Bully, Rockstar’s great send-up of social elitism and teen media, turns 10 years old this year and Wednesday night the new mobile version, Bully Anniversary Edition, went live on both Apple’s App Store and Google Play. If you played it when it came out, it probably stokes memories of running late for class, tripping disciplinary hall monitors with marbles and the surprisingly long, effective narrative that carries through its 20-hour running time. What you might not remember is how, before its release, Bully represented the absolute end of civil society for a petrified community of parents.
In 2006, Rockstar was the most dangerous video game company in the world. It had grown from a scrappy upstart making tastefully ignored top-down action games and Game Boy Austin Powers properties to the public face of the moral crisis gripping the industry. Grand Theft Auto 3 was technically spectacular and spectacularly nihilist. It seems trite that congressional activists used to rail against Doom in the mid-Nineties, as if blasting the faces off Cacodemons was the tipping point for the youth’s malfeasance. When Grand Theft Auto took over the world, their worst dreams came true. Here was a game where you could choose to be cruel on purpose – and wreak havoc on a world that looks just like ours. It was dubbed a murder-simulator, a debauchery-simulator, and it preyed directly on a mainstream media that hadn’t yet developed the reasonable language to talk about interactive entertainment like, well, entertainment.
Following the “Hot Coffee” controversy – where some intrepid modders exposed a hidden sex scene in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas – the media perception of Rockstar Games was that it was a duplicitous organization peddling perversion to kids. Rockstar’s next move would carry worldwide scrutiny, and they responded with a table tennis game and a varsity-jacket sized version of Grand Theft Auto called Bully.