompson once tried to discredit a political opponent by demanding she reveal her orientation; the opponent, the legendary Janet Reno responded; "I'm only attracted to virile men, which is why I'm not attracted to you," then patted his shoulder. Thompson filed battery charges against her. They say bullies are really cowards.)

In the UK Bully was rated 15, which didn’t help matters since that meant school kids could own it. British MP Keith Vaz actually asked Parliament to join him in expressing concern about Bully, saying you learn to “kick and punch other schoolchildren" – no kid needs a game to teach you that happens at school. The Daily Mail had a tantrum, and Bully was retitled in an attempt to swerve the hostility.

Rockstar creating “GTA Junior” and calling it Bully was never going to end well. But Bully is an important game because it reflects, not influences; the moralisers don’t want to consider that Bully explores how Parents are flawed, Teachers are indifferent, Lawmakers are corrupt; and they missed a tiny but important fact - your character is the one bullied and you’re trying to clean up the school. If only Vaz had actually played it, then maybe he wouldn't have been accused in Parliament of bullying his clerks.

Next, Thompson claimed developers were intentionally corrupting kids. He challenged them to create a violent game where the protagonist attacked game developers, arguing they’d never do it for fear of actual reprisals by insane gamers (not realising one of his most hated games, Postal 2 had done exactly that). He even offered to donate to charity. Several games duly appeared but Thompson refused to donate claiming it was satire, so Penny Arcade donated in his honour, and Thompson claimed he was being extorted and tried to sue.

Time to give Rockstar a break, and give me an excuse to talk about my favourite game, Bioshock (2006). Surely a game as beautiful as that was free of controversy? A US paper claimed Bioshock was "testing the limits of the ultraviolent gaming genre with a strategy that enables players to kill characters resembling young girls." Oh yeah, that bit.

Rather than go after Take Two (who published it), Thompson took offence at a trailer that aired during WWE SmackDown, claiming kids could have seen it. Wrestling is okay, but a trailer for a video game is the problem?

I’ve played Bioshock more times than I can count, and I’ve never ‘harvested’ a little sister. I just can’t. That they’re little girls is intentional – it’s supposed to make you hesitate, not activate a hidden desire to murder children. I may well think it while stuck on a plane next to a crying baby, but if you kill the little sisters and end it as a horrible person, that’s because you knew the difference.

Rule of Rose (2006) garnered such pre-release panic that it’s release was cancelled. It was, by all accounts, a deeply disturbing but compelling story about how kids would actually behave "without the filter of guilt or sin" as the devs put it. The press put it as "children buried alive underground, in-game sadomasochism, and underage eroticism." – none of which happens. It was a gothic horror fantasy, hardly realistic but nevertheless, the panic spread and it all but disappeared. It was rated 16 in the UK, but no one would release it. A shame because according to those who saw it, RoR was a clever and thought-provoking art-game exploring elements of society we’d rather not face up to.

Sex is always going to be around, and so will the prudes; when a plaque was added to the Pioneer probes in the 70s, there was uproar that a naked man and woman featured on it. How dare we introduce ourselves to aliens so obscenely. But while there will always be sleaze like BMX XXX, stuff like RapeLay (2006) gets harder to defend. You ‘play’ a rapist repeatedly abusing a woman and her two daughters, controlling the attacks. Even as part of Japanese art-eroticism called ‘Eroge’, it’s still socially unacceptable; it should never have been made, never been released; quick, someone call The Right Honourable Keith Vaz.

Vaz, an MP for Leicester and quite the game-hater, ‘discovered’ RapeLay while browsing Amazon, and promised to get it banned – Amazon removed RapeLay immediately because it wasn’t even licensed outside of Japan, it was a private sale. Technically a victory for Vaz. Some defended it, arguing games show murder as entertainment so why not rape – no; if I play a game where I murder an innocent, it’ll have deeper consequences or context. RapeLay’s ‘hero’ attacks out of revenge after one of the daughters witnesses him assaulting a woman. There's no way that is acceptable.

Even my beloved Oblivion (2006) wasn’t outrage-free. Some Hot Coffee-inspired modder altered the characters to be topless and America went into meltdown – nipples! A chance to dredge up San Andreas! The ERSB reclassified it from Teen to Mature due to nudity, even though nipples aren’t actually in the game – there’s an entire questline that lets you play as a murderer; that’s appropriate for teens though?

Another example of made-up upset was an attack on Mass Effect (2007). It was accused of ‘forcing kids to watch gay sex’ (it doesn’t), and US author Cooper Lawrence claimed it had full-frontal sex (it doesn’t) and lets you collect women as sex objects (it doesn’t). She admitted after the interview she’d not played it. Fans responded by giving her book, “The Cult of Perfection” one-star reviews on Amazon, justifying the rating with ‘not read it’.

The frustrating thing is, while Mass Effect does have a love scene, it occurs after hours of relationship grafting; it’s a tastefully done scene of emotional intimacy, commitment and respect which has impact across the entire trilogy and features complete acceptance of a person’s race, sexuality and gender; so Fox News concentrated on 'having sex with aliens' instead. Mass Effect is the antithesis of what the Doomsayers hated about Doom, and now they’re upset games have real people, complex narratives and repercussions?!

FBT, go get some fresh air. Join us for his final onslaught as he gets Mia Khalifa involved.

Read the first and final parts of FBT's violent journey here;

Part One

Part Three