For as long as there have been video games, there has been controversy around them, just like with any form of media and entertainment. People argue that video games cause violence in real life, promote obesity, keep children from going outside, encourage gambling and more. The list of controversies seems to never end. Most of these issues are arguable, with points that support both sides of the opinion and people willing to argue them. But there are some video games out there that have caused so much controversy that they have been banned from platforms, and even entire countries. And many of the reasons these games are controversial is a lot harder to argue in their favour.
So while the list of controversial games over history is long and exhausting, which ones are the most controversial? Which ones caused the most problems, had the strictest restrictions and caused the biggest uproar? We sorted through a lot of controversial games, which caused controversy for various reasons, and chose what we feel are the Top 10 Most Controversial Games. These games deal with subjects that humanity generally deems unseemly, push a lot of limits for better or for worse, and made a lot of people angry.
Be warned that many of the games in this list deal with material that may be offensive to many readers. There are reasons they are controversial and we are going to explore them, so be prepared when going into this article.
10. The Punisher
- System: PlayStation 2, Xbox, Microsoft Windows, Mobile
- Publisher: THQ
- Developer: Volition, Amplified Games (mobile)
- Release Dates: Apr. 12th, 2004 (mobile), Jan. 16th, 2005 (console)
The Punisher stars the Marvel anti-hero Frank Castle, better known as the Punisher. It’s him that you play as! After the mafia murders his family, Castle becomes a vigilante determined to hunt down and kill criminals for revenge. The story is mostly told through flashbacks because, at the start of the game, Castle is arrested and interrogated by police after being caught killing members of the Japanese yakuza. Each step of the way in Castle’s pursuit of vengeance leads him to his next target, and to another grisly murder (usually of many people). Several other Marvel characters like Nick Fury and Kingpin also make appearances in the game.
The Punisher has been the subject of several video games, but this particular release in 2005 was met with the most controversy. This was due to the graphic, extreme violence and torture in the game. Initially, The Punisher was told it would have to be rated Adults Only due to the level of violence. The developers changed the violent interrogation scenes to black and white to make their imagery less impactful and managed to score the Mature rating they wanted for the market. Some countries, like the UK and Australia, required even further editing and censorship for the game to be sold there. Some scenes even had to be deleted entirely.
9. Custer’s Revenge
- System: Atari 2600
- Publisher: Mystique
- Developer: Mystique
- Release Dates: Sep. 23rd, 1982
Custer’s Revenge lets you play as a character based on the American historical figure of General George Armstrong Custer. He is best known for his huge defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn, and this game is just as the title suggests - his revenge for that humiliation. The player character is wearing nothing but a Calvary hat, bandana, and boots. And that means there is nothing to hide his huge erection. The point of Custer’s Revenge is to safely guide your character from one end of the screen to the other while avoiding arrows coming from both directions. The end goal is to have sex with a Native American woman who is tied to a pole at the other end of the screen.
Custer’s Revenge is an old game, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t controversial even when it released. It’s branded as an adult game, so the sex is not the issue. The issue is that the end goal of Custer’s Revenge is seen by most to be the rape of a Native American woman, despite claims that the sex is actually consensual. She is tied up, after all, and due to the name of the game and its historical context rape is sadly more likely the truth. On top of that, many people believed the original release had the Native American character’s skin lightened. It was darkened for subsequent releases, but the damage had been done.
- System: PlayStation 2, Xbox, Microsoft Windows
- Publisher: Rockstar Games
- Developer: Rockstar North
- Release Dates: Nov. 18th, 2003
In Manhunt, a psychological survival game, players take control of death row inmate James Earl Cash. To the world, Cash has been executed; but in reality, he has been taken by someone mysterious, and is now being forced to make snuff films in exchange for his promised freedom. Cash is led along by this underground director throughout the game, performing gruesome murders mostly of increasingly dangerous gang members. Some are Neo-Nazis, some pedophiles, some are Satanic cultists, and more. Later, Cash even faces off against SWAT team members and some truly terrifying adversaries at an insane asylum, all the while being strung along by the director.
Manhunt received a lot of good and bad press when it was released. As far as controversy goes, Manhunt was accused of gratuitous violence and carnage and was subsequently banned in some countries. In fact, the more violently enemies are killed (often using weapons like hammers and nails) the higher your score is. Even some members of the team at Rockstar admitted that the level of realistic violence in Manhunt made them feel uncomfortable. It was also linked to a murder in the UK in 2004 though was later removed as any form of motive in the end. Other controversy surrounded Cash being a convicted criminal on death row for being a serial killer - and yet he is also the playable character, and for all intents and purposes, the “hero” of the game.
