Despite its venerable age, with the first video games appearing more than 70 years ago, this sphere is still considered one of the youngest branches of the entertainment industry, so many aspects of it are still not regulated at the legislative level. However, the influence of video games on people and their important role in society cannot be denied, so politicians and governments are trying to regulate the video game market and take control of it. And sometimes they do it very clumsily, so the issue of bans and censorship in the industry still generates heated debate. In this text, we are trying to understand them at least a little bit.


Recent examples

The issue of censorship in the gaming industry was recently mentioned in the context of the scandalous, but, as it turned out, still quite good Stellar Blade. The game managed to become popular even before its release thanks to the attractive image of the main character Eve. This sparked a discussion about the sexualization and objectification of female characters in video games, to which we dedicated a separate text. There are a lot of comments to it, so hurry up and see.

But the scandals around Stellar Blade did not end there. When the game reached release, players noticed that the first day’s patch corrected some of the main character’s costumes. For example, the swimsuit became a bit longer to cover her hips, and there was an additional insert on the chest that covers the neckline. Something similar happened with other revealing costumes.

Banned games: political and age censorship in video games
Still from the game Stellar Blade

Players also suggested that the first day’s patch reduced the amount of blood that remains on Eve’s body after battles. Ironically, the patch also fixed numerous technical and some gameplay issues in Stellar Blade. Thanks to it, the developers have adjusted the timing of attacks, making the game’s combat system feel smoother.

In other words, players are supposedly faced with a choice. Either they get the patched version, which is more enjoyable to play, but with censorship of some elements, or without censorship and without gameplay fixes. As a result, players even launched an online campaign #FreeStellarBlade, urging developers to abandon censorship.

The problem here is actually a bit bigger than just changing a few costumes. After all, Shift Up promised to release an uncensored version in all countries. However, the emphasis here was on the fact that there would be no separate fixes for specific countries like Japan. However, players ultimately perceived the statement as a deception, because correcting costumes in all versions is to some extent a manifestation of censorship.

Sony as a publisher was also accused, as this is not the first time that PlayStation 5 games have received such fixes. We can recall the situation with Tifa from Final Fantasy VII Remake and Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, when she was given additional fabric in her neckline, which also angered some players.

Banned games: political and age censorship in video games
This is what Tifa from Final Fantasy VII Rebirth was supposed to look like without censorship. In the end, her breasts were covered

Sometimes it comes to ridiculous situations. This happened with the English release of Tsukihime’s visual novel A Piece of Blue Glass Moon.

The artbook in the PlayStation version was censored because of explicit images. But they decided not to cut anything on Nintendo Switch. This was stated separately by the developers themselves, as if hinting at Sony’s guilt in the censorship decision.

Censorship of explicit moments in games is part of a much broader policy aimed at making games friendlier and more accessible to all. It has its origins in the 1990s, when video games became entertainment for everyone.


Take control

Video games regularly feature provocative content of various kinds. It exists now, it existed several decades ago. Contra in 1987 was characterized by grotesque, creepy designs of the last bosses. And in 1982, Custer’s Revenge was released, the main gameplay of which was the rape of Native American women. This game was included in numerous lists of the worst games of all time.

Each country has had its own way of dealing with provocative content in video games, and with the development of technology, the depiction of violent and explicit scenes has become more and more vivid. In the 1990s, developers learned how to use live-action inserts to show certain scenes, and of course, the level of violence and sex scenes became almost realistic. Politicians could not ignore this.

In 1993, U.S. senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl organized government hearings on the issue of video games and their negative impact on society. The politicians were particularly concerned about two games. Mortal Kombat was criticized for its excessive violence, and Night Trap was criticized for scenes with live actors in which one can see sexual content. Senators also criticized the cruelty of Doom.

