A controversy is something that happens when one group of people gather together to tell another group that they shouldn't have done something.
The recorded controversies in the video game world have, to now, been relatively mild. Mortal Kombat was drawn out before a congressional hearing in the mid-Nineties; Jack Thompson systematically dismantled his career in the effort to protect children from Grand Theft Auto; and, most recently, some have objected to games that use real-life tragedies as source material, such as Super Columbine Massacre and the unreleased Six Days in Fallujah.
In the cultural ghetto where games live, these controversies had a seismic effect, but the scenery was left unchanged afterward. Blood and executions became more detailed in the wake of Joseph Lieberman's Mortal Kombat inquiry.
The simulated sex that brought Jack Thompson back onto cable news returned in Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption, and Heavy Rain. The protestations against Fallujah evaporated when Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 invaded Afghanistan -- though Medal of Honor has recently drawn some fire.
Part of an explanation for all of these uprisings of propriety is found in the persistent obscurity in which game culture still churns.
Games are still considered trivialities in the larger scope of foreign wars, Tea Party debates, and the drug infractions of pseudo-celebrities. Game controversies tend to be a digestive to help the heavier portions of a daily news cycle rest a bit more comfortably in one's subconscious.
Ironically, games themselves have been so crude there's been a perceptible gap between the issue of a given controversy and the actual scene or mechanic that agitates that issue. The effects of sex in the media on teenagers can always generate debate, but when the specific cause of debate is the absurd marionette work of the Hot Coffee mod, it's understandable that most people would lose interest.
Yet, there's every reason to believe the biggest storms lie ahead. Speaking at the Art History of Games Conference in Atlanta earlier this year, Jason Rohrer suggested that video games haven't even gone through their classical period yet.
As they continue to develop, their ability to provoke, challenge, and subvert popular culture will become ever sharper. When games stop aiming to entertain and become comfortable delving into the moral murk, there will be more storms left to inherit. What follows are some thoughts, strategies, and experiences from around the industry about how to better understand and prepare for what happens when your game suddenly winds up in the cracking waves of public ire.
A Piece of Defensible Ground to Stand On
Six Days in Fallujah set out to transgress common expectations of games by recreating a specific battle from one of the most controversial military campaigns since the Vietnam War. Even saying the word "Iraq" tends to provoke discomfort; actually forwarding a specific opinion on the subject is guaranteed to be met with protestation.
Six Days in Fallujah
"Our goal has always been to recreate the stories of specific Marines who fought in Fallujah and let people experience bits of the war from these Marines' perspectives -- without editorializing about the politics," said Peter Tamte, president of Fallujah developer Atomic Games.
"We absolutely did not want to get in the middle of the argument about whether the U.S. should be in Iraq."
Still, the protestations came almost immediately after the game's announcement in March 2009. The family of a British Red Cap killed in the Battle of Fallujah spoke to the media. "Considering the enormous loss of life in the Iraq War, glorifying it in a video game demonstrates very poor judgment and bad taste," Red Keys told the Daily Mail.
Tansy E. Hoskins, of a protest group called Stop the War Coalition, also spoke out against Fallujah. "There will never be a time when it is appropriate for people to 'play' at committing atrocities," Hoskins told TechRadar. "The massacre in Fallujah should be remembered with shame and horror not glamorized and glossed over for entertainment."
Fallujah is a perfect example of game controversy both because of how predictable the reaction was, and because of how utterly the critics tend to ignore the sentiments of the creators. It was knowable far in advance that the subject would provoke strong feelings, and the particular bent of those feelings were, likewise, pretty easy to anticipate.
"The best thing you can do is get in front of an issue by going to whatever group it is that will be angry and do whatever you can in advance to get their blessing," said a marketing executive at a major Hollywood movie studio, who requested to remain anonymous.
"Do whatever you can to get them on your side, to prove that you're being sensitive to them. If you're doing that, the rest of the world will look at it and think, 'If they're okay with it, then there's no reason to be upset.'"
In the case of Fallujah, Atomic Games did a fair amount of this itself. The studio worked with several U.S. Marines who had fought in the Battle of Fallujah and Tamte and members of the staff were ready to address the issue of exploiting Iraq openly from the outset.
Mike Ergo was a Marine infantry soldier in Fallujah and one of several consultants on the game who spoke to the potential controversy with some elegance. "Video games can communicate the intensity and the gravity of war to an audience who wouldn't necessarily be watching the History Channel or reading about this in the classroom," he told the Los Angeles Times.
Even so, Konami chose to drop Six Days in Fallujah from its release calendar mere weeks after announcing it. Their critics were relatively obscure and the development team had done due diligence in advocating the non-exploitative goals of the game, but Konami seemed to lose its mettle after encountering what should have been totally predictable criticism.
This abandonment was a controversial choice for Konami, but it might have been avoided with more strenuous internal vetting and some outreach to veterans and organizations beyond the young in-house consultants. The publisher might have made a deal with a veterans' organization to share a part of the profits, or enlisted a more recognizable group of advocates to defend the game.
Alternately, the studio might have done a little more to make convincing publicity materials, including a short documentary of veterans talking about their experiences, or humanitarian workers, or even Iraqi's themselves about what had happened. Without more serious-seeming materials than some anecdotal interviews and three painfully opaque screenshots, there was not enough to rebuff the opening rhetorical salvos.
"Sometimes the best you can do is just having a piece of defensible ground to stand on, to say why your work was worth making," the movie studio executive told me. "I think in general what happens is people get surprised, and when you're surprised you're in a position of weakness."