For as long as video games have existed, it seems that (some) parents have been at odds with the entire concept of them. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably heard your parents scold “Turn that Nintendo off and go outside for a change!” more than once in your life. If you’re like me, you probably ignored those demands and risked getting grounded.
While some parents definitely had a gross misunderstanding of video games in general, there were plenty of titles which caused legitimate concern. Back when games were marketed mostly to kids and teenagers (as opposed to many games being made for adult gamers these days), any games that included the likes of violence or sexual content were quite controversial.
Whether you started your gaming back in the 80s with an Atari or NES, or more recently as the Playstation and Xbox consoles became the two main consoles of choice, there have been a handful of games that your parents would never have allowed you to buy. Or even rent. So most of us were forced to play them at a friend’s house. A friend whose parents were much cooler than ours.
10. Call of Duty
It’s not that first-person-shooters didn’t exist before Call of Duty. Of course they did. Even WWI and WWII shooters existed long before this popular franchise rose to fame. However, it was 2007’s Modern Warfare that really upped the ante. For the first time, developers Infinity Ward made the game in a modern day setting, depicting very real battle scenes that look like something you might see on CNN. It was a jolting take on the ultra realistic kind of battles that were actually being fought in various parts of the world.
In addition, the game totally overhauled its multiplayer mode, awarding players with new weapons, attachments, and camo as they shot enemies and leveled up. Critics condemned this mode as a “murder simulator,” complete with flashy rewards for doing a good job. Of course, the game was rated M by the ESRB, which means that they generally deemed it unsuitable for anyone under 17-years-old. Clearly that didn’t work, though, because I remember getting pwned by tons of mouthy 12-year-olds when Modern Warfare first came out.
9. Night Trap
Night Trap isn’t a particularly great game. It probably wouldn’t even be remembered much if a couple of politicians hadn’t made such a big deal about it. The game, which was released in 1993 for the Sega CD, had a simple premise: the gamer played a special agent who was charged with watching live surveillance footage of five young women trapped in a house, and triggering traps to stop anyone who might endanger them.
The controversy stemmed from the fact that the game used full motion video (FMV) of real actors and actresses, rather than traditional gaming sprites. It made everything feel much more real, which irked U.S. Senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl. They spearheaded a congressional hearing on video game violence that focuses on Night Trap and Mortal Kombat (more on that in a bit). Despite the game not featuring any nudity or extreme acts of violence, Night Trap was branded as a sick game for psychopaths and sexual deviants, mostly due to a single scene where one of the characters is wearing a nightgown.
Even Night Trap is probably the least offensive game on this entire list, it was one of the only games that was pulled from retailers. The result of the congressional hearings was the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), which is still used in North America to rate video games.
8. Conker’s Bad Fur Day
At first glance, a lot of parents probably missed all the problems with Conker’s Bad Fur Day. After all, the game featuring bubbly cartoon graphics, a cute squirrel of a main character, and was only available for a Nintendo console, which is noteworthy because Nintendo was (and still is) generally much more strict with what kind of content they allowed on their gaming systems. Yet somehow, near the end of the Nintendo 64’s life cycle, this magically offensive gaming gem made it to release.
Conker is actually a hard-drinking, foul mouthed, sex obsessed degenerate of a squirrel who is trying to find his way home after a long night of partying. Along the way, his girlfriend gets kidnapped and he sets off to rescue her too. The game, which is actually a super fun 3D action/puzzle platformer, features of ton of adult language, adult situations, plenty of cartoon blood, and gross-out humor (one of the bosses is actually a giant pile of poo). The game was rated M, and Nintendo marketed it as such — print ads in Playboy magazine and TV commercials featuring scantily clad blondes. My parents were definitely not pleased when I managed to bring home a copy of Conker’s thanks to a less-than-strict checkout guy at my local gaming store.
7. Leisure Suit Larry
The first Leisure Suit Larry game was published way back in 1987, and there have been at least ten different sequels or spin offs made since. The reason your parents didn’t want you to play any of them is simple: the entire goal of the game if get your character, Larry, into bed with any woman who will lower her standards enough to make him seem tolerable.
The settings for these games are often bars, casinos, beach resorts, cruise ships, or college campuses. Larry drinks and flirts his way into the pants of as many women as possible, although the rate of failure is quite high (hey, just like in real life!). I can remember trying to play one of these games on my uncle’s PC when I was about 10, but it featured an “Adult Test” at the beginning requiring the player to answer a series of questions about politics and world events. Ten-year-old me didn’t have a chance!
When Rockstar North wasn’t busy making Grand Theft Auto games, they pumped out this violent little side project and made waves of controversy. Manhunt was a stealth survival-horror game where you play death row inmate James Earl Cash, given the opportunity to escape your death sentence. All you have to do is brutally murder a bunch of gang members, on camera, so The Director can make snuff films.
