Video Games have come under a lot of scrutiny over the last few decades. Like music, television and film before it, it has been blamed for all sorts of anti-social or even hostile behaviours. But, as Marcus Bristocke once put it, “If Pac-Man had affected us as kids, we’d all be running around in dark rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive electronic music.” But despite this viewpoint, many games have been silently (or loudly) changed to cater for these accusatory audiences – often to the point where we do not even notice them today – making gaming history and gaming censorship virtually synonymous in many instances.
Naturally, this history changes somewhat depending on what country you’re looking at it from, but due to the issues of the international audience, some instances of censorship have impacted the game right down to initial prototypes.
Let’s look at a few examples of that history and a few key points in the long, tumultuous chronicle of video game censorship:
Winners Don’t Use Drugs
This was a phrase invented by President Nixon in 1971 that eventually made its way into arcade games. Under the guidance of the American Amusement Machine Association (AAMA) a law was passed that required all imported arcade games to carry the message somewhere in their gameplay. Hilariously as this slogan was accompanied by the FBI’s seal it became useful for identifying counterfeit arcade games as many of these would lack the message, the seal, or an incorrect version of it. This was all part of the war on drugs campaign and this war on drugs changed a number of classic icons.
Mario? Yeah, he takes shrooms. Miyamoto was quoted in 2010 as saying “Since the game’s set in a magical kingdom, I made the required power-up item a mushroom because you see people in folk tales wandering into forests and eating mushrooms all the time.” But of course, there’s an innocent explanation. Mushrooms are full of growth-inducing mycoproteins. Mushrooms go on pizza. The pizza is Italian. Mario is Italian. Except, according to NES developer Umera, Mario isn’t Italian, he’s Japanese. This is, of course, contested by Miyamato himself who originally wrote Mario as an Italian plumber in New York, but that doesn’t change how higher-ups and decision-makers may have perceived the product, and it certainly doesn’t change Miyamato’s own statement that the origin of mushrooms in Mario games are directly tied to substance use in folklore.
No matter how you slice it, Mario uses drugs, but perhaps he got past the legal and management censors because of the more innocent explanations.
National Public Policy Changing International games
But there are plenty of other examples. The Australian rating board is responsible for Bethesda renaming Fallout 3’s morphine to Med-X in order to keep it compliant with Australian public policy on drug usage in media. Even Minecraft was affected by these laws with the Psychedellicraft mod being slapped with an RC rating in 2019. But that’s just a mod you say? Well, in 2005 Grand Theft Auto San Andreas was banned in Australia and a mandatory recall was issued because of a simple hacker-made mod that restored a single line of code.
This was known as the Hot Coffee Scandal, and it restored a minigame that allowed players to play out a sex scene – a minigame that had supposedly been removed from the original game to appeal to international censors. Despite the fact that it required hacking and modifying the game code to access, and the fact that the publishers had already attempted to make it inaccessible in order to comply, the sheer existence of the minigame was enough to get it removed from Australian shelves and cause an international scandal.
This effect of public policy on the video game industry is not only restricted to countries like Australia though. In China where depictions of skeletons and the dead are strictly prohibited, games like League of Legends were forced to give their undead, skeletal character Thresh a full, human body. This new skin has become the default version for the international version of the game Wild Rift. And it doesn’t stop at global e-sport titles either. China has repeatedly banned or forced changes on video games entering their country, and with the size of the Chinese market (the biggest in the world for video games), their demands are often difficult for developers and marketers to ignore.
China regularly bans or forces changes on any game that even slightly depicts China in a negative light, or that projects a different version of history than the version officially promoted by the Chinese Communist Party, or that goes against core elements of Chinese culture, such as the depiction of the dead, and enforce this by requiring all international games to partner up with Chinese firms like Tencent and NetEase.
A Summary of Censorship History
1971: Nixon coined the phrase “Winners Don’t Use Drugs” which soon became a mandatory phrase in arcade games.
1992: Mortal Kombat and Night Trap were released sparking the first major controversy over whether video games were too violent or sexual for kids.
1994: The Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) now the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) is formed. Congress approves the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) forming the standard classification of video games.
2000: China bans video game consoles.
2005: Grand Theft Auto’s Hot Coffee Scandal.
2008: Australia bans Fallout 3 for drug use resulting in the creation of Med-X, greatly raising awareness of the impact of censorship in the gaming community.
2010: Mass Effect is blamed for the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting, closely followed by Starcraft, Call of Duty and Dance Dance Revolution leading to a new wave of legislative discussion.
2011: The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that video games are protected speech under the first amendment.
2014: South Park Stick of Truth highlights and pokes fun at Australian censorship while complying with their rules.
2014: China lifts the ban on video game consoles but requires developers to have ties with Chinese companies.
2017: Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is forced to remove swastikas and Hitler’s moustache from their alternate history franchise.
2018: Germany relaxes its laws on the use of swastikas and other symbols in video games as long as the imagery included falls within the “social adequacy” allowance – meaning the game must not celebrate or glorify that content.
2021: A study reveals that over 180,000 words are blacklisted on the Chinese market including words like Taiwan, Tibet, Hitler, Stalin and Putin.