The brutal, the bad, and the bloody.
From gratuitous violence and vehicular carnage to same-sex romance and, uhm, rampant graffiti, a great many games have been censored, refused classification or banned entirely in a variety of countries around the world. The legal wrangling and content changes that follow such decisions have seen games being delayed, heavily modified or, some cases, entirely withdrawn from sale in one region while another barely bats an eyelid.
So, what does it take for a game to be banned and what does that even mean?
Usually, when we talk about a game being banned in the US, UK or Australia, it means that the relevant ratings board in that country has refused to bestow an age rating to the title, effectively making in illegal to sell. This can happen for a great many reasons and it’s not always as black and white as it might seem.
Then there are those isolated cases around the world where a government takes exception to content that others consider entirely innocuous. Take a look at this list of titles that have, at one stage or another, been hit with the ban-hammer and you’ll see what we mean.
Carmageddon – UK and Germany
A screenshot from one of Carmageddon‘s bloody levels
The original Carmageddon was a dumb-fun, guilty pleasure that fell foul of UK and German classification boards when it was originally released on PC in 1997.
In the UK, Carmageddon was originally refused classification by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), prompting developer Stainless Games to swap screaming human pedestrians for feckless groaning zombies. As a result, those that were mown down, either on purpose or as collateral during the vehicular checkpoint-chasing-carnage, gushed green goo instead of red blood.
Despite making the changes and releasing the game in its amended state, publisher SCi (Sales Curve Interactive) wasn’t content to let it lie and contested the BBFC’s decision not to rate the original version. The appeal was upheld and the human road-kill could be restored, which many players had already done via a patch downloaded from the increasingly popular “internet”.
While the German version of Carmadgeddon wasn’t banned per se, it was “indexed”, which meant it couldn’t be advertised or displayed on shop shelves. However, if you were aged 18 or older and knew of a shop that sold such “under-the-counter” titles you were able to buy it relatively easily.
But wait! That didn’t mean you got the same version as the rest of the world or even the green-blooded-zombie version that was initially inflicted upon the UK. Instead, German players had to endure blocky-looking robots – complete with irritating sound-effects – that exploded upon impact.
Regardless, more offensive than any of the original content (or the enforced censorship) was the N64 port, which IGN awarded a truly bewildering 1.3/10, even going so far as to compare it unfavourably to the infamously bad Superman64. Ban this sick filth.
Fallout 3 – Australia
Fallout 3 sees you travel through a barren, post-apocalyptic land
Australia has a long and colourful history with banning games, primarily stemming from the fact that the R18+ rating could not be applied to video games – only films – until the start of 2013. Before that, games that contained content that was deemed above and beyond what its MA15+ rating could cover either had to be heavily modified or would be faced with the dreaded “refused classification” thumbs-down and thereby banned from sale.
This has led to a long list of games that had to be amended to receive a rating including The Witcher 2, South Park: The Stick of Truth and Left 4 Dead 2. More confusing are those titles that were initially rated before later being banned, such as Manhunt and, er, Mark Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure (more on that later).
However, arguably the highest profile title to be initially refused classification was Bethesda’s behemoth hit, Fallout 3.
A document obtained from the Australian Classification Board suggested that it was the “realistic visual representations of drugs and their delivery method” and the fact that this, in the ratings board’s eyes, helps to “bring the ‘science-fiction’ drugs in line with ‘real-world’ drugs.” This was exacerbated by positive use of morphine as a painkiller that conferred tangible benefits upon the player.
Don’t remember there being any morphine in Fallout 3? That’s because there wasn’t any; following the decision by the Australian ratings board, Bethesda took the unusual step of renaming the drug across every version of the game worldwide, changing it from morphine to Med-X. Fallout 3 was cleared for release in Australia and, in a rare case of censorship having a positive impact on art, the game received a drug more thematically appropriate to its universe.
Thrill Kill – USA, UK, Australia…The Planet Earth
A selection of some of the playable characters from Thrill Kill
The fighting game that never (officially) was has become near-legendary in the almost two decades since its non-release.
Originally slated for release on PlayStation in 1998, developer Paradox Development and publisher Virgin Interactive aimed to create a “full-blown adult fighting game” for four players, set in Hell. With its brutal finishing moves and violent, sexual overtones, Thrill Kill was deliberately intended to be disturbing and was very pointedly meant for mature audiences.
