In the final part of our special look at video-game violence, FBT finally loses it.
Part Three; No Russian.
“guns don’t kill people, video games do!” – Thomson’s said it, the NRA has said it, the press and complainers say it, even Trump’s said it, so it must be true. And to test that theory, Rockstar released Manhunt 2 (2007).
In the US, the outcry was deafening, but it was given a sensible rating of Adults Only. Less sensibly, US shops refuse to carry AO titles so Rockstar edited the game, the ESRB re-rated it Mature, Lieberman and Clinton popped up to complain, hackers released a mod that removed the censorship and nothing untoward happened. Good work everyone.
In the UK, given the original's reputation, the reaction was as subtle as Jack Thompson. Sky News green-screened their presenter and 'expert' (clearly a gamer) into the game, the Daily Mail had a conniption and Keith Vaz was "astonished", calling it ‘contempt for those who are trying very hard to ensure something is done to control the violent nature of these games’. What exactly were you doing Keith, other than feeding the Daily Mail headlines? The reaction was huge.
Both the original and censored versions were banned, and the BBFC’s reasoning was vague at best; a similar thing had happened to The Punisher (2005), but with redundant censorship it was approved. For Manhunt 2, it was blatantly down to media pressure. But the Video Appeals Committee overruled the BBFC, who took a break from approving Torture Porn movies and appealed to the High Court, where the judge decreed that BBFC’s opinion stood, and that the VAC should re-evaluate; they did. They rated it 18 again and released it.
Thing is, Manhunt 2 is so insanely violent it stops being effective, almost a parody of the original’s fearsome reputation (and subtext). The moral panic was still raging when Rockstar announced GTA IV. Oh Rockstar, what won’t you do.
GTA IV (2008) is perhaps the GTA that deserved scrutiny in my Thompson-influenced opinion; it let you get drunk then drive home. When you attempt it, you hit everything and everyone, and the cops are on you. But … there is no gamer alive who thought “I’ll walk”. You see Niko staggering out of the bar and you head for a car, smirking.
That doesn’t make it influential though. It’s good to be a gangsta, but only a digital one. We know it’s wrong. Much like Carmageddon, it’s undoubtedly in poor taste, but I never played and thought, ‘drink-driving looks doable’ and if you pick at one part of GTA, everything falls down – you’re a criminal; drink driving isn’t going to weigh heavily on your conscience. But where was Thompson? In a fast food restaurant, screaming about Manhunt 2.
Manhunt 2 was released on the Wii, so you could use the controllers to slash and stab; a US news reporter demonstrated in typically restrained fashion, and Thompson demanded Wendy’s remove Wii advertising from their restaurants because it was now a “training device”. Emulating Thomson, Keith Vaz demanded Wii-exclusive Madworld (2010) be banned because it was a ‘family console’ – what? My DVD player runs any disc put in it; if a kid watches ‘The Very Best of Mia Khalifa’ because I left it in the player it’ll be my fault, not the kid’s, not Mia’s and not the DVD Player’s. Unless my girlfriend finds it, and then we’re all in trouble.
Thompson was also trying to block GTA IV’s release, but by now Take Two had had enough. They filed a lawsuit to block his block and he counter-blocked their block – this was on top of all the lawsuits and contempt proceedings they’d both already filed. Eventually, after Thomson tried to claim the RICO act (usually reserved for money laundering), all lawsuits were dropped if Thompson agreed to never take action against Take Two or interfere in their business deals.
He was also banned from contacting them, so he has his lawyer deliver a letter to the mother of a Take Two exec sarcastically asking if she was proud of her son's accomplishments. He could still act as counsel and disparage them in the press though, which he did by claiming ‘the UK’ asked him to help stop Manhunt 2 being published, since the original ‘was responsible for the bludgeoning death of a British youth by his friend who obsessively played the game’ as he told the press, inaccurately. Still, the GTA-Thomson war was over.
War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing, except video games. But surely war-based games are fine? Guns, killing and violence are already justified? Surely those can’t attract controversy? No? Or just No Russian?
After GTA SA and Hot Coffee, the biggest game fallout was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009). A terror group provokes a US-Russia war by staging a shooting on Russian civilians and blaming the US. And we participate.