Banned games: political and age censorship in video games
There is an anniversary edition of Night Trap dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the game, which is available on current gaming platforms

Such hearings lasted until 1994 and began to gradually affect the gaming industry. Hardware and video game retailers decided to stop selling games with violent and explicit scenes, which had a negative impact on sales. But the main problem was the risk of gaming industry regulation by the US government. As we all know, government control in the entertainment sector does not lead to anything good in almost all situations.

That’s when major gaming companies like Acclaim Entertainment, Electronic Arts, Nintendo, and Sega decided to join forces to address this issue. In April 1993, they formed the Interactive Digital Software Association (now the Entertainment Software Association), a trade association whose main goal was to develop rules for regulating video game content without government interference.

There were some disputes between the competitors, but eventually in September 1994 they agreed to create an independent regulator called the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), which was to develop its own rating system based on the current rating system of the Motion Picture Association.

The established regulatory system provides for different age categories:

  • Early Childhood
  • Everyone, before – Kids to Adults
  • Everyone 10+
  • Teen
  • Mature 17+
  • Adults Only 18+

However, the main feature of the ESRB system is short descriptions of potentially provocative and dangerous moments in games. The regulator indicates whether the game contains violence, foul language, in-game purchases, interaction between live players, drugs, erotic moments, and much more. As a result, ESRB descriptions have become a way to find out additional information about a game before its release.

The emergence of ESRB ratings had a positive impact on the gaming industry. Politicians abandoned the idea of direct regulation of video games. And buyers, especially parents, got the opportunity to better understand what kind of content they will receive from the next release.

Banned games: political and age censorship in video games
Marks used by the ESRB to label video games

The ESRB set the trend for the emergence of similar regulators in other countries. In Japan, the CERO system appeared in 2002. In Europe, the PEGI organization was created in 2003, and it regulates age restrictions in the field of video games in 41 countries. The ESRB, PEGI, and CERO are still successfully used today.

However, some countries still cling to their own systems of gaming content regulation. In Germany, it is, for example, the Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle organization. And China has a separate system for reviewing and approving games, which led to an almost complete ban on the import of home game consoles into the country from 2000 to 2015. This is because of the risk of gambling addiction in children and adolescents.

Different systems lead to different results. Therefore, game developers often have to modify their products to meet individual country requirements.


Unique cases

The censorship in the case of Stellar Blade can be linked to Sony’s general policy of becoming a more “family-friendly” company. It is understandable to some extent, as the console giant wants to reach the widest possible audience, not just hardcore players. But more often than not, censorship is not driven by business decisions of companies, but by the political “moods” of different countries.

And here we cannot but mention China. The People’s Republic of China is famous for controlling all spheres of citizens’ lives and cares about the country’s image in media products. Therefore, any inappropriate statements and elements may be subject to censorship and banning by the Chinese regulatory authorities.

Banned games: political and age censorship in video games
Art for the game Genshin Impact

This can be experienced in one of the most popular Chinese games, Genshin Impact. The game’s chat does not allow you to use not only offensive phrases, but also words like “Stalin,” “Tibet,” “Taiwan,” and even “Putin.” There should be no discussion of politically sensitive issues in the Chinese game.

This also applies to other Chinese mobile games. A 2017 academic study found that there are 180,000 words that are banned from use in Chinese mobile games. Interestingly, even the name of a competing game can be banned, as happened with the Korean MMORPG Ragnarok Online.

A particularly noteworthy situation occurred with Football Manager 2005. The Chinese Ministry of Culture did not approve of Tibet being listed as a separate state in the game, as it “threatens the country’s sovereignty.” As a result, Tibet became part of China in the Chinese version of Football Manager 2005.

Germany is also very concerned about its image, but it has completely different reasons for this: the German government is very sensitive about the country’s Nazi past. Given that the World War II setting is a regular feature in video games, developers have to adapt some of the nuances to make their project work in Germany.

Banned games: political and age censorship in video games
Adolf Hitler in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus in the USA and Germany

This is primarily due to the depiction of the swastika and other Nazi symbols. In Germany, it is illegal to display them. Therefore, the German versions of Call of Duty: WWII and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus have been changed. In the former, you will see iron crosses instead of swastikas, and in the latter, black triangles. In The New Colossus, Hitler’s distinctive mustache was also removed to reduce the connection with the leader of the Third Reich.

