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Tue, 03 Jul 2007

Games Murder

There has been quite a commotion in the UK about Rock Star's Manhunt 2 being banned - the first computer game to be so. Mstation's stance is simple - let adults make their own choices. In other words, we don't like censorship. We also believe kids should be protected against what feral adults might like, and so there needs to be a classification system and there need to be responsible adults.

In the UK, at least, there seem to be plenty of completely irresponsible adults and, in addition to that, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that the 18+ classification is widely ignored in shops.

It's a problem - a societal problem. Clearly some people need a little more education about looking after their children for one thing. And as for Rockstar, they've been playing this bottom-of-the-barrel game for ages now and deserved the very expensive lesson dished out to them in both USA and the UK.

But wait, there's more! ...

Sick Filth?

You'll have to forgive the British tabloid press for seeming a little bit out of sorts this week. Normally slavering at the mouth at the first sign of a violent videogame being condemned, the low brow red tops have had their noses put out of joint after being utterly pre-empted by the British Board of Film Classification.

After all, "Ban This Sick Filth" makes for a wonderful headline. "Some Sick Filth Has Been Banned", however, looks a touch limp, no matter how big you make the letters.

Tuesday's announcement that the BBFC has denied a rating to Rockstar Games' Manhunt 2 represents a new stage in the debate over violence in videogames. It is the first time that a videogame has been denied a rating since Carmageddon suffered a similar fate ten years ago - although Carmageddon's publisher, SCi, successfully appealed that decision.

I ought to say, at this point, that I am deeply uncomfortable with the fact that the BBFC - an organisation whose very name suggests classification, rather than censorship - should be in a position to make a decision like this.

British consumers and commentators have regularly noted that Germany has a particularly censorious regime surrounding videogames, and that the United States has an astonishing tendency to outrage over even the mildest sexual content. The irony is that neither of those countries actually censor videogames, in the strict sense of the word.

The German authorities can refuse a rating, which prevents a game from being advertised but doesn't stop it from being sold. In the US, an outcry over a game may cause some large retailers, such as Wal-Mart, to withdraw it from shelves. However, in neither country can a game actually be banned.

In the UK, however, despite a generally liberal attitude to media and all forms of artistic expression, free speech does not enjoy the same legal protections which it is afforded across the Atlantic. The result is that the BBFC's refusal to certify Manhunt 2 means that it is now entirely illegal to sell the game in this country.

Concerns over the mechanism of censorship, however, are secondary in this instance. In the US, after all, Manhunt 2 has been "banned" just as effectively by the actions of the videogames industry itself. The ESRB, a voluntary ratings board, has classified the game as Adults Only, and Sony and Nintendo have therefore refused to license it for sale on their systems.

This is a voluntary, internal industry process of self-censorship which is far more laudable than externally imposed censorship - but nonetheless, the effect for consumers is the same. Manhunt 2 is banned, on both sides of the Atlantic.

What's more important, if somewhat less comfortable a topic for discussion, is the question of why this game has been banned. The BBFC, after all, has not exactly been the most censorious of organisations in the last decade.

The organisation has largely kept pace with changing social mores and an increasingly liberal view of art and media in the UK, and has in fact been a staunch supporter of the right of videogames to move into areas of mature, adult content more commonly associated with older mediums like film.

In the case of the Hot Coffee scandal, for example, a ridiculous storm which threatened to shatter teacups across the USA, the BBFC rather sensibly opined that the tame sexual content revealed by the Hot Coffee mod did nothing to change their view that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was perfectly fit for consumption with an 18 rating.

Indeed, comparing the BBFC of now with the BBFC which reacted so strongly to Carmageddon in 1997 clearly displays the progress made in attitudes within the organisation. It seems almost certain that were Carmageddon to come before the BBFC censors today, it would pass, uncut, without the blink of an eye. We even suspect that it wouldn't garner an 18 rating in today's vastly more accepting climate.

The point here is this; Manhunt 2 is not merely the first game to be banned by the BBFC in a decade. It is also the only game to be banned by the organisation since its liberalisation.