Naturally, it caused uproar. Infinity Ward claimed that while discussing terror acts, they realised; “You want to take it apart and figure out how that happened and what, if anything, can be done to prevent it. Ultimately, our intention was to put you as close as possible to atrocity.” Close? We’re complicit. There’s no ‘figuring it out’ either, we have no context; just expected to open fire on holiday-makers. The character knew what was coming but we didn’t; he was undercover, why did he decide to do this? If we’d been radicalised, that would be something but no, and not even any after-analysis. There’s no subtext here, no commentary, no exploration. The moralisers missed all that actual criticism, and just argued it was instructional. And they had cause to.
In 2011, Anders Breivik killed 77 people in Norway. Supposedly he used No Russian to ‘prepare’ for his attack - Breivik self-described as a Nazi with connections to the EDL and the NDL, and published an anti-Islam manifesto – he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with a personality disorder. Keith Vaz said it was CoD’s fault and demanded tighter controls for video games; not extremist groups, not Nazi propaganda, Keith? Breivik would have committed that atrocity regardless of if CoD was ‘instructional’, he'd already decided not been influenced. Still Vaz continued screaming - in the press and parliament - that any gun-related crime was due to whatever game happened to be released at the time; Counter-Strike, Manhunt 2, even Angry Birds. If there's a game there's a blame.
No Russian is considered one of gaming’s greatest moments, and it paved the way for more mature games. But really, after the emotional investment in games like Bioshock and Mass Effect, when you get down to it, No Russia is a hollow Hollywood actioner moment.
Talking of hollow Hollywood actioners, in 2011 that famous on-screen pacifist Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to ban games. When he was The Governator (where does that name come from again?), California passed a law that stipulated stronger controls for ‘violent’ video games, which had bad news written all over it – Pacman is technically violent. It got all the way to the Supreme Court, who argued the vague definition of ‘violence’ could also be applied to Grimm's Fairy Tales and there’s no evidence games are dangerous; then, the court ordered games be protected under the First Amendment. He won’t be back.
After that, gaming controversy abated. It was no longer a hidden danger; it was big business – Modern Warfare 2 grossed over $500 million in 5 days, more than the highest grossing movie that year (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen). Gaming was no longer ‘for the kids’, it was mass entertainment; in 2019 the industry generated over $150 billion, more than double what Movies, TV and Music made combined.
When controversy did appear, it was usually self-inflicted. Medal of Honor (2010) allowed you to play as the Taliban in Multiplayer. This was only going to attract attention, as was their defence – “if someone's the cop, someone's gotta be the robber” Nice one, EA. The UK media screamed about disrespecting ‘our brave boys’ by being able to shoot ‘them’, and EA ended up renaming the Taliban. You’d expect publishers to be savvier with their PR reasoning by now. Like the folks behind the Tomb Raider (2013) reboot.
Early on, Lara has to fight off a guy who gets grabby, and if we don’t put him down, we can assume what happens. But the publishers claimed it didn’t. It blatantly would have. Yes, once she resists, he gets violent but up to then he’s stroking her arm and nuzzling her neck – that’s not going anywhere but rape.
TR was a prequel, showing how Lara went from scared girl to fearsome raider, but why use rape to explain that transformation? I don’t recall Duke becoming tough because he fought off a sexual assault. True, this is a possibility for a woman in that situation, but TR isn’t the franchise for it, and it was done like just another QTE action moment; if you’re going to do it, deal with it, don’t just chuck in a sexual assault then move on. We’re trying to resist rape as entertainment. Surely the writer can clarify its intent?
The writer made an even bigger hash of it, saying it doesn’t change her, but then said that gamers who play it should feel uncomfortable, and finally scored an impressive own-goal-hattrick trying to dismiss the controversy by pointing out it’s rated 18 and we can see worse in a soap opera. Hang on. We fight off a rape that has no impact but we should feel bad about it but we’ve seen worse plus it’s for adults and it’s just a game? I’ve seen better defences for I Spit On Your Grave. At least that acknowledged its rape scene.
Only Mortal Kombat matches the TR reboot for graphic, sexualised violence against women. The reboot in 2011 tried to keep to the spirit of the originals, and most got it's OTT irony, but it immediately fell foul of those censors in Oz who defined the fatality moves as "violence that exceeds strong in impact" – their upper limit is 'strong'? The highest rating in Oz was 15, so anything rated strong was then banned rather than restricted; a perfect example of the assumption games are for da kidz. Drugs, sex, alcohol, crime - everything a growing teen is already up to was banned in the outback. Fallout 3, We Happy Few, Saint's Row IV all got banned for drugs, Witcher 2 was reedited because Geralt accepted sex as payment, Syndicate was banned because "A player moves through a building rapidly firing at enemy combatants," - kinda like the movie Die Hard, which is available with a 15 rating. And their regulators aren't biased?
