First I'd like to discuss the basic complaints many people have over these video games. The phrase "too soon" gets thrown around a lot. But what are the specific complaints about these controversial games? I've tried to divide them up from most serious to not-so-serious attributes (which a controversial game may have one or more of, and which is by no means a comprehensive list):
- Human life was lost.
- People who survived the situation or are survivors of victims of the situation still remember it, as it happened less than one generation ago.
- It spins the situation too much as novelty or entertainment and thus disrespects those involved and/or detracts from the gravity of the situation.
- It deals with a very real life issue that some people aren't comfortable discussing, such as: race, religion, sexual orientation, slavery, politics, the law, prostitution, drug use, etc.
- Stuck in a think-of-the-children mentality, the "M" or even "AO" rating does not deter groups and people like Jack Thompson from arguing that it is not appropriate material for minors and therefore should not be distributed. Popularity of a title and great game mechanics may exacerbate this.
I'm going to start with an easy game to discuss: RapeLay — an obscure title by a Japanese publisher that focuses on forced sex situations. There is something special about sexual crimes that make them even worse than murder in the United States. I don't know why, but Hot Coffee in GTA3 drew far more criticism than the normal killing rampage in that game and games before it. This same phenomena occurs at parties where they play games that a murderer is at the party. Yet, if a rapist was at the party, people would probably be mortified. While the sentencing isn't as harsh, sex offenders are registered and tracked for the rest of their lives while murderers can be released or paroled under good behavior. I see RapeLay as nothing more than a game concentrating on a particular crime — a less serious crime than many I commit in some of the games I play. I've no desire to play it, but people who derive entertainment from that have a right to it. RapeLay is merely another adult game like Dangerous Toys for the Dreamcast.
Nothing could be more recent than making a simulation game where you're a Somali pirate invading other ships. You have an impoverished community with people starving to death and people being taken captive. A player is most likely deriving entertainment from horrible situations on other continents today. This isn't Disney making three Pirates of the Caribbean movies based loosely on a very real and life-threatening situation four hundred years ago. This is completely a function of when it happened. On the other hand, piracy on the water has been a classic platform for games, and if the game is historically accurate, how much different is this than an in depth news article? Keep in mind that this is the same game company that partnered with the History channel to bring you WWII and Vietnam games in the past. I think it is very much arguable that games based on war can be informative if done correctly.
A quick note on a more wide spread release for the Playstation 2 is a game that some Hindu groups say is offensive to their religion. Along the same lines, several online games have depicted Mohammad which is a no-no in Islam causing unrest. These situations are offensive to a small part of the population and — unless done in very disrespectful ways — aren't going to gather much more controversy. They're no Muslim Massacre: The Game of Modern Religious Genocide, but they are reportedly offensive to some groups of people. On the other end are religious games that gain controversy by targeting non-members of that faith. Left Behind: Eternal Forces was controversial because of violence against non-Christian characters in the video game. Video games like Ethnic Cleansing express extreme prejudice and hate towards a particular ethnicity or nationality. Murder and violence are still murder and violence whether you are religiously motivated, racially motivated or have no clear motivation (like GTA). It is difficult to argue that these games should be outlawed while claiming that it's our right to enjoy games like GTA. Is it because these games are used for propaganda or recruitment tools and mainstream games are not? Is it because of a controversial message in the game? If so, I would like to know why this is any more dangerous than murder in video games.
None of these games faced the wide distribution that Six Days in Fallujah was looking at. And that game is now canceled, the deciding factor most likely being that it was a big name publisher with wide distribution channels. Not that the content was any more or less controversial than some of the games Kuma has made about Vietnam and WWII, but it would have had a wider release and been about a present day war that is still in progress. Books written about the Iraq war have to be careful; news about the Iraq war has to be sensitive to families. Games — a form of non-necessary entertainment — have to be even more careful if they want to enjoy popularity and avoid criticism. As a society, we are just not ready to accept games as a dignified medium. Other mediums faced this same barrier and overcame it, and it's good to have these games testing the waters.
In the United States, it's easy to claim freedom-of-speech this and freedom-of-speech that, but the lawsuits will flow from interest groups with money — no rating system will satisfy them. Letting the popularity (or lack thereof) of a title speak for its quality and message is not enough for some people. The general populace do not yet accept games as an art form like books and movies. Entertainment and even edutainment are not seen as appropriate ways to portray current events, and they may not be for a long time.
Where do you stand on controversial video games? Should publishers and developers be able to release whatever they want? Super Columbine RPG? RapeLay? Six Days in Fallujah? Are they protected by free speech? Will games forever be entertainment and therefore never be able to cover current topics? How would you effectively regulate content if I should be able to play a game like GTA but not Six Days in Fallujah? Do these titles hurt the social standing of gamers and gaming as a medium?