It is a game which has been judged as being simply too cruel, callous, unpleasant and disgusting to be granted a classification, in an era when films like James Wan's Saw series and Eli Roth's Hostel make it into cinemas without even a ripple of attention - either from censors or from the tabloids.

This isn't a case of knee-jerk reaction to the controversy surrounding the first game; it's well known by now that the links made between Manhunt and the murder of a teenager in Leicestershire were tenuous at best, and weren't supported by police investigating the case.

Besides which, the BBFC doesn't succumb to knee-jerk reactions. Nor is this a case of videogames being discriminated against in classification due to being a "new" medium, and the whipping boy du jour of the conservative media. Time and time again, the BBFC has shown that it understands and respects videogames.

Our discomfort at the fact that the board has the capacity to censor at all has been allayed, for the most part, by the incredibly sparing, informed and judicious use of that capability which it has exercised in recent years.

In other words, with Manhunt 2, Rockstar has crossed the line - and crossed it at a full tilt run, it would seem, since the BBFC was unable to suggest any cuts that would bring the game in line with its guidelines.

"Unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing" is the key reason given for the ban; we would encourage readers to recall that this is judgement of a classification board which has happily classified Hostel and Saw, and indeed, the first Manhunt game.

One commonly heard argument is that being a Wii, PSP and PS2 title, it's impossible that Manhunt 2 could have the same level of realistic gore and violence seen in live-action movies like the aforementioned Hostel. However, this is an excessively simplistic way of looking at the violence contained in games like this.

It's crucial to consider that in gory films like Saw and Hostel, the viewer is placed at best in the role of an outside observer; at worst, they are given the viewpoint of the victim, a technique used by filmmakers to heighten the discomfort and reactions of the audience.

In a game like Manhunt 2, however, the player is in the role not of the hunted, or of the victim (as they are in, for example, survival horror type games); instead, they take on the role of the predator, of the serial killer, of the murderer who enjoys inflicting pain and torture.

There are certain parallels for this in literature, of course - Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho and Iain Banks' Complicity both deal, in very different ways, with murderers portrayed in the first person.

However, the clear opinion of the BBFC - and presumably of the ESRB - is that Manhunt 2 doesn't represent the sort of insightful commentary represented by those works. This is killing, maiming and torturing for the sake of it; this may, in fact, be the game which lives up to the shrill claims of the conservative wing that games are "murder simulators".

In making such a game Rockstar has been juvenile, shameful and irresponsible. The right of creators to push the boundaries of media and society must be balanced out against a simple sense of social responsibility - something with Rockstar seems to entirely lack.

This will be seen in some quarters as a question of being the enfant terrible of the games industry, a reputation which the firm seems to relish; however, I disagree with that assessment.

At several points along the line, during the development of Manhunt 2, people in management at Rockstar and Take Two have surveyed this product and made a decision, based on pure financial logic, to continue funding its development. This is not a question of art; this is a game which, it was decided, would sell well as a commercial product.

That decision has now backfired spectacularly on Rockstar and its parent company - and while we may be uncomfortable with the way in which the game has been censored in the UK, the rapid and effective self-censorship applied by the industry in the United States is laudable.

Videogames are not murder simulators; the vast, vast bulk of the attacks by the conservative right on the videogame medium have absolutely no merit, and are based simply in a pathetic attempt to find a scapegoat for wider societal problems.

Unfortunately, Rockstar seemed to view the accusations levelled at this industry, and at this medium, as a challenge. With even the mostly liberal minds in the BBFC apparently horrified, the message here should be clear; the videogames industry as a whole doesn't condone the overreactions we've witnessed in the media and among politicians in recent years, but it fully understands where lines must be drawn.

The fact that videogames are not murder simulators is a solid defence against the attacks of the conservative right; it is not an indication of a gap in the market. Perhaps now, with an entire development budget down the drain, Rockstar will be receptive to that lesson.

(gamesindustry.biz)

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