It's somehow appropriate that the opening credits to Bully, the latest title from controversial Rockstar Games, feature fastballs glancing off the company's bright yellow logo.
After all, to social critics, gaming has no bigger target, no bigger demon than the nefarious Canadian game developer that gave the world the Grand Theft Auto series — otherwise known to conservatives, anti-games zealot Jack Thompson, and Hillary Clinton as the Sixth Sign of the Apocalypse. (Even Fred Upton, the clueless Michigan Congressman who cited his Pong-playing skillz as evidence of his gamer cred, knows Rockstar.)
Sign number seven was supposed to be Bully, a game that drops you into the white sneakers of Jimmy Hopkins, a troublemaker who ends up at reform school. Rockstar said "Bully"; the world heard "Columbine simulator."
Nobody outside fans and gamer mags cared to listen as Rockstar spent most of last year explaining the details of how the concept was actually going to work. There's not a gun to be found in the game. Nobody dies, nobody bleeds, and Jimmy never gets any busier with the ladies than a kiss in the hallway.
In Bully, what Rockstar has actually created isn't a sociopath sim but a brilliant satire of the high-school jungle, where age-old cliques (jocks, geeks, and greasers) jostle uneasily for social supremacy and survival. Violence isn't used to terrorize, but to defend yourself and stick up for the underdog. One of Jimmy's first missions involves recovering a stolen box of chocolates for the fattest girl in school — and his biggest task is stopping Gary, a truly vicious bully who makes Christian Slater's character from Heathers look like freakin' George McFly.
While you're free to explore and do as you please in Bully, pummeling classmates in acts of random violence gets you nowhere — other than into the clutches of prefects, who summarily dump you into detention. So much for the Columbine simulator theory.
To be fair, Rockstar bears a major share of responsibility for digging the hole in which it finds itself. Last year's Hot Coffee-mod scandal was a train wreck, simultaneously making the company's name a household (swear)word and setting the gaming industry's image back to the Spanish Inquisition.
But through every critical firestorm — even the ones Rockstar has brought upon itself — the critics have always failed to see the company's crowning, critical achievement. Despite what Joe Lieberman would have you believe, it's not about drive-bys, profanity, hooker health-boosts, or the destruction of America's youth. (Are you listening, Saint's Row and Scarface?). It's the opportunity to run around and interact with a fully realized, interactive world like the one in Bully, where people act like actual people. Let's put it this way: I find it incredibly telling that nobody ever talks about the fact that you can play GTA: Vice City as a taxi driver.
Now that it's here and I've played it, we'll see which parts of Bully end up getting ink and hour-long specials on The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch: the slingshots and fistfights or the razor-sharp satire and open-ended gameplay. I'm betting on deafening silence. To me, that'll be the surest sign that for conservatives and game-industry critics, Bully's real lesson remains entirely unlearned.