Overthrowing authoritarian governments is a common pastime for gamers. Dictators go up against plucky freedom fighters in video games ranging from fantasy kingdom quests to globetrotting military campaigns. They include underwater tycoon Andrew Ryan from Bioshock and Adolph Hitler in every World War II shooter ever. Simply put, these dastardly despots make for easy targets.
Developers rarely prioritize subtlety when coming up with these fictional tyrants. That means plenty of ludicrous plots to take over the world and lots of cutting satire. They come across as such zany caricatures that it’s easy to forget their real life counterparts are no laughing matter. Across the world, millions of people still live under heavy-handed governments eager to stifle criticism. When video game heroes target their countries, regimes take notice.
These days, the gaming industry has more power than ever to exercise free speech that can touch a nerve where it’s most needed. From the Call of Duty mission that had you assassinate Fidel Castro to Ghost Recon’s North Korean takeover, here are six cases where authoritarian leaders or governments took issue with video games for depicting them in a poor light.
And before someone cries foul, be aware that I used reports from the Human Rights Watch organization to determine which countries qualified here. So there.
6. NORTH KOREA BLASTS ‘TOM CLANCY’S GHOST RECON 2’
No other modern country matches North Korea’s reputation for wholehearted totalitarianism. An omnipresent police state that practically deifies its supreme leader, writers usually don’t think twice about ridiculing it from afar. Safe to say the global pariah doesn’t take these jabs in stride. Long before North Korea took its anger out on The Interview, a buddy comedy about overthrowing wacky dictator Kim Jong Un, it set its sights on Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon 2.
The Ghost Recon games task players with leading squads of special operation soldiers into tactical battles. They fully embrace oddball speculative military fiction, with foes ranging from Russian ultranationalists to Mexican revolutionaries. North Korea had its turn in 2004 when the Ghost Recon team went up against a rogue Korean People’s Army general who wrests away control of the country during a famine. Before the game even came out, the real North Korea’s state-run media trashed it as a work of U.S. warmongering. “This may be just a game to them now, but it will not be a game for them later,” a North Korean newspaper reportedly wrote. “In war, they will only face miserable defeat and gruesome deaths.”
The game attracted controversy even in democratic South Korea. There a national media rating board blocked its release. Turns out they’re a tad sensitive to warfare breaking out in their own backyard.
5. ‘FOOTBALL MANAGER 2005’ BANNED IN CHINA
In the People’s Republic of China, even an innocent soccer game can cause an uproar. To protect the rule of law, as it puts it, the Chinese Communist Party strictly curates political speech. Few topics invite fiercer censorship than those that touch on the one-party state’s governance of far-flung regions like Tibet, where ethnic and religious discrimination abounds. So when Football Manager 2005 listed separate teams in its roster for not only Tibet, but other contentious regions like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, it created an uproar.
Promoting separatism is a huge taboo in China. The country’s government prides itself on its strong national unity. Calling the sports management simulator harmful to the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, officials banned it after hearing protests from Chinese gamers (although not officially distributed in China, the game had spread online thanks to pirated copies). Chalk it up as another sign that China’s impressive economic growth has not been matched by free speech gains.
4. VENEZUELA DECRIES ‘MERCENARIES 2’
Nowadays asking gamers about Mercenaries 2: World in Flames yields foggy memories of blowing up a war-torn country with attack helicopters, tanks, rocket launchers, and airstrikes in a “pretty good I guess” action game in 2008. Almost a decade ago, however, it drew the ire of powerful Venezuelan politicians for unleashing its mayhem too close to home.
Though technically democratic, Venezuela’s political system leaves much to be desired. Under former president Hugo Chavez, the government constantly undermined critics in the opposition and media. These tactics continued under his successor, who last year blamed electoral losses on an economic war waged by the country’s enemies. But back in 2006 it was the virtual war in Mercenaries 2 that drew Venezuela’s ire. The developers set their playground for destruction in a caricature of the South American nation, full of revolutionary goons, drug lords and Jamaican pirates. Lawmakers denounced it as an imperialist tool for backing an actual invasion.
“I think the US government knows how to prepare campaigns of psychological terror so they can make things happen later,” said Venezuelan congressman Ismael Garcia. So far, those plans haven’t panned out, and few remember the lackluster game or its loony gun-crazed mercs.
3. CUBA BRISTLES AT ‘CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS’
Before a recent thaw in diplomatic relations, Cuba and the United States had stared each down since Fidel Castro took over the Caribbean nation in 1959. Uncle Sam’s trade embargo, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and CIA-led attempts to kill Castro had given the communist-controlled island admittedly good reasons to distrust its northern neighbor. The repressive republic found fresh evidence for its suspicions when Call of Duty: Black Ops lampooned it in 2010.
The Cold War shooter opens with a mission to assassinate Castro during a clandestine CIA operation. Frantic firefights across the island lead up to putting a slow-motion bullet in the head of a doppelganger impersonating the Cuban dictator. A state-run news site called the gruesome set piece perverse propaganda. “What the United States government did not achieve in more than 50 years, it now tries to do virtually,” the website wrote. An understandable response, given the two countries’ history of animosity, but it’s still a little funny seeing someone take a silly Call of Duty plot seriously.
2. THAILAND’S JUNTA BANS ‘TROPICO 5’
If at any time reading this list you’ve thought, “hey oppressing an entire country actually sounds kind of fun,” then the Tropico games might be for you. The computer series puts players in charge of building and running cities in a tropical republic led by the autocratic “El Presidente.” Gleefully tongue-in-cheek, the games let armchair dictators pursue democratic reforms or reign as tyrants. Thailand’s current leaders would no doubt prefer the second option.
In 2014, a military junta seized control of the Southwest Asian country, cracking down on political expression. Under this restrictive environment, cultural censors banned Tropico 5. Apparently the game’s satirical simulation of totalitarianism could harm Thailand’s peace and order. Sounds rather telling, doesn’t it? When the sixth Tropico installment makes its way onto computers, an option to ban meddlesome foreign video games would make for a nice new tool.
1. PANAMANIAN STRONGMAN SUES ACTIVISION
Draconian rulers are scary, dangerous people. Until now the ones compiled here have merely wagged their fingers at the video games that mock them. Back in 2014, however, a dictator took a more direct action against his unflattering portrayal in a game—though thankfully from behind prison bars. Former Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega sued the makers of Call of Duty: Black Ops II for using his name and likeness without permission.
Unsurprisingly, Activision’s bestselling military franchise crops up again on the list. Noriega’s nonsensical lawsuit claimed the company portrayed him as a kidnapper and murderer in order to boost sales. Noriega must not have taken into account that he’d already damaged his own reputation sufficiently by, you know, torturing and killing people. Overthrown by U.S. forces in 1989, he had been imprisoned first for drug trafficking charges and money laundering, and then for crimes committed during his military regime.
Months after Noriega’s lawsuit became public, a judge ruled that the ex-strongman’s likeness had been used fairly and that the game did not financially benefit from his appearance. When weighing in on the case, former New York City Mayor and Activision co-counsel Rudy Giuliani called the court ruling a victory for protecting artistic free speech. Not too bad for a hobby that was once seen as childish escapism.
RELATED: The most violent retro video games of all time