Even the provocative South Park: The Stick of Truth got rid of swastikas in the German version. And in some other European countries, Ubisoft cut the scene with anal testing and abortion from the game. Only this decision was made by the company independently, based on market research.

Japanese games are often praised for their attractive and sexy characters. On the other hand, violence and explicit scenes in video games in the Land of the Rising Sun are treated very harshly. Because of this, dismemberment and nudity were cut out in the Japanese version of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. In fact, dismemberment is often removed from a wide variety of games for the Japanese market. Even the relatively peaceful Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune had all its blood cut out.

In the context of Japan, the situation with Fallout 3 is noteworthy. In the game, you can detonate an atomic bomb right in the middle of the city, but not in the Japanese version. Also, the Fat Man weapon, which fires miniature atomic bombs, has been renamed the Nuclear Met. This is because of the past of Japan, which survived the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And “Fat Man” is the name of the very atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.

Banned games: political and age censorship in video games
Still from the game Fallout 3

Australia is also very particular about violence and provocative issues in video games. Until 2011, games there could only receive a maximum rating of MA15+. At the same time, the R18+ rating available for movies was not applied to video games, they were simply banned from sale. This forced developers to actively adapt projects to the Australian classification. That’s why Left 4 Dead 2 in Australia is completely free of dismemberment and violence, which is quite surprising for a zombie game.

There are many more cases of censorship in video games than you might imagine. Here are a few more examples to give you an idea of the scale of the phenomenon:

  • in the US, in the first part of The Witcher, they made all the cards with female characters that Geralt receives after having sex with them less explicit;
  • Little Big Planet replaced one of their songs with an instrumental version, as there were suspicions that the lyrics contained lines from the Koran;
  • in the Western version of Zanki Zero: Last Beginning removed all hints of sexualization of minors;
  • in the German version of Grand Theft Auto III, no money falls out of the killed passersby, so as not to encourage senseless violence;
  • all references to Christianity were removed from the American version of Final Fantasy IV.

As you can see, literally anything can be a reason for censorship. However, the matter is not limited to content modifications by developers. Sometimes it comes to a complete ban on the game on the territory of a country.


Full stop

If a game is completely banned for sale in a country, it means that some of its elements are completely contrary to local laws.

China, of course, is the first country to impose such bans. Any excessive cruelty can lead to the loss of access to the Chinese market, which brings substantial profits. Battlefield 4 found itself in a similar situation, as the game further “discredited the Chinese nation.” Even the children’s game Roblox was banned because it was seen as “anti-communist propaganda.”

But the most notable is the ban on Devotion. The horror has an Easter egg that refers to the similarities between Xi Jinping and Winnie the Pooh. Such jokes are considered extremely offensive in China. The Chinese government took notice of Devotion, which led to the game’s complete disappearance from Steam.

The sweet and kind Animal Crossing: New Horizons did not please the Chinese government either. The game allows you to create your own content, and Chinese players used this opportunity to start spreading anti-government slogans. The game has disappeared from the market, but it can still be found on the “gray market” in China.

The story of Plague Inc. is even funnier. In this game, you can create your own deadly virus and try to destroy humanity. It was banned in China after the start of the coronavirus epidemic. After all, there are rumors that COVID-19 was created in Chinese laboratories.

Political reasons are often the key to banning video games. Here are a few such cases:

  • Spec Ops: The Line banned in the UAE due to the image of the destroyed city of Dubai;
  • Battlefield 3 banned in Iran due to fictional US invasion of Iran in the story campaign;
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops II and Medal of Honor were banned in Pakistan because the games portrayed the country as a failed state full of crime.

Religious issues can also affect the release of games in certain countries. For example, Dante’s Inferno was banned in Malaysia because of the depiction of Satanic symbols that are against Shariah. And in India, Fallout 3 is banned because it allows killing mutated cows, and cows are considered sacred animals in India.

