Seven and a half years ago, one of the most acclaimed pro wrestlers of all time, Chris Benoit, murdered his wife and his seven-year-old son. He then killed himself. Today, some gamers want to play as Chris Benoit in a wrestling video game and keep trying to make that happen. The company behind the game doesn't want them to.
"We're deleting inappropriate content," a man named Marcus Stephenson, who Tweets about WWE games for publisher 2K, was telling gamers on Twitter a lot over the last week.
The "inappropriate content" Stephenson has been referring to are fan-made versions of Benoit, the ferocious Canadian wrestler who held world championships in WCW and WWE but who WWE has been loath to acknowledge since the murders.
Benoit is not part of the official roster of this autumn's WWE 2K15 game. He doesn't appear alongside the likes of Randy Orton, Bray Wyatt and Stone Cold Steve Austin. But fans can add to the roster through the game's "create-a-wrestler" mode and then share those new characters online for others to download into their copies of the game. To an extent, they've succeeded. Alongside fan-made versions of former WWE stars such as Mr. Perfect and non-wrestlers such as Superman, WWE 2K15's community creations page, as of mid-week, showed numerous fan-made Benoits.
In response, WWE 2K15's creators keep removing some of the fan-made Benoits. That decision has spiralled Stephenson into Twitter debates with some players. I first noticed the back and forth thanks to a Reddit thread last week. I was fascinated both by the arguments in them and by my own reaction—as a gamer and as a wrestling fan—to Benoit's legacy and the idea of being able to play a game as a man who actually murdered his family.
I was intrigued, also, by the fact that you might get banned from playing the game online if you uploaded Benoit to WWE 2K15's servers. More on that later.
Earlier this week, I played as Chris Benoit in WWE 2K15. Despite all the moderation that's been going on, I had no trouble finding copies of the wrestler on the game's servers. There's clearly no ban on the man's name, no auto-filtering that makes "Benoit" a banned word. I downloaded a Benoit of them to my PS4.
If you play as Benoit, you play as something cobbled together with the game's equivalent of wrestler Photoshop. Players can approximate his face. They can get the tights to match. They can select moves for him that largely match the types of moves he would do in his matches. But they can't draw on his full move-set and they can't add some of the garnish that makes a WWE performer feel, well, authentic. There is no official Chris Benoit theme music to play when he enters the ring, no live-action footage of the man to display on the giant screen rendered over the in-game arena rampway. It's amazing that the game's ring announcer can even pronounce Benoit's last name. It's a neat trick that he does:
It's him but it's not him, right?
It didn't really look like Benoit. At first, it didn't really feel like playing as him. It didn't feel like this is the guy who went on to kill his wife and kid, because it didn't feel like this is the guy. It's a couple of meta layers removed from the real person, of course, a fan creation of a man. I know this... or I knew this. I'm not Chris Benoit. I'm not wrestler Chris Benoit. I'm a fan's relatively crude rendition of what Chris Benoit the wrestler looks like. It's an artifice of an artifice.
Or so I felt, at the start.
The debates I saw Stephenson having—and the feelings I'd come to have while playing is Benoit—didn't seem to just be about whether a people should be able to play as a controversial wrestler in a video game. They're about how we privately and publicly regard deeply flawed people, how we remember them. They're about what happens when you layer the artifice of video game unreality atop the artifice of pro wrestling and then try to sort out what the truth of it all is. What does it really mean to play as WWE wrestler Chris Benoit in a video game?
"I only delete profane, nudity, and inappropriate creations." That's Stephenson Tweeting to players last week as he tried to explain the parameters for disallowing uploads of Benoit.
The idea that Benoit was "inappropriate" irked some people, much as Stephenson presented that as obvious. "We're a WWE product," Stephenson had said. "How do you think that's OK?"
"Well, why is it not?" the gamer replied. "He was an actual wrestler. He existed."
"This is a video game," another player pushed back. "So if someone upload "Ted Bundy" they'll get banned?"
"[N]ot banned, but [their Ted Bundy wrestler would be] deleted," Stephenson replied. "Yes. Because it's on a public server where others are able to download.
"That is total bs banning people for using in game content you made available," someone else shot at Stephenson.
"It's obvious why this is a violation," Stephenson replied. "I'm just relaying." When asked, he said they were deleting Create-a-Wrestler versions of Adolf Hitler, too.