7. Grand Theft Auto V
- System: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows
- Publisher: Rockstar Games
- Developer: Rockstar North
- Release Dates: Sep. 17th, 2003 (initial)
Grand Theft Auto V is one chapter in the famous and long-running game series Grand Theft Auto. It puts you into the role of three different criminals as they try to perform heists and other criminal acts in the fictional land of San Andreas, based on California. Michael, Trevor, and Franklin’s stories all overlap as the story unwraps, and all are being pressured to work for the same government agency. Grand Theft Auto V’s story revolves around these heists and similar missions, but it’s an open-world game that allows you to freely explore the countryside and city by foot and by vehicle however you choose.
The entire Grand Theft Auto series has faced a lot of controversy over the years, and Grand Theft Auto V has been the point of some of the strongest. One particular mission features graphic torture, including kneecapping and waterboarding on screen. The player character is forced to torture another character in order to progress in the story, and many politicians and anti-torture groups criticised torture being used as a way to “win” the game. It’s impossible to complete the story without engaging in torture. Grand Theft Auto V also has a lot of controversy regarding its portrayal of women, which are painted in an unequal way to the male characters according to many people. It also has been accused of promoting violence towards women due to how most of Grand Theft Auto V’s female characters are treated.
6. JFK: Reloaded
- System: Microsoft Windows
- Publisher: Traffic Software
- Developer: Traffic Software
- Release Dates: Nov. 22nd, 2004
JFK Reloaded is branded as a historical simulator, letting the player step into the shoes of the famous assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on the day of John F. Kennedy’s death. Points are given to the player for how close to the Warren Commission’s findings the assassin is carried out, such as missing the first shot and the third hitting JFK in the head. While players have 39 rounds, only the first three shots are counted because there were only three shots at the actual event. Any further shots deduct from the final score. The game ends when JFK’s car disappears into a tunnel or too much time has passed.
When JFK Reloaded was released, Traffic Software claimed that they had developed it to help prove the Warren Commission’s findings by providing the first “mass-participation forensic construction.” In theory, the players would help to solidify the findings that Oswald was indeed the killer and had been able to do what he was accused of. Regardless of what their initial purpose was, though, JFK Reloaded was faced with negative criticism and controversy. With members of the Kennedy family as well as friends still alive, many feel the game was in very poor taste. Few seem to accept it has any educational merit or significance at all beyond glorifying an assassin.
- System: Microsoft Windows
- Publisher: Destructive Creations
- Developer: Destructive Creations
- Release Dates: Jun. 1st, 2015
Hatred is a shoot ‘em up video game where you take control of a man simply called the Antagonist. He is fed up with the direction human society has gone in, and feels the only solution is a “genocide crusade” through New York City to kill as many people as he can. The Antagonist is merciless as he takes to the streets, killing everyone he comes across regardless of who they are. His final plan is to commit suicide by blowing up a nuclear plant, which will result in the deaths of millions. You control him on this quest to obtain the explosives he needs to carry out this personal mission.
Hatred faced controversy before the game was even released for its level of violence and plotline. From the first trailer, Hatred was described by many as difficult to watch, grisly even, and nothing but gratuitous violence. That reaction was exactly what the game developers wanted, though; they made Hatred as opposition to political correctness and censorship, and their point was being made. Hatred released as planned, full of extreme violence and spreading its message. Negative criticism and controversy followed as predicted both for the violence and the game’s message - but that was always the goal with Hatred.
4. Super Columbine Massacre RPG!
- System: Microsoft Windows
- Publisher: Danny Ledonne
- Developer: Danny Ledonne
- Release Dates: Apr. 20th, 2005
Super Columbine Massacre RPG! is a role-playing game based on the Columbine High School shootings in 1999. You play as the two shooters, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold, and act out the events of the shooting. There are also flashbacks to both young men’s pasts to build up more of the story. You progress through the game starting on the day of the shootings, with a battle system similar to other turn-based RPGs. Eventually, after Harris and Klebold commit suicide, you continue the game on their journeys in Hell. While the characters are all portrayed in 16-bit graphics, Super Columbine Massacre RPG! has some real digital photos from the shooting as well as excerpts from real news reports.
Super Columbine Massacre RPG! is controversial for a number of reasons. First, many accuse the game of highlighting the actions of two murderers and idolising their actions by making them into RPG heroes. Those who can look past this still criticize the game’s subplot in Hell as belittling and overshadowing any anti-bullying message the rest of the game may have been trying to make. Super Columbine Massacre RPG! has even been used to support the ongoing argument that video games can cause violence in people, and was cited as a possible motive for the Dawson College shooting in 2006 - a year after the game was released.
