Manhunt 2 controversy
Posted at 23:38 on 28th June 2007 - permalink

Earlier this month, the BBFC refused to give a rating to Rockstar’s Manhunt 2, effectively (and legally) banning it from sale in the UK. Shortly after that, the ESRB in the US awarded the game the kiss of death A-O classification, and Sony and Nintendo both reiterated their policies that they would refuse to grant a license for any A-O rated games to be released on their platforms.

Rockstar then announced that the game was to be put on hiatus, prompting many to speculate that the game would be edited and relaunched later in the year (and that this may even have been Rockstar’s intention all along – a theory which is rather far-fetched considering the level of risk and expense to which they would be -and in fact have been- exposed). Keith Vaz basked in the glow of victory for a few seconds before putting one of his clownshoe’d feet back in his mouth by calling for Resistance: Fall of Man to be banned as well, presumably on the basis that it was a game that he knew the name of.

Thus the issues of censorship and the social responsibility of publishers came under intense scrutiny for the first time since Hot Coffee. Now that the dust has settled, we have learned several things:

(Cards on the table, before we start: I’m strongly opposed to censorship, but I think the BBFC made the right call, from the options that they had available. Hopefully the following points will explain.)

1. A large portion of the online games press (at the less credible/reputable end of the spectrum, e.g. Joystiq, Kotaku, Destructoid, etc.) felt compelled to defend Rockstar on principle, working themselves into a self-righteous lather over the following days. Either some of the writers on these sites are truly stuck in an adolescent quagmire and don’t see any problem with games as a commercial art form being dragged down to their level (see also: comics), or they’re just very, very good at pandering to their audiences to maximise ad revenue.

2. A surprising number of people jumped to the conclusion that the game had been refused a rating by the BBFC on the basis of how violent acts were visually depicted, whereas the BBFC’s statement makes it abundantly clear that this wasn’t the case: it was a matter of context. Cue endless comparisons to horror films (Saw and Hostel being almost universally given as examples) and practically any game that could be considered violent (GTA, Hitman, Scarface) right down to the DEVASTATINGLY INSIGHTFUL observation that even Mario is engaged in an orgy of death and destruction, innit?

The reason that Manhunt 2 differs from this diverse range of video works that managed to pass the BBFC’s inspection (which includes Manhunt 1, of course) is that it doesn’t present a framework which can be argued to justify the inclusion of and emphasis on sadistic violence.

The original Manhunt wasn’t a realistic game. It presented violence for what it really was (repellent, as opposed to the romanticised Hollywood violence games have traditionally traded in) in the service of a scenario that was purely fantastical. It was extreme, button-pushing, confrontational – for a reason. Transposing that kind of cruel violence (now presented as being freely and readily embraced by the protagonist) into Hackneyed Action Game Plot #235 (see: Wolfenstein 3D, Bioforge, every RPG where you wake up in a dungeon with a loose wall) pushes the game deep into shameless exploitation territory. Lots of films (but –historically– no games, with the brief and erroneous exception of Carmageddon) are refused classification on these grounds – hardly indicative of Manhunt 2 being singled out for special treatment.

3. The BBFC can’t base their decisions purely on what is shown on screen, they have to take the market into account. It’s ridiculous to think that they haven’t considered that 18-rated games and films won’t be viewed by minors, or that this inevitable statistical variance beyond their control makes their ratings pointless. They can fairly safely assume that cinemas are more closely regulated venues than the DVD players in people’s homes, and that games consoles (frequently situated in children’s bedrooms rather than the family room) are even further out in the wild. They have blunt tools and vague legislative guidance.

One obvious solution would be to introduce a more closely regulated rating above ’18’ (a method they’ve already used for certain mucky films which can only be sold from licensed premises). If there’s a audience for really transgressive content (which Rockstar themselves claim is a specialist market), there needs to be a suitable channel for it – it doesn’t benefit anyone (apart from Rockstar’s bottom line) for this kind of stuff to share shelf space with Gears of War and Singstar.

This may at first glance seem to run counter to my earlier rubbishing of the ESRB’s A-O rating. The difference is that the A-O rating hasn’t been designed to protect certain kinds of content, but to push arbitrarily ‘unacceptable’ games out of the market (based on the puritanical leanings of certain American politicians and retailers).

4. Finally, the whole affair has briefly exposed how far the console platforms still have to go to genuinely be neutral, content-agnostic media formats like DVD and CD. The illusion that Nintendo and Sony currently maintain is more subtle than it was 10-15 years ago, but with Reggie Fils-Aime stating that Nintendo will “never” allow adult-only material on their platforms in the US (I’m led to believe this kind of content approval is illegal in the EU, by the way), console games are already more creatively stifled from the outset than we’d like to think.

This interview with a BBFC spokesperson clears up a lot of the misconceptions that have been flying around, even if they freely admit that there are is a large amount of interpretation of the law involved in their decisions.

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