Britain: Censors overstep the mark
11 Oct 2007

I don’t play video games myself. A combination of poor hand-eye coordination and absolutely zero patience put paid to my ambition of being king of the arcade back in the days of Wonder Boy. In subsequent years I would, of course, attempt to portray my rubbishness at games as some sort of badge of cool. Cos, y’know, while everyone else was getting excited about Goldeneye, I was writing fanzines, starting bands and all that stuff (this is almost half true).

But it simply doesn’t do to dismiss games anymore. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have dismissed them then. This became patently clear when I was beaten at Wii tennis by every single other person present, in turn, at a house party a few weeks ago. I’d try to excuse myself by saying I was a bit tipsy, but so was everyone else, so it’s hardly a defence.

The fact that every single one of my late-20s/early-30s friends was playing a video game at a party says something in itself: gaming is, quite obviously, no longer something kids do.

This obviously isn’t news to anyone, with the possible exception of the British Board of Film Classification, which this week chose to uphold a ban on Rockstar Games’ Manhunt 2.

Manhunt 2 is, by all accounts, a pretty violent game, and one with little to recommend it in terms of playability.

Of course, the latter shouldn’t play any part in the BBFC’s decision to ban the game. The former, one might argue, should. Or at least one could argue this if the BBFC had stopped the release of films such as the Saw series, films which are essentially just sequences of pornographically violent tableaux, designed to do nothing but sate the prurient bloodlust that lurks in us all to a greater or lesser extent. Yet these films pass, and subsequently tend to do quite well in the cinemas.

So the censors have been inconsistent. What of it, you say?

This is what: the censors’ judgment complains of Rockstar’s resubmitted version of the game that ‘the impact of the revisions on the bleakness and callousness of tone, or the essential nature of the gameplay, is clearly insufficient’.

The first clause here is damning: the tone of the game is held up as a reason for banning: is there any other medium where this would be seen as an adequate reason for censorship?

Should, say, every student’s favourite ‘deep’ film, Requiem for a Dream, be cut, because it’s a bit dark? Should Hardy’s Jude the Obscure be removed from library shelves, lest ladies find themselves cast into a sadness by all that bleakness? It would be hard to find anyone who’d say they should.

The BBFC has clearly gone beyond its remit in even mentioning the tone of the game. It has made an aesthetic criticism, when its only function, if it must function, should be to highlight ethical concerns.

Why does it feel entitled to do this? We are back at misconceptions of gamers and the nature of gameplay. The BBFC is acting as if gamers are either children, or people who deserve to be treated like children. There probably aren’t many parents among you who would not feel entitled to raise concerns over the tone of their child’s cultural intake. But I’m sure most of us who have reached our majority would at very least tut loudly if our mothers tried to confiscate our copies of L’Etranger when they came round to our homes, rebuking us for reading depressing books and trying to force The Prophet on to our bookshelves.

As for other concerns: there are some who would argue that games break through the fourth wall, immersing players in the action to such an extent they can no longer differentiate between fiction and reality, and real and imaginary consequences of real and imaginary action: interestingly, this is not a view the BBFC takes. In a report (pdf) issued earlier this year, the BBFC found that gamers were far more aware than, say cinemagoers of the distinction between fantasy and the real world. Commenting on the report, the head of the BBFC said: ‘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.’

The final piece in this jigsaw is the moral panic argument. The original Manhunt game was subject to tabloid hysteria after the murder of Stefan Pakeerah. It was claimed that Pakeerah’s murderer had played the game non-stop. It later emerged that it was Pakeerah himself who was a fan of the game. None the less, the story stood: a boy was murdered because of this evil game, just as many claimed that Jamie Bulger had been murdered because of the horror movie Child’s Play 3.

So the BBFC would seem to have been inconsistent across platforms, unaware of target audiences, ignorant of its own advice, and influenced by red-top mania. I’m not sure I’d trust someone with that record to recommend a game, never mind decide what game I’m not allowed to play.

Padraig Reidy

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