Videogames, as a form of media, are occasionally altered for different markets. This may be due to the fact that something in a game does not work with different territories, but it is most commonly associated with different ratings boards, such as PEGI in the United Kingdom and most of Europe (previously BBFC operated in the UK), ESRB in the United States, CERO in Japan, and the OLFC in Australia.
Common reasoning for the censorship of games is that they are too violent, sexually explicit, or simply offensive to be stocked by many retailers. Normally, when games are censored, the developer does not offer to alter the experience in order to avoid the censorship. However, this is not always the case, as proved by Bethesda Softworks, who willingly removed the atomic bomb from Megaton for the Japanese release of Fallout 3. The reasoning for this was that the Japanese people had twice felt the power of the atomic bomb through American bombing raids on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the events of World War II.
Some nations have extremely unusual censorship laws on videogames, that dictates that the game cannot be sold in the nation unless it is altered. A very good example of this is Germany, who maintain a strict censorship law on games. No game sold in Germany can display red blood for unknown reasons. Additionally, the German game board will not allow the sale of a game that displays the swastika, due to the history involving Adolf Hitler and the nation of Germany under Nazi control.
History of Game Censorship
Videogame Censorship initially came into play during the era of the Nintendo Entertainment System. However, adult games were featured considerably during the era of the Atari 2600 console. During the Atari 2600 era, more explicit games such as Custer's Revenge were able to release with as much ease as relatively child friendly games. In the NES era, game graphics advanced considerably, and therefore content legislation began to come into play. This was particularly the case when it came to the localization of Japanese games to the North American market, in order to censor content that was either violent, sexual (see Eroge) or religious (to avoid offending Christians).
Common themes that induce censorship include religious materials (as will be seen later with Little Big Planet), graphic violence, and sexual activity. However, these themes do not always induce censorship, as whether a game is censored or even removed from shelves altogether rests solely on the discretion of the age rating board for that nation. During the 1990s, when game graphics advanced even more with the advent of the Playstation 1, Sega Genesis and other newer, more powerful consoles, games with extreme violence released. These games included such examples as Mortal Kombat, and therefore, the ESRB was established to help filter the content of videogames. The ESRB, and later the PEGI and BBFC purposes were to monitor the content of games, and then rate them depending on content found present in the product.
Despite the formation of these different groups that aim to filter games to make them more appropriate, there are still calls for censorship of many different games, such as Manhunt 2. With Manhunt 2, the ESRB unleashed its most mature rating: AO, or Adults Only. This rating, in effect, makes a game impossible to sell on US soil, as it can only be purchased by those over the age of 21, and only possible to find in specialist retailers. Additionally, the majority of game companies refuse the production of AO material on their consoles, so Manhunt 2 was closed off for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. While this is an example showing only the Electronics Software Rating Board, which operates in the United States, there are other countries that have censorship present. Examples of this include Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan. However, Australia is arguably the country that is most heavy-handed with their censorship dealings.
Another example of censorship common in the Japanese game industry concerns the visual novel genre. It is not uncommon for many of them to contain adult content such as sex or nudity in their original PC versions, before being ported to consoles with the sexual content removed. Examples of this include EVE: Burst Error, YU-NO, Kanon, and Air.
Main Rating Boards
Electronics Software Rating Board
The ESRB has power over game ratings in both the United States of America, and the area of Canada. ESRB ratings can vary between Everyone (E), to Adults Only (AO). With the AO rating, the ESRB can effectively ban a game from being sold in both of the countries it has rating power over. Additionally, the ESRB and PEGI rating systems both use an icon-based system as well. The ideology behind employing these icons is that consumers will be able to identify the content of a game, even if they do not intend to purchase it for themselves. Icons used by the ESRB cover key content, such as violence, swearing and drug usage. The ESRB has built up a reputation for being a relatively fair ratings board, and in their entire history have only ever rated 25 games as AO.
Australian Classification Board
The ALC, as it is known in Australia is the only board that is a governmental body. As such, the ALC have the power and capability to completely ban games from being stocked in the country. The highest rating that can be given out by the ALC is a 'Denied Classification', meaning that the game will never hit Australian shelves. As a board, the ALC have built up a reputation for being among the strictest authorities on videogame content in the world.
