Controversy has always hovered around games since the day that a journalist realised he could bang out some sensationalist copy on a subject that involved something close to everyone's hearts - children - and something the vast majority of people knew nothing about - games. From fears back in the eighties about games like Friday the 13th to press frenzies in the nineties over GTA, Doom and Carmageddon editors have been well aware of the potential to shift a heap more papers for a minuscule amount of journalistic effort. If they time it right and have suitably juicy material they can even turn it into a campaign which could span weeks and shift a healthy number of papers for practically no financial outlay. No need to pay for kiss and tell stories here. The games companies also do well out of this as the extra publicity tends to shove the game in question to the top of the public consciousness and the top of the sales chart as well.
Rockstar Games, ne DMA Design, have worked their side of the bargain with great skill and verve. After the furore over the original GTA they factored the reaction of the press into the design of their future games, culminating in the red-top baiting title that was Manhunt. This particularly nasty game blazed across the public's consciousness earlier this year when it was linked by the media to the murder of a young teenager in Leicester. Apparently the killer, also a teenager, was obsessed with Manhunt and spent all of his time locked in his room practicing ways to kill. U.S. lawyer Jack Thompson, who had built himself up a bit of a reputation with attempts to sue game makers for various incidents of supposedly linked violence, soon pledged to represent the victim's family in a lawsuit against Rockstar and Sony to the tune of $60 million.
Both a promised interview for Ferrago with Mr Thompson and the lawsuit itself disappeared pretty quickly once the police revealed that the 'killer' game was found in the bedroom of the victim rather than that of his murderer. Naturally, the media declined to report these less titillating revelations, preferring instead to leave the taint of the case hanging over the gaming world. Much like they had done in the past with all the other cases that had charged games with causing despicable violence which were also dropped when the evidence against the games and their industry turned out to be non-existent.
For all the bigotry and ignorance that has fed the media's occasional opportunistic crusade against the games industry a new group has emerged to voice their concerns. And rather than a collection of hacks preying on the fears of uncertain parents, this time it is gamers themselves who are voicing objections to certain releases. Yes, gamers are deleting the bits that free them, albeit in small numbers.
There are two infamous games that have come out in the last year or so that have raised the hackles of many gamers. Both of them are getting into trouble not because of poor multiplayer code or a crappy control system but because of the themes that these games have used to provide the basis for their content. America's Army was released as a free team-based shooter back in 2002. It has grown in popularity since then and now can boast over four million registered users. Now the game itself is nothing that incredible: yet another team-driven FPS with some nice graphics. It does deviate from the norm in the way it handles team interaction, with a far greater emphasis placed on emulating real military procedures than is usual for this kind of game. This is unsurprising as America's Army was developed by the real United States Army for use as a promotional and recruitment tool.
Now this is where the controversy begins. Gamers have never shown any problems with the idea of pretending to be soldiers and shooting merry hell out of anything, preferably with convincing visual and aural representations of actual weapons. In fact, the shooting everything to bits genre is arguably the longest running category of game, albeit dressed up in much swankier clothes now than it was back in 1961. No, gamers don't have a problem with the shooting and killing in America's Army. Instead they have been taking offence at what they see as a very distasteful attempt by the U.S. Army, and by association, the evil Bush administration, to co-opt innocent, fun loving gamers into their various international wars.
Released amid the growing international furore over the Bush administration's zealous march to war in Iraq, America's Army appeared at just the wrong time. People felt that their hobby and passion was being hijacked for nefarious ends, and gamers around the world took umbrage at the transparency of the Army's attempts to hook the younger generation with their sanitised and physically insignificant take on the true horrors of modern combat. The tide of global public opinion was turning against America's War on Terror and America's Army took a lot of flack for this change. Normally you would think gamers would be happy to play a free game which not only featured the first publicly playable use of the Unreal 2 engine but could boast the most authentic first person representation of armed conflict yet seen on the personal computer. This was not to be, and although the game has been viewed with a lot less scepticism in its land of birth, gamers from outside of the U.S. have shown an aversion to this game that would be shocking if not for the strength of feeling that the current geo-political situation stirs in many hearts and minds.