Oddly, the publishers of 'Genital Jousting' didn't even submit it to the Australian review board, although they have finally created a R18 rating which allowed ‘stronger’ content; but they're still a little touchy - They allowed anus flamethrowers in South Park Stick of Truth, but anal probes had to go.
The argument censors often use is games have an immersion movies don't. But the press don't even bother immersing themselves before being outraged. Having not learnt the lesson Cooper 'Mass Effect sexualises women' Lawrence painfully learnt, 'author' Carole Lieberman claimed that “The increase in rapes can be attributed in large part to the playing out of [sexual] scenes in video games”. The weird thing is she was talking about Bulletstorm (2011). Games are often sexist, but Bulletstorm had no sex; what it did have was a strong female sidekick able to defend herself. And she’s not in a bikini. But that didn't matter, Carole said games make you rape and that's all Fox News needed to cause another moral outrage.
In response, Lieberman's book "Bad Girls: Why Men Love Them & How Good Girls Can Learn Their Secrets" where she categorises other women as the Prowler, the Trapper or the Ball-Buster, took a one-star beating on Amazon; although this time it was largely around how misogynistic and misleading it was. As well as gamers taking the piss. She responded -with zero irony- that it's reviews are unfair since the book has nothing to do with video games.
GTA V (2013) also fell foul of women’s rights campaigners, and frankly, it deserves it – the women of GTA are always either prostitutes or shrews and by V it's negative portrayals had got tiresome. Come on, don’t let the side down. It also got some blowback for a scene where Trevor tortures someone – and we’re the ones doing it. Previous Call of Duty games had dallied with torture, and in V it’s horrible, but crucially the subsequent scene sees Trev letting the victim go while discussing the futility of torture in a barely veiled commentary on ‘enhanced interrogation’ – but if you ignore all that commentary, you end up with The Right Honourable Keith Vaz, MP having a hissy.
GTA V reminded me of the other side of gaming that provokes fury – multiplayer. I fired up GTA Online to see if I got any pleasure from ruining a ‘real’ person’s day. Most were surprisingly friendly, but after I’d finally shot someone, I stared at his dead body and pondered if it made me feel any different, knowing a real person was reacting to my act; then got shot by someone else. Bastard! As soon as I respawn I'm gonna find you and ...
In the online world, competing against real people triggers a deeply competitive state of mind that can’t be expressed and it’s easy to see why online gamers get rowdy. Online feuds have spilled into the real world, sometimes with fatal consequences, but that’s human nature not the game – just look at football-related violence.
Nowadays it's rarely a single game that causes controversy - the general 'games caused it' excuse is rolled out as and when. Yet, releases like Hatred (2015), a Postal-Manhunt mashup was blocked on Steam but went largely unnoticed by the Press, as did Lucius (2012), where you played a kid trying kill his family without being caught. That should have brought the campaigners out in full offended force, but interestingly, both those games were low-level releases ... it's almost as if the Campaigners only care when it's popular or the press has a quiet day.
Vaz dredged up the No Russian stuff again when Modern Warfare 3 (2011) was released, admonishing its "harrowing" scenes in the London Underground, claiming it was disrespectful to 7/7. Not only did no one buy it, but a fellow MP called him on his bullshit. Things change; when Doom was rebooted in 2016, the press praised the original. Carmageddon’s reboot managed one Daily Mail Online warning. The Modern Warfare reboot was lauded for tackling relevant themes and putting you in emotionally challenging scenes. Postal 3 was too crap for anyone to care.
Sometimes it's not the press, the campaigners or failed authors, it's the developers causing shit. 'Rape Day' (2019), an interactive story-game where you had to 'chose' rape to progress, was removed from Steam before release, as was 'Active Shooter'; eventually retitled as Standoff, you played a kid shooting up his school or a SWAT officer trying to stop him.
Those intentionally controversial titles aren't helping legitimise gaming, which nowadays is rolled out as a catch-all response to shootings; the Sandy Hook shooter was a gamer, although he was obsessed with Dance Dance Revolution, not Doom; Mass Effect was embroiled in the controversy simply because the shooter's brother had liked ME's Facebook page - who the press misidentified as the shooter. When the 'Incel' movement left 4Chan for the mainstream media, the campaigners had a new fear; and they were categorised as 'gamers'. Mob mentality Chinese Whispers driven by the reaction-chasing press encouraging the belief that games are to blame instead of confronting gun laws or mental health.