Controversy brings popularity. As humans, we often seek excitement, adrenaline, and novelty – and controversy happens to conveniently cover everything in one go, making it a powerful marketing strategy.

It’s no different for video games, so let’s take a look at some of the most controversial video games ever made and find out why they became popular.

Why Are Controversial Games So Popular

Controversy is a powerful driving force that fuels a specific type of content we’re naturally drawn to. Controversial video games, similarly to books or movies, allow us to dive into themes we wouldn’t be normally able to explore, satisfying the curiosity we possess as humans. They can easily grab the attention of media that are constantly on the hunt for scandals and sensations, giving a significant popularity boost to the titles that are trying to shock the audience.

By interacting with such games, we can experience all kinds of scenarios and situations that would be difficult, dangerous, or even straight-up illegal to achieve in real life. Such games can also serve as valuable learning resources, allowing us to better understand the motives and actions of other people, leading to an improvement of our own abilities, such as empathy and sympathy.

With that being said, it’s worth noting that being controversial doesn’t necessarily make the game good – it can surely make it popular but the popularity may be driven by hate and disgust rather than admiration and approval.

Age and Content Ratings

Controversial video games often touch on heavy topics or present content suitable exclusively for a more mature audience. For this reason, it’s important to have a way to easily distinguish such games from more family-friendly ones to protect children from interacting with difficult themes that may have a negative psychological impact on their mental health and development. Thankfully, we’ve got something called content ratings.

Depending on where you live, you may have heard about ESRB or PEGI – they have a similar function, but they’re used in different parts of the world; the aforementioned ratings are used in the USA and EU, respectively. There are more, such as ACB in Australia, but they’re all quite self-explanatory. For example, a T for Teen in ESRB means that the game is safe for teenagers and up; its PEGI counterpart is PEGI 16.

Now that we’ve got the basics covered, let’s jump to the actual games. Here’s a list of some of the most controversial video games ever made.

Mortal Kombat 11

Release date:2020-11-17
Genre:Action
Developer:NetherRealm Studios

There are family-friendly games, there are violent games, and there is Mortal Kombat.

Controversy is the foundation of the entire Mortal Kombat franchise, and while the early games from the ‘90s were already shocking, the new ones live up to the series’ reputation. MK games are not simply violent – they contain exceptionally vivid gore elements. Sure, it’s largely optional, as it’s connected to the finishing moves that you don’t have to use at all, but they are here and they’re absolutely brutal. Just imagine the most terrifying bloody torture scene and it’s probably a part of the game.

Key features
  • A fighting game with extremely violent elements
  • Addictive, fast-paced gameplay that rewards skillful play
  • Lots of playable characters with unique moves and combos to use
  • Pleasant multiplayer experience

Carmageddon

Release date:1998-12-14
Genre:Action & Shooter
Developer:Stainless Games Ltd

Some classic games weren’t afraid of testing the waters when it comes to violence.

Carmageddon is a classic racing game with a twist, which is the fact that players are racing on populated streets. But don’t worry, you don’t need to pay attention to the pedestrians while trying to avoid them. In fact, it’s the complete opposite – you get bonus points for driving over innocents. Killing people in games wasn’t a new thing in 1997, but encouraging players to kill civilians for fun caused quite a stir back in the day – in several countries the game was censored and in some others, it got banned entirely.

Key features
  • A racing game that awards players for killing people
  • Multiple ways to win the race
  • Dozens of tracks to complete and master
  • A fitting soundtrack that makes the experience more immersive

Grand Theft Auto V

Release date:2015-04-14
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Rockstar North

The GTA series was never afraid of touching difficult topics – it gives players freedom and it’s up to you to behave appropriately. Or not.

GTA V, just like other games in the GTA franchise, throws players into a huge open-world environment that lives its own life. You can interact with it and its inhabitants in a variety of ways; the game tries to create a realistic and believable world, and as we know, the real world is not always pretty. This means that you’ll find all sorts of adult-targeted content here, from sex jokes, through drugs and alcohol, to violence and partial nudity. The game even allows people to role-play as a psycho who just kills random people for no reason – there are no achievements for that, though.

Key features
  • A huge and lively open-world environment that can be explored freely
  • A captivating and believable story that reminds of Hollywood crime and action movies
  • A massive selection of weapons and vehicles to utilize
  • Constantly updated online mode

Manhunt

Release date:2004-04-20
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Rockstar North

Judging by the game’s title, you can probably already guess what’s this one about, although there’s more to it than at first appears.

