The videogame industry has never been far from controversy. Exidy's Death Race 2000, released in 1976, attracted so much negative attention from lawmakers and reporters, that the company sold ten times as many games as it had originally expected. Just last week, the digital publisher Good Old Games disappointed many customers when it announced it was shutting down the service. A few days later, GOG.com revealed the shutdown was just a publicity stunt to gain visibility for the launch of a new publishing portal. While the move angered many customers, the controversy brought GOG.com to the attention of many gamers who had never heard of it.
Ever since we figured out that being bad can sometimes sell, marketers have been courting and creating controversies to capture the attention of a media and a public that's all too willing to run in headfirst, torches and pitchforks held high, to purge the monsters from our midst. The tactic isn't new or revolutionary; it's been a part of art and entertainment ever since we discovered we could get attention by pissing off the right people.
Games that Take It
There is no shortage of examples of games that have attracted unplanned controversy. For example, controversy found Bioware's Mass Effect. Reacting to some trailers and fabricating some sort of fantasy of interactively controlled sex, Fox News' Martha MacCallum reported that it had digital nudity and sex. Another Fox News report described it as "Luke Skywalker meets "Debbie Does Dallas." Bioware and its new owner, EA, reacted perfectly. They coordinated with gaming journalists to debunk the myth and put pressure on Fox News to get the story straight. The affect of this negative attention galvanized gamers to defend the game. Overall, the game was exposed to more people than Bioware/ EA's budget could have afforded and Bioware came out the victor of a classic David vs. Goliath battle. If Bioware or EA had reacted to the situation by highlighting the sexuality in the game through ads, it would have only fed into the narrative critics were trying to fabricate
Games that Make It
During PAX Prime, the reveal of Duke Nukem: Forever came with some unorthodox and somewhat controversial gifts. Some of the swag was labeled "Steroids." Was this controversial? Kind of. It was a smart move for Gearbox to release it at PAX, where tongue in cheek humor can be taken at face value and in good fun. Most fans who understood the Duke Nukem mythos weren't offended and the gamers who really got offended were never the intended audience. These kind of tactics work, and they work well. They grab attention and galvanize the "Can't you take a joke?" crowd. While this marketing may be in bad taste and juvenile, it's appropriate for the game. If the marketing has to convey the experience of the game, it has to communicate to the gamer an honest expectation. So, while the steroid-swag was over the top and puerile, it kind of kicked ass because it's marketing Duke Nukem true to form.
Games that Fake It
During E3 2009, EA marketed Dante's Inferno by hiring a group of fake Evangelical Christian protestors, waving signs proclaiming "ditch your PlayStation for a PrayStation" and "EA: Electronic Antichrist". While this immediately caught the attention of some of the news media, for the most part, the gaming media was pretty savvy. Most of them smelled something a little off... a little bit of Poe's Law, which states, "it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won't mistake for the real thing." Their skepticism was well founded. Not long after some larger media outlets picked up the story, we learned the protestors were hired to promote the game. This prompted many Christians to feel mocked by EA. Predictably, many gamers flooded forums with promises to avoid the game.