Like any media/art form, video games have the ability to make the user feel emotions and expose them to things that during the normal course of their lives they would never encounter. On most occasions, this is a good thing, transporting the user to another world or putting them in the shoes of characters from diverse backgrounds. But just like other forms of art or media, video games can also go too far when trying to get the player to feel something. Let’s take a brief look back at some of the more controversial moments in video games, and what impact they had on players, of course understand that this is an opinion piece, and is only my view of some games that had what I personally felt were moments that perhaps went too far.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
In 2009, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was released, with an optional level called “No Russian”. In this level, players were in control of a deep undercover CIA operative, taking part in an extremist terrorist attack on an airport where civilians were gunned down by heavy machine guns. Shooting the civilians was optional, as the level only required the player to follow the other terrorists from checkpoint to checkpoint. Soon local authorities responded to the scene, and the level played out like a modern shooter with the player killing police and security forces while traversing the airport. At the end of the level, the head of the terrorist group confronts the player and kills them, revealing that they knew he was an undercover agent and making the killing in the level completely pointless for the player.
Some were outraged by the blatant murdering of civilians in this game, and others were upset by the normalizing of terrorism. Personally I thought the payoff was not worth putting the player through the experience in being complicit in such an act, video game or no, but I do admit that this level made me think a lot about the impact video games can have on someone’s ideas or morals. It felt wrong, which is not something I had experienced very often in video games.
The August 2007 2K game, Bioshock was widely acclaimed for the its novel setting and immersive storytelling. Set in the 1960s, players assumed the role of Jack, a man whose plane crashed near the bathysphere entrance of Rapture, an underwater Utopian city built by billionaire Andrew Ryan. The discovery of a genetic material capable of granting superpowers to humans, led to the city’s decline. This material called ADAM, was created by sea slugs, and a gangster character in the game mass produced it by implanting the slugs into the stomachs of orphaned girls. These girls called “Little Sisters” could be captured and killed by the player in order to get more ADAM which fueled the character’s plasmid attacks and skills. While there were also other ways to get the material, this killing of children in a video game left a bad taste in many gamer’s mouths who thought that it was unnecessary. The game even makes it an explicit choice whether to rescue the creature or harvest it. Harvesting it would kill the child but give the player a full refill of ADAM, where rescuing them would “release them from their torment” and only give the player a small amount of ADAM.
Metal Gear Solid 5: Phantom Pain
In September 2015, Metal Gear Solid 5 was released worldwide and was immediately met with criticism over its treatment of a female character named Quiet. While the series and its creator Hideo Kojima have long been criticized over their treatment of female characters by zooming in on their jiggling breasts or panning across their rear ends, the graphic fidelity available in this installment as well as the scantily clad nature of the Quiet character made this juvenile oversexualization even more apparent and offensive. The character’s lack of clothing is addressed in the game by stating that she absorbs light through her skin in a sort of photosynthetic process. The frustrating part is that the character is actually quite interesting, but every time she is on screen I feel embarrassed. Unlockable “outfits” for Quiet include one where she is covered in what looks like blood, one where she is completely silver, and another where she is completely covered in gold. Despite being covered in metal, her “parts” still move in the same exaggerated way. I should mention though that you can also unlock an outfit in which she is fully clothed. As if the level of juvenile sexualization in the game itself wasn’t bad enough, the Quiet action figure also featured squeezable breasts.
The Stanley Parable
In October 2013, The Stanley Parable was released by Davey Wreden, an indie game developer. Originaly released as a mod for the Halflife 2 game from Valve, this 2013 stand-alone release was a first person perspective interactive story telling game. The player controlled Stanley, a lowly office worker whose job it was to watch a stream of data on his computer screen and press the corresponding buttons without question. One day the data stops coming into the computer, and Stanley exits his office only to find that the building was empty. The game’s story was driven by a narrator, who suggested paths for the player to take. It was the player’s choice whether or not to follow these suggestions. The game featured witty commentary and humor to make a broader statement about the nature of choice in our lives. Along the narrative of choice, an instructional video in the game posits a hypothetical scenario about a man named Steven. The video states that Steven could spend his life trying to make the lives of impoverished citizens 3rd world countries, or systematically set fire to every orphan within 30km of his house. The graphic for this part of the video is depicted by a cartoon of a very white man in a tie, giving a small black child a cigarette in one cell, and lighting the same child on fire in another cell. There were some who saw this as a racist cartoon, and the developer agreed to remove it from the game.
Spec Ops: The Line
This 2012 game takes place in Dubai, the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates. The player assumes the role of Captain Martin Walker to investigate and recon the post-catastrophe city. He leads a team of elite Delta Force operatives into the sand storm destroyed city looking for a lost regiment of US forces called the 33rd Infantry Battalion who had been ordered to evacuate but had not done so. Through a complex and twisting narrative of betrayals and shady politics, the player character begins to hallucinate and suffer from PTSD. When you confront the 33rd Infantry, they confuse your team with rogue CIA operatives and open fire on you. In a way like never before, I was personally disturbed by this. These were not the nameless, faceless bad-guys I had been used to killing, these were US troops who thought I was the enemy. But my only recourse was to murder dozens of them. I couldn’t negotiate or evade them, because in certain areas you can only progress by killing them all. Despite your character’s best intentions, a series of choices lead to worse and worse outcomes for the citizens of Dubai, as his mental health quickly deteriorates. This game definitely has some serious things to say about war and its effects on soldiers, and I think it does these things well, but I think that for me personally it went too far when I had to kill scores of well-meaning American soldiers.