In Manhunt you will fight for survival. You are playing as a death row prisoner who got a second chance – he can regain his freedom but he must first participate in a violent show and make it out alive. He will have to face opponents in the form of other criminals that need to be taken care of silently – the more brutal the execution, the better the final score, so it’s best to stay hidden and surprise unaware enemies.

Key features
  • A stealth game that puts emphasis on survival
  • Gameplay focused on brutal executions
  • Occasional camcorder overlay that reminds players that they’re participating in the deadly show
  • Disturbing sounds that perfectly fit the theme

Postal 2

Release date:2003-04-13
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Running With Scissors

Controversy in Postal comes in a variety of shapes and forms and it’s not only about violence.

Postal is considered controversial due to a variety of things players are allowed – but not forced – to do. From using living cats as shotgun silencers through peeing to put out fires to smoking as means of replenishing health, you get plenty of hard core stuff packed inside. It is worth noting, however, that the entire game can be completed without resorting to violence or the stuff mentioned above.

Key features
  • A first-person shooter with dark humor and common indecency
  • Interesting plot twists that spice up the experience
  • Freedom of choice – the game can be completed without using violence
  • A solid selection of weapons to choose from

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Release date:2009-11-12
Genre:Action & Shooter
Developer:Infinity Ward

Although CoD: MW 2 wasn’t particularly controversial in general, there was one specific level that grabbed people’s attention.

The mission “No Russian” was one that was exceptionally controversial. During that stage, players were tasked with becoming a part of a terrorist group and wreaking havoc at the airport to gain the trust of other criminals. For the majority of the mission, players were facing unarmed civilians, and the objective was simple: kill everyone in sight and proceed further. While participating in the massacre was optional, simply being a passive observer was enough to award the mission the title of one of the most brutal and controversial moments in the history of gaming.

Key features
  • A first-person shooter set in modern times
  • A captivating single-player campaign
  • Satisfying shooting mechanics
  • Especially fun in multiplayer

Duke Nukem 3D

Release date:1996
Genre:Action & Shooter
Developer:Apogee Software

It’s not hard for a game to become controversial in times when gaming wasn’t exceptionally popular yet.

One of the most popular and iconic early shooters wasn’t free of controversies. The game featured an unprecedented amount of violence and blood, but also a portrayal of women that don’t really fit the standards of respect and dignity. The shock factor was undoubtedly one of the elements that made the game popular, but it was also a satisfying, fast-paced gameplay experience overall.

Key features
  • One of the iconic first-person shooters that wasn’t afraid of resorting to controversy
  • Fast-paced gameplay focused on eliminating hordes of aliens
  • Highly destructive environments
  • Relatively high difficulty level

Bully

Release date:2008-10-21
Genre:Adventure
Developer:Rockstar New England

Bully is a rather unique game that allows players to experience the life of an unruly teenager.

In Bully you will be playing as a new student at Bullworth Academy who got involuntarily transferred there for causing too much trouble. While it becomes clear that in the story, you’re actually playing the good guy who tries to put an end to bullying at school, the game may be also viewed as the one that glorifies school bullying as it allows players to freely victimize other students.

Key features
  • An action-adventure game focused on the theme of school bullying
  • A captivating story that will keep you entertained for hours to come
  • A funny, stereotypical portrayal of various high-school groups
  • Open-world environment for players to explore

Resident Evil 5

Release date:2009-09-15
Genre:Adventure
Developer:CAPCOM

Violence and explicit erotic content are usually the first things that come to mind when talking about controversies, but racism can also be an issue.

Resident Evil 5 is a continuation of the fan-favorite third-person shooter series that took a slightly different approach to gameplay and focused more on action elements rather than survival horror. RE 5 wasn’t free of controversies, mainly in the form of racism due to the way how black people were portrayed in the game. The allegations were later described as silly, mainly due to the fact that the game takes place in Africa.

Key features
  • An action-packed third-person shooter
  • An intriguing story with unexpected twists
  • A great selection of upgradeable weapons to utilize during play
  • Very satisfying co-op experience

Night Trap

Release date:1992-08-15
Genre:Digital Pictures
Developer:Screaming Villains

Full-motion video games with videotape footage were quite popular back in the day, and Night Trap was among the first ones.