The game was notorious for its kill system, which featured graphic violence and a higher score for more brutal and bloody takedowns. Even the staff at Rockstar were divided, with many employees voicing concerns that Manhunt crossed the line. The game was banned in New Zealand, Australia, and Germany, and became the first video game to be classified as a film in the province of Ontario, Canada, receiving an R rating (instead of the standard M for Mature from the ESRB).
5. Mortal Kombat
Mortal Kombat has probably been blamed for more schoolyard fights than any other form of entertainment in known human history. While it wasn’t the first popular fighting game on the market, MK really upped the ante by adding realistic blood and gruesome finishing moves called “Fatalities,” which resulting in one player viciously murdering the other after a best two-out-of-three-round contest.
The long-running series was infamous for being banned in the homes of video gaming teens around the world. As mentioned in the Night Trap section of this list, Mortal Kombat was largely responsible for North America forming the ESRB ratings board to classify games for different age groups. The game has been brought up in a number of different lawsuits relating to real-life violent incidents, including multiple murders. It’s also been criticized for the revealing costumes worn by female characters and using racial stereotypes for its black and Asian characters.
4. The Guy Game
This was a lazy excuse for a video game. The Guy Game tried to take everything that encompasses a typical frat-boy Spring Break party and turn it into… a digital trivia game. What? As players attempted to answer questions in the form of a gameshow, they could increase their “Flash-O-Meter” with correct answers. Progress far enough and you would be awarded with actual video footage of girls flashing the camera (all previously filmed during a spring break party).
Basically it was Q&A, with a healthy dose of T&A — softcore porn for teenage gamers. The real controversy began when one of the girls featured in the game filed a lawsuit alleging that not only was she not told the footage would be used in a video game, but that she was only 17-years-old at the time. A temporary restraining order was issued, halting production of further copies of the game.
3. BMX XXX
This game was originally supposed to be a sequel to Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX, endorsed by popular X-Games champion Dave Mirra. However, somewhere along the development cycle, publisher Acclaim decided that the gameplay sucked. They made a hasty decision to switch focus, adding in plenty of adult humor, foul language, and nudity. So much nudity. Players could create female characters who were completely topless and the game contained live-action footage of real life strippers.
When Mirra got wind of the changes, he refused to be involved and even took Acclaim to court to ensure that his name was scrubbed from the final product in every way. At that point, the game was renamed to the titillating BMX XXX and released on Xbox, Playstation 2, and (somehow) the GameCube. That was just the start of the problems, though. Major retailers refused to carry it and Sony refused to allow it on the PS2 unless all the nudity was censored. Less than 100,000 copies were sold (total) and BMX XXX is heavily blamed for Acclaim’s bankruptcy two years later.
Even though these are two separate games, we are lumping them together for the purposes of this list. Wolfenstein 3D was released by id Software in 1992, and the same team followed up the successful shooter with Doom in 1993, both for the PC. The initial title is often considered the “grandfather of first-person-shooters” but garnered controversy for it’s violence and Nazi imagery.
Undeterred by the complaints, Doom took the FPS engine to another level. Although it was loved by gamers for its (at-the-time) unique and realistic gameplay, it was hammered by politicians and parents for using graphic violence and satanic depictions. The Genesis 32X version of Doom was the first game to ever be rated M for Mature by the newly formed ESRB. One psychology professor called the game a “mass murder simulator.” Six years after Doom‘s initial release, it got dragged through the mud again when it was revealed that the Columbine High School shooters were avid fans of the game.
1. Grand Theft Auto
Rockstar’s previous installment on this list (Manhunt) was nothing compared to the controversy surrounding their mega-successful franchise Grand Theft Auto. Even though the first two games had their own controversies, everything really changed with GTA III. The game switched to an full 3D environment, with huge open world maps and top-notch voice acting. Oh, and violence, sex, foul language, scantily clad women, drugs, prostitution, and organized crime. And did we mention the sex?
Critics focuses on one main game mechanic — the player could hire a prostitute in order to restore their health, and then murder the girl afterwards to get their money back. As soon as parents heard that on their nightly news, forget it — GTA was instantly banned in many households.
Every new version of GTA has a controversy of its own. Vice City was condemned for glamorizing gang wars between Haitians and Cubans. San Andreas was attacked for introducing “gangsta” black characters and the infamous Hot Coffee mod, which enabled a sex minigame. GTA IV was blasted for including a drunk driving element to the game, as well as the scandal of using full-frontal male nudity in the Lost and Damned expansion pack. GTA V features a graphic torture scene, where players much choose how to extract information from a captured rival. Oh, and a realistic strip club complete with lap dances. And pretty much every edition of GTA has maintained the ability to pick up a hooker and then kill her afterwards. It’s basically tradition, at this point.
In a nutshell, every GTA game is violent, offensive, sexist, crude, and a terrible influence on young gamers. Doesn’t matter though, because they’ve sold over 235 million copies in the past two decades, making Grand Theft Auto one of the best-selling gaming franchises in history. Just don’t let your parents know you play!