However, some game bans seem to be the most logical. Take Hatred, for example, which tells the story of an antagonist who is fed up with modern society and decides to simply kill as many innocent people as possible. No subtexts, no justification. In the end, he also drops an atomic bomb.

Banned games: political and age censorship in video games
Still from the game Hatred

The game does not carry any important message or morals, but simply emphasizes senseless violence. It’s no wonder it was banned in Germany. Anyway, in terms of gameplay, there is nothing interesting in it.

Guy Game was one of the few games that was banned in the “land of freedom” of the United States. What did the developers have to do to get it banned? The game contains explicit scenes with live girls showing their breasts, and it later turned out that one of the girls was a minor at the time of filming.

And some bans speak eloquently about the situation in the country. That is why Pokemon Go is officially banned in Iran, because walking with a smartphone in search of Pokemon can lead people to military installations and other dangerous areas. This threatens both human life and national security.


What about censorship and the ban on video games in Ukraine?

In Ukraine, the gaming industry is at a considerable distance from the state, politics, and other higher intrigues. However, we still have our own peculiarities. The lack of centralized regulation sometimes leads to absurdities. I’m talking about the stickers with the words “Subtitles in Russian” on the background of the Ukrainian flag that people like to stick on physical media.

Regarding content regulation. Ukraine is not yet formally a member of PEGI and is not mentioned in the organization’s acts from a legal point of view. However, foreign publishers and developers use this system when selling games in our country.

Many publishers are guided by their own motives when releasing games in Ukraine. The most famous unpleasant situation happened with Mortal Kombat 11. The game is still not available on Steam or in digital console stores. Warner Bros. Games referred to the peculiarities of the country’s legislation without commenting further.

Banned games: political and age censorship in video games
Still from the game Mortal Kombat 11

The players assumed that the refusal to sell was related to the skin for one of the game’s characters, Scarlett. The skin features communist symbols, which are prohibited by law in Ukraine. Warner Bros. Games and NetherRealm decided not to censor the game in any way, but simply to remove it from Ukrainian stores.

But here is the most interesting thing. Scarlett’s skin was eventually changed to neutral. However, neither Mortal Kombat 11 nor the full edition of Mortal Kombat 11 Ultimate was released in Ukraine.

A similar case of self-censorship occurred with Tell Me Why, but here the Ukrainian region became “collateral damage.” The game was originally planned to be banned for sale only in Russia and other similar countries with laws on LGBT propaganda. After all, one of the characters in Tell Me Why is transgender, a woman who turns into a man, by the way, although this affects the plot, it is not the main thing here. There is no such law in Ukraine, but the game was still not available for a long time.

However, this story has a more positive ending. In 2021, in honor of Pride Month, Don’t Nod gave away all episodes of Tell Me Why for free on Steam. At the same time, the game became available in Ukraine.

By the way, there is a possibility that this censorship is the work of Steam itself, not developers or publishers. Alexander Senin, a leading game designer and COO at Starni Games, recently spoke in an interview with Border about Valve’s “autocensorship” mechanism.

Dave the Diver faced a similar problem. Its publisher is the Chinese company Nexon. And on release, it was blocked for purchase in Ukraine, as well as in Russia. There was an assumption that the ban was related to the US and EU sanctions against the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine, the so-called DPR and LPR. The Chinese company decided to take a neutral position, so it blocked all those involved.

But today, Dave the Diver is freely available on Ukrainian Steam. And recently, the game was added to the PS Plus subscription library.

Some blocking of games in Ukraine is not directly related to the games themselves. The main reason for this is the general ban on Russian websites and RU domains. That is why you will no longer be able to play Lineage II, as it was distributed in Ukraine by the Russian company Fogame. Access to its website and servers is restricted from Ukrainian providers.