However, after EA bought out Virgin Interactive they shut down any further development of the game while the ink was still drying on the acquisition papers, stating that it was not indicative of the kind of title they wanted to see on the market. So serious were EA about that point that they refused to licence it to anyone else to release either.
Still, the internet will always find a way and, as the game code was almost finished prior to being shot down by EA, versions soon found their way on to the information superhighway for the good of all posterity.
Manhunt 2 – UK, USA, Australia
Manhunt is filled with enemies
“Manhunt 2 is distinguishable from recent high-end video games by its unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context … There is sustained and cumulative casual sadism in the way in which these killings are committed, and encouraged, in the game.”
This provocative statement was issued in 2007 by then-director of the British Board of Film Classification, David Cooke, explaining why the game had been refused classification in the UK.
Despite changes being made by Rockstar to tone down, distort or distance the player from said “casual sadism”, it was to no avail and the BBFC still refused to rate the title, having given its predecessor an 18 rating four years earlier. The situation in the UK appeared bleak for Rockstar and publisher Take-Two.
Meanwhile, in the US, the game received an AO (Adults Only) rating, which doesn’t sound so bad, right? Well, despite being the equivalent of an 18+ rating elsewhere, an AO rating effectively signalled the equivalent of a ban due to both Sony and Nintendo refusing to allow AO-rated games to be played on its systems and major retail chains refusing to stock AO-rated software. However, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) looked more favourably on the changes made by Rockstar and later relented slightly, bestowing upon the title an M rating (17+ years) and so Manhunt 2 was released in October 2007 in the US.
Back in the UK, Take-Two appealed the BBFC’s original decision and, after several rounds of back and forth, including Judicial Review before a High Court judge, the Video Appeals Committee (VAC) ruled in favour of Rockstar by a majority of four to three. The BBFC was forced to offer an 18 rating and Manhunt 2 was finally released a year after the US launch, in October 2008.
After the original Manhunt saw its MA15+ rating overturned on appeal, Rockstar chose not to submit Manhunt 2 for classification in Australia.
Many other titles have been hit with legal action, bans, or refusals of classification when initially submitted to their respective ratings boards. Here’s a look at the most infamous, unlikely and bizarre:
Mark Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure – Australia
Many were offended by the game’s glorification of graffiti
Originally rated MA15+, this ungainly titled tag ‘em-up attracted the ire of Queensland’s Local Government Association, which appealed for an outright ban. The public body took exception to the manner in which the game supposedly promoted the art of graffiti, rewarded the defacement of public buildings and even instructed players in graffiti techniques. They were successful and the game was subsequently refused classification.
The Guy Game – USA
In 2004, Gathering (formerly Gathering of Developers before being bought by Take-Two Interactive) and Top Heavy Studios released The Guy Game in the USA. The lacklustre trivia featured inane humour and depicted video footage of scantily clad ladies on real-life Spring Break as a reward for scoring well on the quiz. Soon after release, it was established that one of the women that featured in the game was under 18 at the time the footage was recorded. A temporary injunction was granted prohibiting sale of the game and retailers quickly dropped it. Top Heavy Studios later went out of business.
Mass Effect – Singapore
Mass Effect was celebrated – and criticized – for the diversity of its characters
In 2007, BioWare’s grand space adventure was (briefly) banned for depicting homosexual acts between female Commander Shepard and Liara T’soni.
The decision was overturned within a week after hearty appeal and Mass Effect was instead awarded an M18 rating, marking it as being suitable for adults of 18 years and older.
Football Manager 2005 – China
In 2004, the Chinese government took exception to Sports Interactive’s life-suck management-sim, banning it and threatening local internet service providers with fines for allowing users to download it, all despite the fact that the game was yet to be officially released in the territory.
Their grievance stemmed from fact that Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet all featured as playable independent countries and therefore, as far as the government was concerned, the game was harmful “to the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
What’s more, the ministry stated that it had received strong protests from Chinese games players about this unreleased game.
So, there it is. A handful of high-profile, well known games that at one time or another have been challenged, changed or outright banned. Most have come good in the end but those that haven’t will have to take cold comfort from the notion that the that ehe only worse than being talked about is not being talked about at all.