Image: Bully
Rockstar Games
Rockstar Games, a company that's made a fortune angering soccer moms, has finally shipped its controversial new game, 'Bully.'
By Games editor
msnbc.com
updated 11/2/2006 10:28:40 AM ET 2006-11-02T15:28:40

Rockstar Games has finally shipped its latest title, “Bully.”

Thank God.

So much controversy. So much hand-wringing. And all before anyone had even laid eyes on the game — much less played it.

From the minute Rockstar announced “Bully,” at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in May 2005, the critics were up in arms.

And while the violence is decidedly less lethal than in other games, like Rockstar’s own “Grand Theft Auto” franchise, where one can kill a cop or stab a hooker, watchdog groups say “Bully” glorifies something that is very real and very applicable to kids at a vulnerable time in their lives.

“Kids are killing themselves because they’ve been bullied,” says Jayne Hitchcock, president of Working to Halt Online Abuse. “Why pick a subject that didn’t need to be made into a game?”

The answer is, because this is Rockstar — a company that’s made a lot of money targeting suburban teenage boys and gotten tons of press by angering soccer moms. And they’ve done it successfully for nearly 10 years.

So now “Bully” is out on store shelves. Will it sell because it’s a good game, or because it’s controversial? And as a PlayStation 2-exclusive game in the era of next-gen consoles, will it sell well at all?

Reviews of the game, including MSNBC.com's , have been overwhelmingly favorable, with most  termingthe post-announcement freak-outs as much ado about nothing.

Rockstar, for its part, dismissesthe criticism, saying “Bully" tells adolescent angst how it really is. And, that "Bully" isn't all about bullying, or even fighting.

The game's ending depends on how you, the player, pilot your 15-year old character, Jimmy, through his first year at the unfriendly Bullworth Academy prep school. If you choose to defend the geeks, they’ll have your back if you run afoul of the jocks. If you team up with the bullies, you might find yourself at a disadvantage with the preps. All realistic scenarios, says company spokesman Rodney Walker.

“If you’re a gangster in 1990s L.A., you say dirty words,” says Walker. “We couldn’t have a game where [Jimmy] could only be good, because that’s not realistic.”

Until recently, only a few news organizations had seen the game. In August, a handful of journalists were invited to Rockstar’s New York offices to watch the developers play through chunks of the game.

Based on their short look, the journalists concluded that Rockstar had made another darkly funny game with its signature free-wheeling, explore-at-will style. And unlike “Grand Theft Auto,” where you can mow down pedestrians in your stolen car, wedgies and baseball bats are the best ways to take down your enemies in “Bully.”

But the critics still wouldn’t let up.

“Schools in the U.K. have considerable discipline problems involving low-level disruption and disrespect for authority,” says Liz Carnell, director of the U.K.-based Bullying Online, which initially called for a ban on the game. “We don’t think that a computer game which shows incidents of violence in school will do anything to make teachers’ jobs easier.”

And here we are again at the decades-old question: Will a 15 year-old who plays “Bully” act out what he sees onscreen? The answer depends on who you talk to.

Industry groups like the Electronic Software Association cite scholars such as Loyola University Chicago’s Lorraine Buerger, who in 2006 wrote, “Social scientific data to demonstrate a causative relationship between perceived harms associated with violent video games remains unproven.”

Bruce Bartholow, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, Columbia, disagrees. 

“There is voluminous evidence that young people act out what they see onscreen,” he says. “And the process of imitating onscreen behaviors appears to be similar to what happens when young people imitate behaviors they witness firsthand.”

In September, the Electronics Software Ratings Board (ESRB) granted “Bully” a Teen rating, which is the equivalent of a PG-13 for movies. A month earlier, the famously strict Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification awarded “Bully” a moderate rating.

Rockstar changed the name of the game in Europe to “Canis Canem Edit,” or “Dog Eat Dog” in Latin. Despite this apparent attempt at appeasement, the game was given a 15 certificate, meant to ban its sale to minors under the age of 15. And British retailers Currys and PC World opted not to stock the game.

As a last ditch effort, Florida attorney (and so-called anti-violent video game advocate) Jack Thompson, who to date has filed lawsuits against Wal-Mart and Rockstar over the title he calls a “Columbine simulator,” convinced a circuit court judge in Miami-Dade County to play "Bully" himself and determine if it should be sold to minors.

Judge Ronald Friedman acknowledged that the game was violent, but cleared it for sale in Florida anyway.

Tweens and teens are notoriously fickle consumers, and this holiday buying season will be dominated by the battle of the next-gen consoles. But the PlayStation 2 has an enormous established base — one that's not going to evaporate this year, or even next.

Take 2 won't comment on early sales figures, and Wal-Mart will only say that its pre-orders of the game were about what they expected.

A few calls to various game retailers around the country (in Mobile, Ala., Milwaukee, Wis., and Bellevue, Wash.,) reveals that the game is selling well. In fact, months before the game landed on store shelves, patrons were reserving copies at the GameStop in Bellevue.

Rockstar and Take 2 can thank their loyal fans and the positive reviews for their sales. But they can also thank the critics. In an era where all publicity is good publicity (how, otherwise, could we explain Paris Hilton?), "Bully" has had more than its share.

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