Every year, a video game stirs passions to the boiling point because it hits too close to home. This year, that dubious honor goes to Ubisoft’s Call of Juarez: The Cartel, which depicts first-person combat in Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez in the midst of a drug war.

State legislators in the border town, which is in the state of Chihuahua, have asked the Mexican government to ban the video game, saying it could trivialize the all-too-real drug violence in the region. But by drawing attention to the game, these opponents may find they’re adding fuel to the fire. Stirring up attention around a violent video game can frequently lead to increasing its sales.

“It is true there is a serious crime situation, which we are not trying to hide,” Ricardo Boone Salmon, a congressman for Chihuahua state, told MSNBC. “But we also should not expose children to this kind of scenarios so that they are going to grow up with this kind of image and lack of values.”

The game isn’t out until this summer on the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, but it’s already generating some attention, particularly because 6,000 people have died in Ciudad Juarez in the past two years due to drug violence. Is the game a good thing because it draws focus on the horrors of the drug war, or is it a bad thing because it panders to a prurient interest in violence and teaches young folks that taking a life is a trivial decision?

A little controversy is good for a game’s sales, but too much controversy can turn it into a culture war and a train wreck for the larger video game industry, particularly if it results in regulations that hurt sales.

Last year, Electronic Arts’ Medal of Honor stayed in the news for weeks because the game allowed users to play the Taliban in the ongoing war in Afghanistan during multiplayer play. EA ultimately changed the name “Taliban” to “opposing force” in order to defuse the tension.

In 2009, Activision Blizzard came under fire for a scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 where players participated in a civilian massacre at a Russian airport. That scene came up again during news reports about the bombing at the Moscow airport last month. And game company Konami dropped publication of Six Days in Fallujah, which depicted combat during the violent uprising in the recent Iraq War, after a public outcry.

Call of Juarez: The Cartel isn’t yet rated, but two previous versions set in the Old West were rated mature. The game’s web site says the game will let you “embark on a bloody road trip from Los Angeles to Juarez, Mexico.”

Game publishers typically say they’ve got the right of free expression to create games that depict real-life situations. They also say there is no evidence that violent video games cause violent behavior in real life. And they say parents shouldn’t allow kids to get their hands on mature-rated games.

This reminds me of the recent speech that game researcher Jane McGonigal gave at the Dice Summit in Las Vegas. There, she said that games can have an outstanding positive effect on game players as they play games. McGonigal said research studies have shown that gamers are at their best as people when playing: they’re motivated, optimistic, resilient, collaborative, and expressive. Those feelings spread into the real world. After playing a game, a person is more likely to go up to someone in a bar and introduce himself or herself, she said.

But Peter Raad, executive director of the Guildhall video game school at Southern Methodist University, had an interesting reaction to that speech. He said that the video game industry can’t have it both ways. That is, it can’t argue that violent video games have no effect on players, and then turn around and say that video game playing has such positive effects on behavior.

I imagine this ongoing debate is one reason why the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing California’s law banning the sale of violent video games to minors. Until the high court makes its ruling, games like Call of Juarez: The Cartel will keep sending us around in circles in the argument about video game violence.