Here’s the premise for the recently banned videogame, Manhunt 2.
‘An experiment at a secret research facility has gone catastrophically wrong. Daniel is sent to the Dixmor Asylum, where six years later a freakish storm of lightning hits the power, leaving it dark and haunting…
‘Demented screams echo around the dank asylum that has caged you for the last six years. You open your eyes. A white-coated body slumps to the floor through your shaking hands. A bloody syringe slips from your arm. Waves of confusion and paranoia crash over you. You have no idea who you are or how you got here.’
Doctor Caligari would have been proud. Come to think of it, Winston Smith with a cage of rats on his head would probably have nodded in recognition, in between dementedly screams.
Of course, the characters above are parts of works are classics in their respective media. I have to say that Manhunt 2 is far from a classic. It’s an ultra-violent videogame – and an average one at that.
But this is not an issue of quality. This is an issue about a relatively new medium confusing older mores. It’s an argument about a censorious bureaucracy misunderstanding the people it is supposed to be guiding – not protecting.
What we face is a latter-day Mervyn Griffith-Jones, asking if it’s the kind of videogame ‘you would wish your wife or servants to play’.
So, the BBFC has made Manhunt 2 only the second video game in history to be refused classification in the UK. The first being 1997’s ban of Carmageddon from SCi (now SCi/Eidos – of Lara Croft and Tomb Raider fame).
There maybe a clue in history. Way back in 1997, Jane Cavanagh ,SCi’s managing director, accused the BBFC of having an ‘arrogant and secretive’ approach to regulating the games industry.
She stated, ‘They were hugely swayed by sensational tabloid reports written by people who had never even played the game. The BBFC was wrong and the whole thing has been extremely time-consuming, stressful and expensive.’
Carmageddon gained an 18 classification following its resubmission with modifications.
This time around the BBFC’s stance is less flexible, with Sue Clarke, head of communications for the BBFC, stating that due to the structure of the game she could not see how Rockstar could resubmit it in an acceptable form.
So, what does the Board actually know about videogames and gamers?
On 17 April 2007, the BBFC produced a research paper entitled, ‘Video Games: Research to improve the understanding of what players enjoy about video games, and to explain their preferences for particular games’.
David Cooke, Director of the BBFC supported the paper, stating:
‘The element of interactivity in games carries some weight when we are considering a video game. We were particularly interested to see that this research suggests that, far from having a potentially negative impact on the reaction of the player, the very fact that they have to interact with the game seems to keep them more firmly rooted in reality.
‘People who do not play games raise concerns about their engrossing nature, assuming that players are also emotionally engrossed.
‘This research suggests the opposite; a range of factors seems to make them less emotionally involving than film or television. The adversaries which players have to eliminate have no personality and so are not real and their destruction is therefore not real, regardless of how violent that destruction might be.’
Key phrases that set the games media and gamers nodding in unison: ‘Firm grasp on reality’, ‘less emotionally involving than film or television’, ‘regardless of how violent that destruction might be’.
Let’s contrast this with Cooke’s 19 June statement following the refusal to classify Manhunt 2: ‘Manhunt 2 is distinguishable from recent high-end video games by its unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing…
‘Although the difference should not be exaggerated the fact of the game’s unrelenting focus on stalking and brutal slaying and the sheer lack of alternative pleasures on offer to the gamer, together with the different overall narrative context, contribute towards differentiating this submission from the original Manhunt game.
‘Against this background, the Board’s carefully considered view is that to issue a certificate to Manhunt 2, on either platform, would involve a range of unjustifiable harm risks, to both adults and minors, within the terms of the Video Recordings Act, and accordingly that its availability, even if statutorily confined to adults, would be unacceptable to the public.’
Key phrases that jarred with the board’s own research?
‘unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone’, ‘exceptionally little alleviation or distancing’, ‘alternative pleasures on offer to the gamer’, ‘unjustifiable harm risks, to both adults and minors’.
If any of the first three elements quoted above are benchmarks for censorship then Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky’s unremittingly bleak movie regarding drug addiction, death and more death) would never have received its 18 certification.
The meaningless, jargon-laden fourth statement reads more like a health and safety justification than a considered act of public guidance.
Quite simply put, Manhunt 2 is a stalking horse. It is quite possible that the BBFC is attempting to atone for perceived failures – specifically the 18 rating it gave to Manhunt in 2003. This mediocrity was erroneously cited as the cause of the murder of teenager Stefan Pakeerah by Warren Le Blanc.
As we reported at the time, a police spokesperson said in August 2004 that ‘the video game was not found in Warren LeBlanc’s room, it was found in Stefan Pakeerah’s room. Leicestershire Constabulary stands by its response that police investigations did not uncover any connections to the video game, the motive for the incident was robbery.’
SPOnG.com’s readership, which is reasonably indicative of videogames players in the UK, ranges from mid-teen to the ancients such as myself (43). The response has been uniform.
The feeling from the frontline – the gamers – is one of outrage that we are not being given the chance to waste our money on a mediocre piece of adult entertainment; that gamers are children. This outrage has led to anger and a deep mistrust of the regulatory organisation.
The news has also led to additional page impressions to our Manhunt 2 preview, which had lain largely dormant in the archive since we published it on May 4th due to lack of public interest.
It will also lead to a range of internet retailers making large amounts of cash as UK and Irish games players – many of whom would not have bothered – order it online.
So, the BBFC fails to understand the audience, the medium, the market, and the forms of distribution. It diminishes itself and therefore undermines public trust. Manhunt 2 has done more to damage right-thinking society than its developers and publishers could have dreamt possible.
Tim Smith is editorial director of games website http://www.spong.com. He is 43 years old and has played videogames since 1986