However, speaking generally, Ukraine lacks mechanisms for regulating the gaming industry. This was clearly demonstrated by the situation with Atomic Heart. The game was accused of glorifying communism, and it was developed for Russian oil money, which was the subject of many investigations. But Atomic Heart is still freely available in all Ukrainian digital stores. Ironically, it even has a Ukrainian localization.

However, sometimes there is talk of attempts to take control of the Ukrainian video game market. In 2020, this idea was expressed by the Deputy Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine Oleksandr Borniakov.

“Let’s take, for example, a part of the famous Call of Duty computer game, which is based on a simulated war in Donbas. Beautiful graphics, a realistic plot, and we are already accustomed to the constant confrontation between Russia and the United States in cinema and games, and it is probably good that the events in Ukraine and their consequences will be known all over the world. But the problem is much deeper. It is possible that tomorrow a game will appear in which unacceptable things will be promoted and imposed on us and our children, calling into question the territorial integrity of Ukraine. And there is no effective mechanism that would prohibit its distribution in our country,” is how Borniakov commented on the need to create an appropriate tool for regulating video games.

But it never came to real action.

And sometimes Ukrainian games become a pretext for censorship. In Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments, Frogwares inserted a screen at the beginning of the game dedicated to the memory of the Heavenly Hundred. The Russian publisher of the game, 1C-SoftClub, asked to remove it, but the developers refused. As a result, 1C-SoftClub refused to publish the game.

Similarly, Russia banned the sale of Ukrainian Strategic Mind: Blitzkrieg because of the German victory parade on Moscow’s Red Square in the final of the alternative campaign, and Ukraine War Stories, most likely because of “discrediting the Russian army.”


Political leverage

Video games have managed to take an important place in the lives of millions of people around the world. The modern world is impossible to imagine without interactive entertainment, and the total value of the gaming industry is billions of dollars. It is therefore not surprising that politics is interfering in such a large and active sphere of our lives.

Debates about video games arise regularly. Everyone has long heard that games are somehow connected to violence, even if no direct link has been proven, rather the opposite. However, statements about games can serve as elements of influence on the electorate.

Donald Trump once spoke critically of video games, calling for their distribution to be limited. In his opinion, it is games that are to blame for problems of all kinds.

“We must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence. We must stop or substantially reduce this and it has to begin immediately,” Trump commented on the popularity of video games in a similar way.

It should be understood that Trump’s main audience is conservative Americans who adhere to family values and traditions. They often believe in stereotypes and have a hard time accepting change. Therefore, criticizing video games is another reason for them to vote for their candidate.

But this does not mean that many in the US government share similar ideas. On the contrary, American politician Jared Polis sees the benefits of video games and loves them himself.

“Gaming is good. It involves critical thinking skills. It involves tactical skills and strategic skills. And I absolutely think it’s helped me navigate Washington tactically,” this is what Polis said about his love for video games.

Many countries are actively engaged in the development of the video game market, as they realize that it can further strengthen the state’s position on the global stage. That is why there are a huge number of government grants and other programs that help small and not-so-small developers.

Of course, there is also control and propaganda involved. Russia puts a special emphasis on this, sponsoring the development of projects with a national flavor and ideas of Russian nationalism. Fortunately, the games are mostly not very good.

Banned games: political and age censorship in video games
Still from the game Atomic Heart

China does things more delicately. Genshin Impact is a largely neutral, but still great game. Many people now associate the image of China with it, which has a positive impact on the status of China.

The Ukrainian government is not yet involved in the development of our gaming industry, and many believe that this is a good thing. It is understandable, as there are enough problems. However, some initiatives are already being taken. For example, Rostyslav Karandaiev, the acting Minister of Culture of Ukraine, said during a telethon that the Ukrainian government wants to appeal to global game developers to add Ukrainian localization to their projects.

We are not talking about any bans and censorship of games in Ukraine at the national level yet. It is favorable conditions, not strict control, that can help our gaming industry in the best way possible.

What cases of censorship and video game bans can you recall? How do you feel about this phenomenon in general? Join the discussion in the comments.