3. Postal 2
- System: Microsoft Windows, Linux, OS X
- Publisher: Whiptail Interactive
- Developer: Running With Scissors
- Release Dates: Apr. 13th, 2003
Postal 2 is a shooter game that is actually listed as a black comedy. You play as a character simply called Postal Dude, a disgruntled man living with his unhappy marriage in a trailer in Arizona. Postal 2 takes place over the course of one week, where you are given various mundane tasks that must be completed before the end of Friday. How you accomplish these tasks are up to you, and it’s possible to complete them without engaging in any violence. But along the way, Postal Dude is pushed to his limits being attacked and harassed at every turn. Plus the apocalypse happens on Friday. Just how violent will you turn out to be?
Postal 2 tags itself as "only as violent as you are,” and you can play the game as non-aggressively as possible. But violent attacks will happen to you all the same, and Postal 2 allows you to fight violence with violence. Abhorrent, gratuitous violence that has landed Postal 2 banned in quite a few countries. In New Zealand particularly, buying or owning the game can land you up to 10 years in prison. The violence in Postal 2 isn’t limited to just humans, either; it also has the chance to be violent towards animals. And beyond the violence, it plays into a lot of negative stereotypes (like terrorists working at gas stations and women as nagging and annoying). You can play Postal 2 without violence - but almost no one who wants to play it chooses to.
2. Ethnic Cleansing
- System: Microsoft Windows
- Publisher: Resistance Records
- Developer: National Alliance, Resistance Records
- Release Dates: Jan. 21st, 2002
Ethnic Cleansing is a game made by National Alliance, an American white supremacist group. It is a first-person shooter taking place in a city similar to New York, first in the slums and eventually in the subway. The point of the game is to shoot as many enemies as possible and make it to the final boss at the end of the subway level. All of the “enemies” in Ethnic Cleansing, though, are minority groups targeted by National Alliance. In the slums, you fight African Americans and Mexicans, and in the subway, you fight Jews. The final boss is the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon.
Ethnic Cleansing was created to be provocative and controversial, and to bring attention to National Alliance and their hateful messages. The game definitely succeeded at that. It’s bad enough that the enemies in the game are ethnic minorities at all, but their portrayal is even worse. All of the minorities are displayed in stereotypical ways, with Jews dressed as Rabbis, Mexicans in sombreros, and African Americans resembling gorillas. You even play as a member of the KKK, a skinhead, or a neo-Nazi. Ethnic Cleansing has been controversial ever since its release and is even more so in today’s political climate.
- System: Microsoft Windows
- Publisher: Illusion Soft
- Developer: Illusion Soft
- Release Dates: Apr. 21st, 2006
In RapeLay, you play as a man named Masaya Kimura, a convicted pervert. At the start of the game, he is caught groping a woman on the train by a teenage girl named Aoi Kiryu and ends up in prison. When released, he begins to stalk Aoi’s family, which consists of her younger sister Manaka and her widowed mother, Yūko. In retaliation for what happened to him, Kimura decides that he wants to rape all three of them, starting with Aoi. The rest of RapeLay is about how Kimura gets each of the three women alone and what he does to each one of them, including taking pictures of them when they are most vulnerable and at his mercy.
RapeLay is easily one of the most controversial games ever made. It lets you play as a criminal pervert and arguably glorifies rape by making it the point of the entire game. Even more concerning than rape as a gameplay tool is that one of the characters, Manaka, is very young. RapeLay gives players the opportunity not only to rape these women, sometimes violently, but also to snap pictures of them covered in semen, and eventually to lock them up in his personal dungeon. RapeLay caused enough international outrage that it was even brought up in British Parliament and the US Supreme Court. The game has since been banned in many countries and is hard to purchase even in Japan, and is the only game ever to be banned in Argentina.
From insensitive material to gratuitous violence, these controversial games caused a lot of uproars and they were released, and many still do today. Featured on many platforms, across genres, and over a wide span of years, controversial games are everywhere. And they’re not likely to be going anywhere as game designers continue to push their limits and press the moral question of what is appropriate in video games, and what isn’t. Whether you agree with the censorship of and negative backlash towards games like these or not is up to you, but you have to agree - they all deserve to be called controversial.
Have you played any of the controversial games on our list? What did you think about them? Did we miss a controversial game you think should be on here? What do you think is too much to be in a game, or should games be uncensored and allowed complete freedom? Let’s talk about it in the comments!