British Board of Film Classification
The BBFC, which previously operated on games in the United Kingdom, is a non-governmental group. However, it is one of the earliest classification groups after having been founded in the year 1912. The BBFC occasionally passes their age ratings on modern games, though they have been mainly superseded by the PEGI authority, which has effect across all of Europe. Games rated by BBFC are much less common than those rated by PEGI, though they can be found: examples include UK releases of Burnout Revenge, and The Getaway. Since 1999, the BBFC has been more relaxed with their ratings, and pornographic material is passed under a restricted banner, whereas this was previously highly unlikely.
Pan-European Game Information
PEGI, as it is abbreviated to, is one of the only ratings systems in the world that has jurisdiction over the majority of a continent. PEGI ratings are in effect across all of Europe, though occasionally the BBFC will rate a game for the UK. The PEGI group are one of the most lenient of all, and according to information published in 2009, from the 11,000 games they have rated, 50% of them received a 3 rating, which is the lowest possible. A mere 4% of games rated by the PEGI authority have received an 18 rating. The PEGI authority was founded in April 2003, and is in effect across all countries in the European Union. Similarly to the American ESRB, PEGI use an icon system that is printed onto the game box. These labels include drug usage, violence and strong language.
The USK as they are better known, are the German ratings organization. The German term abbreviated to USK translates into English as 'Self-Monitoring of Entertainment Software'. Some games have recently had the USK rating add ed to their boxes outside of the USK, in order to use the one release across several territories. The USK is the only rating organization in Germany, and PEGI are not used after being rejected in the country. USK are extremely strict on their game ratings, and in some cases have been responsible for having entire game plots edited in order to pass their verification. Games such as Halo 3, which are rated 16 in PEGI and other systems have received 18 ratings in the USK, alongside Bad Company 2, and even Bayonetta.
The USK is not able to put a game on the index though. Only the "Bundesprüfstelle für Jugendgefährdende Medien" (BPjM) is able to stop the sale of a game in Germany. Any government agency has to ask the BPjM to check a specific game. Games that are considered to be a threat for the german youth by the BPjM are then put on the index (even though they might have gotten a 18 rating by the USK already) and thereafter the sale or advertising of this game is illegal, - even mentioning the full game title in a podcast.
Computer Entertainment Rating Organization
The CERO group is a Japanese rating authority. CEO is one of the newest rating authorities, alongside the PEGI system, after being founded in July 2002. In 2003, CERO was officially recognized as a non-profit organization, and use their entire own system for ratings which can only be compared to others rather than having a perfect comparison due to the fact that CERO is extremely easy to interpret differently.
Incomplete Table of Censorships
Below is a table containing an incomplete list of videogame censorships, in alphabetical order:
Final Fantasy IV
In the North American version of Final Fantasy IV, initially released as Final Fantasy II, references to Christianity were altered or removed from the game, as well as certain images. The magic spell Holy has been renamed White. All references to prayer are eliminated; the Tower of Prayers in Mysidia is renamed the Tower of Wishes (though the White Mage in the tower still calls it "Tower of Prayers"); and Rosa's Pray command is absent. Direct references to death are omitted, although several characters clearly die over the course of the game. Anything considered too risqué has been censored, such as bikinis on town dancers (replaced by leotards). The Programmers' Room special feature (in which the player can find a Porn Magazine) has been removed. New promotional character art was made for published previews.
In the German version of the first Half-Life, a very strong censorship is applied. Human characters, upon being shot or killed, sit down, start rocking back and forth and cry. All human character models have been removed from multiplayer and replaced with a robotic model, as well as the marines in single player. Blood splatter has been toned down, and all corpses disappear directly after being killed. Barnacles do not spit out body parts, corpses in the environment have been removed or replaced with the beforehand mentioned robotic character model and some In-Game cutscenes have been censored. The game received a USK 16 rating.
Kakuto Chojin was a fighting game for the original Xbox that was released in 2002. The game featured a Somalian character called Asad, who is depicted as a Muslim on a personal Jihad, with one of his winning phrases being, "Beating me is against God's will." His stage theme also featured quotations from the holy text of the Islamic religion, the Qur'an. Many found the game insensitive given the 9/11 attacks a year before its release. However, whereas LBP was patched, Kakuto was simply pulled entirely from stores, making it an incredibly rare game.