In Night Trap you’re playing the role of a security guard who has to use the surveillance cameras to observe the action taking place in a mysterious house as the group of teenage girls throw a party. Your job is to watch for potential dangers and use traps to protect the girls from invaders. Although the game wasn’t especially violent and was mostly a parody of vampire dramas, it did start a senate debate about violence in video games, leading to the creation of ESRB ratings.

Key features
  • An interactive movie that features vampires and some silly humor
  • Easy to learn, simple to follow
  • Presented mostly as a full-motion video
  • Multiple endings for players to discover

Hatred

Release date:2015-06-01
Genre:Action & Shooter
Developer:Destructive Creations

Remember “No Russian” we mentioned earlier? Imagine an entire game that plays like that – an ideal candidate for a list of offensive video games.

Hatred is an isometric shoot ’em-up game with a really simple objective: kill everyone. You’re tired of society and so you decided to put an end to it. It doesn’t matter if the person is armed or not, you have to eliminate all people in sight to progress. The game is all about a senseless slaughter of the innocent, while health can be replenished by performing brutal executions – it’s not a title for the faint of heart.

Key features
  • A shoot ‘em up game with very simple rules
  • Brutal, cold, and heartless gameplay experience
  • Focused mainly on killing civilians and police officers
  • Dark and foggy visuals with limited colors that create a disturbing atmosphere

Diablo Immortal

Release date:2022-06-02
Genre:Hack'n'slash
Developer:NetEase

Diablo Immortal does feature blood and violence, but funnily enough, it’s not what made the game controversial.

When Diablo Immortal was first announced, it met with a largely negative response, due to the fact that players expected a full-fledged PC game, not a mobile slasher. And although the game later came to PC anyway, the reviews of a then-released game didn’t change much, due to the game’s microtransactions that in the eyes of a lot of people make Diablo Immortal an unethical pay-to-win cash grab. With that being said, you can still enjoy your time here, and you can go quite far without paying at all, but it may require some patience and self-control.

Key features
  • Several unique classes to choose from, for a more varied experience
  • Randomized loot that makes finding valuable items more exciting
  • Mana replaced with a cooldown-based skill system
  • Much more colorful and stylized visuals when compared to the first Diablo games

Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards

Release date:2013-06-27
Genre:Adventure
Developer:nFusion Interactive

Adult games had a difficult time back in the old days – many places simply refused to sell LSL, even though there’s no explicit sexual visual content featured.

Leisure Suit Larry is a series of adult video games, often featuring partial nudity and a whole lot of sex jokes and references, which was enough of a reason for companies to initially refuse to sell the game at the stores. The first game in the franchise had to overcome some obstacles, but it succeeded, allowing more LSL games to be made and released in the future.

Key features
  • A hilarious sex comedy game
  • Classic adventure gameplay with collecting useful items and talking to people to push the story
  • A light-hearted, relaxing atmosphere
  • Simple casino mini-games

Six Days in Fallujah

Release date:2023-06-22
Genre:FPS
Developer:Highwire Games

For the final game, we’ve got a title that was delayed for over a decade due to controversies.

Six Days in Fallujah focuses on the realistic portrayal of the Fallujah events during the Iraq War, and for this reason, the game was delayed for years, as it was considered inappropriate to make a game about such recent events. The title makes an excellent job of showing how brutal and scary the war can be. The game can even be considered a survival horror in some sense, as you never know where the danger can come from – you will feel helpless and terrified, fighting behind the enemy lines and knowing, that there can be an armed enemy hiding behind any door you open.

Key features
  • Extremely realistic portrayal of the Fallujah battle, based on the stories and experiences of real Marines
  • Advanced AI enemies, non-linear tactical gameplay, and randomized maps for an extra surprise factor
  • Top-tier visuals and effects
  • Stunning sound design

Conclusion

Controversy can be a huge marketing force for video games. It may divide the community, but it may also bring more attention and exposure, allowing more people to discover the title. It’s always important to know the difference between fiction and reality – just because you’re playing and enjoying controversial video games, doesn’t make you a bad person. Controversy often opens minds and allows people to broaden their horizons and learn new perspectives. Even if you’re afraid of such games, give them a go sometimes and see for yourself – you may be surprised by how insightful and eye-opening they could be.