Videogamers like pushing buttons--both the kinds on their joysticks and the ones that set off political firestorms.
After the Virginia Tech shootings in April, it took just one month for Ryan Lambourn to create "V-Tech Rampage," an online game that puts players in the shoes of Cho Seung-Hui, the deranged killer. To pass each of the game's three levels, players evade the cops and deliver messages to the media while massacring as many screaming students as possible.
Find that disturbing? So did lawmakers in Australia and New York, who called for a boycott of the game. The host of Lambourn's Web site soon banned his account. But Lambourn, a 21-year-old Australian, has since found a new online home for his creation, and the game continues to draw a steady stream of traffic--about three thousand views a day, he says.
In a statement on his site, Lambourn offered to remove the game for $2,000 in donations and apologize for $3,000, a proposition he now says was a joke. He says he hasn't made any money from "V-Tech Rampage," but wanted to educate people about the details of the Virginia Tech shootings. And, he admits, he wanted to get a rise from the public. ''It's enjoyable,'' he says, via instant messenger. ''I made them do a barrel roll."
But "V-Tech Rampage" is hardly the first videogame to shock the public. Gaming has been pushing cultural boundaries for more than 30 years, testing--and often crossing--the limits of good taste and social tolerance.
In 1976, those limits were easier to transgress: A game called "Death Race 2000" created unprecedented controversy by allowing players to drive a tiny, blockish car over black and white stick figures. Even with its crude graphics, the game appalled a public that had until then seen only friendly games like "Pong" and "Pac-Man." It even spurred a 60 Minutes investigation into the psychological impact of videogames.
Given "Death Race's" relatively tame subject matter, it's hard to imagine what the gamers of 1976 would have made of "Mortal Kombat," a series of games launched in 1992 that took graphic violence to new levels by animating actual photographs rather than cartoon images.
Punches in "Mortal Kombat" drew sprays of gore; certain series of joystick movements and button combinations allowed players to rip bleeding, still-beating hearts from one another's' chests and tear out spines hanging from their opponents' detached heads.
A rating of M for mature limited the game to players aged 17 and over; the rating AO, usually reserved for pornographic games, means that the game is removed from the shelves of most major retailers, annihilating sales--note what happened to game publisher Take-Two Interactive after the controversy surrounding its "Grand Theft Auto" franchise.
But some of the most disturbing games still skirt the censors. "V-Tech Rampage," for instance, is offered for free on the Web. And another unrated lightning rod of videogame controversy, "Super Columbine RPG," has been downloaded over 500,000 times, according to its creator.
"Super Columbine RPG," a role-playing game, lets players live out the final day in the lives of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two teens responsible for the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. The game follows the two killers through both the preparations for the attack and the massacre itself, flashing back to scenes in the teens' lives that might have served as motivation for the attack. After Harris and Klebold commit suicide, players spend the final level in hell, searching for and then fighting the devil.
But as inflammatory as that sounds, Super Columbine's programmer, 25-year-old Danny Ledonne, says that he didn't create the game just to stir up outrage when he launched it in 2005. Ledonne, who works as a youth mentor for the Boys and Girls Club, argues that the game was intended as a new perspective in the debate over the motivations of the Columbine killers, one that couldn't be gained without putting the audience into the role of the murderers.
''The player has an authorship of the experience,'' says Ledonne. ''You decide how many people you want to kill, which rooms to go into, when to kill yourself. It offers you, as an audience member, a different way to understand the events.''
Whether videogame authors are trying to offend or enlighten, the power of that first-person perspective has pushed games to take risks, says Ian Bogost, a professor of Communications at Georgia Tech and an independent game producer.
Bogost's own game development company, Persuasive Games, was founded to create games that do more than thrill players with violence: They simulate airport security or let players experience the role of a disaffected copy center employee. One game under development looks at issues surrounding that most sensitive of cultural touchstones: abortion.
And games like "Super Columbine RPG"? Bogost says if they're made to make people think, they can be worthwhile.
''I would like to see provocation that has meat on its bones, that provokes real thought, not just media and sales,'' he says. ''Art has always been dangerous. It's not supposed to just reinforce happy ideals. It's supposed to be challenging.''