Sony's much hyped PS3 exclusive game, LittleBigPlanet, was the subject of controversy... due to its soundtrack. LBP was pulled from Western shelves for several days after the discovery of quotations from the Islamic holy book, the Qur'an. After release, the game was then patched to remove the quotations. The offending song can potentially be accessed again, should the player not connect their PS3 to the PSN service and download the update for their game. Many gamers, who were not Islamic themselves felt that the song should remain in the game, seeing as it does not alter the play experience, and it is non-offensive. However, it was removed for an unknown reason; potentially due to terrorist attacks originating from the Middle Eastern area, where the Islamic religion is most prominent. However, the lyrics when translated from Islamic do sound a little bit sinister, as noted below:
"كل نفس ذائقة الموت"
Translates to 'Every soul shall have the taste of death'. These lyrics can be found around 0:18 into the song.
"كل من عليها فان"
This translates to 'All that is on earth shall perish'.
The offending song is found on the third official level of the game, entitled Swinging Safari. The content of the song was brought to Sony's attention by a member on their official community forums, and it received much discussion on Arabic gaming forums in addition.
Manhunt 2 was one of the most controversial games of recent times, and for two different reasons. One of the reasons was relating to trailers and video footage shown pre-release. The executions contained in the game pushed the boundaries of extremity, with such incredibly violent encounters as the castration of victims with pliers. The Wii version of the game was able to be controlled using the Wiimote. One of the abilities available to Wii gamers was supposedly to be able to move the remote in order to bash someone's head in with a hammer. Due to the sheer violence, the ESRB felt fit to lay an AO rating onto the game. The outcry against the content was led by the one and only Jack Thompson, who might actually have won a case in this situation. However, Rockstar Games edited the content and removed the execution as well as hiding the animations, and the game was passed.
In the United Kingdom, however, the game was much more difficult to accept after a murder was committed by a Manhunt addict. In 2004, 17 year old Warren Leblanc had supposedly become obsessed with the original Manhunt, which released on the Playstation 2. He then proceeded to lure 14 year old Stefan Pakeerah into a secluded area before using a claw hammer and knife to brutally kill him. This event caused huge uproar against the Manhunt game, and even against Rockstar themselves. The way in which Leblanc acted was apparently heavily influenced by the game.
Though the original Mortal Kombat's popularity was largely derived from its depiction of graphic, if outlandishly unrealistic violence, Nintendo refused to allow the game's release on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in its original form. In order to see release, it was mandated that the violence be toned down. As a result, all blood effects were removed, and the graphic nature of certain Fatalities was toned down considerably. For example, Kano's Fatality, in which he rips the still-beating heart from his victim's chest and raises it in a triumphant gesture had the actual heart edited out.
This censorship was heavily criticized by the game's target audience, and as a result, sales of the SNES version of Mortal Kombat suffered. Nintendo reversed their stance on the graphic content of the Mortal Kombat series with the release of Mortal Kombat II, which was released on the SNES with all of the original game's graphic content left intact.
Parappa the Rapper 2
In stage one of Parappa the Rapper 2, "Beard Burgers", the lyrics "Tastes better than wine" were changed to "You better get in line" in the North American version. Also in stage three, every line that referred to Guru Ant as "The lord" were changed to "The man".
Soldier of Fortune: Payback
Soldier of Fortune: Payback was banned in Australia by the ALC. Their reasoning for this was that the game was simply too violent to be acceptable on their game store shelves. SoF was a relatively well anticipated game. The ALC viewed the game, and denied it on all counts, including the oral presentation of it. However, after some game revision, it was accepted by the ALC, and released, heavily edited at the beginning of 2008. The revised version of the game features reduced gore, blood effects and no dismemberment of enemies.
Super Castlevania IV
The Japanese version of Super Castlevania IV has blood dripping on title screen, which was removed from the North American version. The tombstone in the opening cinematic also doesn't have the cross showing in the American version, which was in order to avoid offending Christians.
The Last of Us
For The Last of Us' European release, the gore involving the multiplayer executions were censored. However all of the gore within the single-player stayed intact.
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