(I reached out to 2K Games several times in the past week as well as to WWE to learn more about the policies regarding uploads to the game and about Benoit. They did not have comment by press time.)
All of this might sound silly or horrid to outsiders who don't follow WWE or know much of Benoit's life aside from his actions on the final days of his life. But Benoit is wrestling's version of Roman Polanski, Woody Allen or, if the abundant allegations of sexual assault prove to be true, Bill Cosby. He's a man who for decades was admired for being one of the best in his field and whose fans have since had to grapple with the idea that he's done vile things.
Benoit was no WWE underachiever. He's considered, in terms of technique, to be one of the best pro wrestlers of all time. A pro wrestler can be excellent for a variety of reasons. Some have mastered the art of delivering compelling trash talk that makes fans want to cheer for them to beat someone up or get beaten up. Others are acrobatic in the ring. Benoit was a boring speaker and lacked the impressive physical presence and charisma of a Rock or Hulk Hogan, and yet, in 2004, WWE still made him their world champion. His in-ring performances were that good. He was superb at making his fake fighting look real and painful, while mostly working safely without injuring his opponent. To the extent that putting on a great pro wrestling match involves a mix of good choreography, skilled improvisation and an ability to make fake violence look real, Benoit mastered all of it.
Hang out on a WWE message board or listen to a wrestling podcast and the mention of Benoit will invariably elicit comments from fans who say the real Benoit should be put in WWE's Hall of Fame. They separate the man in the ring from the murderer. Others say that's absurd. The debate is essentially a more intense version of the argument baseball fans have about whether Pete Rose, the most prolific hitter in Major League history, should be allowed in the the baseball hall of fame despite betting on games he was involved in.
I'm repulsed by Benoit. I used to enjoy his matches, but I've avoided watching them since he killed his family. I understand that some feel that Benoit was ill, that his brain was damaged and that turned him into an irrational murderer. A recent segment on HBO's Real Sports about the uncharacteristically violent acts of damaged ex-NFL players adds credence to that argument. The fact that Benoit killed his wife and son hours apart, according to a report of the autopsies, and was coherent enough that weekend to contact WWE colleagues and lie about why he couldn't come to his next scheduled event does not.
The wrestler Chris Jericho, who was close friends with Benoit, recently spoke about the man on his podcast. He doesn't think Benoit should go in the WWE hall of fame. "You cannot differentiate the two Chris Benoits," he said. "There's the Chris Benoit who spent most of his life as a huge fan and student of wrestling [and was] one of the best workers—one of the best wrestlers—of all time. Some might even say the best. And then [there was] the guy who committed these horrible crimes in the last weekend of his life." Jericho and Benoit wrestled scores of times, and Jericho thinks that at least a dozen of those matches are among the best in his own career. Still, he said, "I can't even watch Chris Benoit matches at this point in time."
Deep into one of the Twitter discussions WWE Games' Stephenson was having with gamers, one fired back at those who seemed so eager to celebrate Benoit's career: "It's insane how many stupid fucks still support somebody who murdered their kid."
Nevertheless, there are plenty of Benoits to choose from in WWE 2K15, all created by fans.
When I played as Benoit, using a character I'd downloaded to my PS4, I wasn't immediately repulsed. I didn't enjoy it, either.
When I played a match as my favorite pro wrestler, Daniel Bryan, I felt the vicarious thrill of doing some of his signature moves. Playing as Benoit initially just left me numb. I think some of that is due to how vaguely the player-created Benoit resembles the real wrestler, let alone the real man.
The fan-made Benoit I had grabbed approximated the real man less effectively than the game's official versions of other wrestlers. The resemblance didn't immediately click. The uncanny valley—that divide that often reminds us that, say, virtual Kevin Spacey isn't real Kevin Spacey—kept me at a distance from identifying with Benoit, at first.
I matched Benoit against Rob Van Dam, a cool real-life wrestler whose worst real-life offence seems to have been smoking a lot of pot. I was just learning the game, and Benoit's moves mostly felt generic. There wasn't much to this. He was an avatar on the screen. I was his puppeteer. The more we play a video game, though, the more our relationship with a character develops.
