Far Cry 5 promises to be one of the most controversial games in history but it’s not the first and it won’t be the last.
Set in Hope County, Montana, Far Cry 5 explores what happens when the nation is taken over by gun-toting, religious zealots. This is bound to strike a chord in the Trumpian Age where neo-nazi and White supremacist groups have been more active than they have been in over 40 years. I agree with Forbes writer, Erik Kain that “Duck Dynasty, Sons of Anarchy, Deliverance…these are the words and phrases, shows and films, that come to mind” when I watched the trailer.
Whether people want to admit it or not, the video game community is like the funhouse-mirrored reflection of American society–our exaggerated selves. Some video game developers, knowingly or not, explore that reflection through certain sociopolitical topics that too many people are afraid to confront. Hence, the controversy. But Far Cry 5 is not the first and it won’t be the last. Let’s explore a few games that brought on the controversy.
The team behind the Bioshock series like to create more than just a ‘kill all the bad guys’ type of shooters, which can definitely be seen in their Ayn Rand-inspired first Bioshock game. But Infinite took on racism which made racists incredibly uncomfortable. Surprisingly, Infinite did an excellent job with addressing racism head on–something politicians and political pundits seem to be incapable of.
Set in the floating city of Columbia in 1912, you play as Booker DeWitt, a man sent to find a girl, Elizabeth who is being held captive by the founder of the city, Comstock. Columbia was founded on American exceptionalism, imperialism, the fusion of religion into governance and racial superiority. In the very beginning of the game, DeWitt is stopped and asked (told) to play a game: throw a baseball at the captive interracial couple being displayed on stage. “Playing Bioshock Infinite means confronting a time in American history when racism was not just overt, but also a mundane part of society.”
And then, there were people who were pissed about DeWitt being forced into baptism in order to proceed in the game. Religious zealotry and racism often go hand in hand in America. These two themes are central to Infinite’s, for they set the tone of what the ruling people of Columbia believe and what the resistance is fighting against. Sound familiar? Remember, funhouse mirrored-reflection.
Grand Theft Auto series
Everything from the excessive promotion of violence to prostitution–so many parents, politicians and political pundits were pissed off. The games are clearly not for children, hence the rating M for Mature. But parents still bought the game for young kids and were shocked that the game wasn’t for kids! Oh, noes! Players can drink and drive, kill anyone, steal cars, sell drugs, bang prostitutes (then kill them) and antagonize the police.
Each game takes place in a new, fictional city based on actual US cities (San Andreas is based on Los Angeles, Vice City is based on Miami, etc.) and a new protagonist for each game. Each protagonist has one thing in common, though: a life of gang or mafia-related crime. The purpose of each game is to rise to the top of their respective crime worlds and to do this, you have to get your hands real dirty. With every GTA release, Rockstar Games becomes embroiled in another legal battle. Sex, cars, crime and the ability to commit almost any type of violent act you want left critics steaming mad. And they get madder with each release.
But nothing got GTA critics madder than the “Hot Coffee” mini scene from San Andreas. And “Hot Coffee” was a doozy! Hot Coffee was a mini game where you made Carl “CJ” Johnson engage in very explicit sexual activity with some of the game’s female characters. The object of the mini-game was for CJ to get the lady aroused by pressing certain buttons. The backlash was so swift that even Hillary Clinton got involved, leading an investigation and led an attempt to criminalize violent games. How did Rockstar developers respond?
At one point in time, Mortal Kombat was considered too violent, gruesome and inappropriate for video games. The original Mortal Kombat game was released in 1992 in arcades and on Super Nintendo in 1993. Super Nintendo was seen as wholesome. Nintendo is still looked at as the gaming console for kids–innocent digital fun. The controversy surrounding the game wasn’t just about the gruesome violence, but that the game was clearly being marketed to children. Before Super Nintendo released the game console, they met with developers to convince them to change the red blood to the color green. The reason the controversy was so extraordinary is that at the time, gaming was seen as something that was for kids. But as video games became popular, more teens and young adults played them, though, the gaming industry didn’t quite take that audience seriously.
MK was also released on rival console Sega Genesis and allowed players to unlock the blood and gore with a cheat code (I actually remember this–yes, I’m that old). When a government aid’s kid asked his father to buy the game for him, that’s when all political hell really broke loose. Senator Joe Lieberman formed a committee, using Mortal Kombat to scapegoat America’s growing violence. Lieberman ultimately called on the gaming industry to recall the game and to regulate itself. MK wasn’t recalled, but the government witch hunt led to the rating system games have today. MK ushered in a new era of gaming–gaming for teens and adults.
Of course, these are not the only controversial games to emerge. Dishonorable mention goes to a game whose premise was to play as a man who stalks a woman and her daughters so that he could rape them. Another dishonorable mention goes to a game whose premise was literally the extermination of Black, Latino and Jewish people. Video games will always be controversial and the scapegoat for people to blame violence on instead of looking to society itself. Video games and their communities may mimic society, but they do not cause our problems. They only hold the mirror up to show what’s already there.