When we play, say, Super Mario Bros., though, we begin to identify with the fat plumber. An enemy kills Mario, and we might exclaim: "He killed me!" When we make a difficult jump, we don't think "Mario did it!" We think: "I did it!" We don't think we're Mario, but we begin to think that he is an extension of us, a puppet on our hand but, in some ways, our actual hand or even our whole body. Are we him? More and more, it feels like he is us.
When I loaded WWE 2K15 again and took control of Benoit in a new match against WWE icon John Cena, I began to think of things differently. I found myself beginning to identify my character's success with mine. I wanted to beat Cena. I was going to beat Cena. I was hitting the striking button on my controller and... there it was: signature Chris Benoit "knife-edge chops."
I knocked Cena down and moved Benoit to the corner of the ring. He climbed to the turnbuckle and I pressed a button. There it was... his signature flying headbutt...the headbutt he did night in and night out...the headbutt that some fans think damaged Benoit's brain.
A new thought popped into my head: someone made this. Someone took a blank virtual wrestler, named him Chris Benoit, gave him Benoit's tights and boots, and selected just the right moves from WWE 2K15's moveset so that when I pressed the buttons, virtual Benoit would do what the real Benoit would do.
I pressed the game's taunt button. I knew exactly what was going to happen. Virtual Benoit did the taunt that the real Benoit always did. He curled his right hand into a half-fist and extended his thumb, touched it to his neck and slowly, in the pantomime of slitting a throat, pulled it across.
I'm not that good at WWE 2K15, and Cena is programmed to be very good. Soon enough, computer-controlled Cena was taking charge of the match. I was fine with that.
I failed to counter Cena's attacks. Cena hit his big moves. Cena pinned Benoit. I... Benoit... failed to kick out. Match over. So be it, I thought. I felt myself getting angry. To hell with Chris Benoit. I wouldn't want to win as him anyway.
I found myself thinking about the murders. The game couldn't help me grapple with them. It wasn't designed to, of course, but that's all I care about regarding Benoit at this point. Not his wrestling. Not any more.
Since 2007, WWE basically wrote Benoit out of its version of wrestling history, despite the fact that he wrestled for them for seven years. TV announcers go out of their way to not mention his accomplishments. They've talked, for example, about record-holders in the WWE's Royal Rumble event without mentioning Benoit by name. The company's video editors carefully exclude shots of Benoit when showing historical moments that might have involved Benoit's presence. Once a star signing for the company, Benoit became the wrestler best not named.
Things changed a little this year with the launch of the WWE Network, an online streaming service that WWE sold with the promise that viewers could watch every major televised event in company's history, largely unedited. This included shows such as Wrestlemania XX, which ended with Benoit triumphant in a three-way main event. WWE still doesn't talk about Benoit, but they appear to have recognized the limit they can go to act as if he didn't exist. Many of the shows on the Network that feature Benoit matches (as well as those that contain other controversial content) begin with a warning:
The warning message on the Network might be the kind of thing that'd confuse a WWE 2K15 gamer. It suggests that WWE sees a difference between the Chris Benoit who wrestled within their ring—a "character"—and the real man. Surely, by that logic, a digital Benoit made of polygons in a video game is even more distanced from the man. To an extent, I think that's right. To an extent he's not the same guy.
I get that virtual Chris Benoit is no murderer. He's just a bunch of polygons pretending to pretend to fight. I also get that the real Chris Benoit is a part of WWE history, one that even WWE can't excise and that clearly some fans don't want to forget.
I get that to play a video game character isn't to celebrate the actions we have them commit, that many of us who shoot a person in a video game would never shoot a person in real life. And I get that all virtual Benoit does in WWE 2K15 is wrestle.
I even feel for the fans who want to in some way showcase a wrestler—a character—they championed.
Video games have the potential to make us empathize with the characters we control. We don't become them, but we become closer to them. I got a chance to play a video game as Chris Benoit this week, and my feelings about that are no longer ambiguous. Chris Benoit is not someone I want to be closer to.
Chris Benoit is not a character I want to control, not for the sake of virtual pro wrestling. If the game helped me better understand Chris Benoit's final, vicious days, I'd be more interested. But to play him as a wrestler? Count me out.
A post-script: This morning, I checked to see if there were more virtual Benoits on the game's servers. A couple of days earlier, I'd uploaded the one I'd downloaded, just to see if there were any warnings prior to uploading the character. There weren't.
Nevertheless, when I tried to go online today, this is the message I got:
Top image by Sam Woolley.