The BBFC’s decision to ban Manhunt 2 has naturally divided opinion between those outraged by the decision and those supporting it. But it also brings into question what responsibility developers should have over the content of their creations.
True, the timing – coming off the back of the Church of England’s threat of legal action over the use of Manchester Cathedral in the SCEE published Resistance: Fall of Man and the same-day revelation that a CCTV image of James Bulger featured in Law & Order: Double or Nothing – could have been better. Video gaming had managed to keep a relatively low profile in the press since the ‘Hot Coffee’ issue. Here, it was again in the news for all the wrong reasons.
“The real problem has been the reaction of the media, and the sensationalism in the articles about these issues, particularly the Manchester Cathedral issue,” argues Frontier Developments founder, David Braben, currently working on realitic thriller, The Outsider. “From their descriptions, I would be surprised if any of these people had actually played the game.
“The biggest problem is the seemingly unquestioned presumption by the media that games are fundamentally evil, and that as an industry we do not stand up and take these commentators to task about their shoddy reporting.”
Video game discrimination in the press is hardly a new phenomenon. As gaming continues on its uphill journey towards mainstream, it’s a sign that the medium is under increased scrutiny. Which is precisely why situations such as those mentioned above don’t help, and the reason why more responsibility must be taken by those creating the experiences, argue some.
“Ultimately, 85 to 90 per cent of responsibility lies with the publisher because they and their marketing teams are the ones that decide on the content that’s going to be in the game,” reasons Fred Hasson, CEO of Tiga.
While several developers asked to comment on the Manhunt 2 ban refused to do so, Hasson has no issues discussing it.
“The publishers haven’t displayed a lot of social responsibility in understanding where they were heading with this type of content and have made ELSPA’s and TIGA’s job more difficult trying to defend the industry against sensationalist Daily Mail headlines,” he says. “Neither have some of the marketing strategies of the content helped. So I’m not surprised, and I’m not particularly sorry – [Take 2] had it coming.”
“At first, I took the usual free speech line and was enraged about the decision,” admits Keith Stuart, writer at the Guardian Gamesblog.
“But as I’ve found out more about the game, that position has eroded. It’s a blatantly nasty, exploitative title. I don’t think it’s sensible or even possible to take an intelligent hardline stance on this without understanding how classification works and, importantly, actually knowing what’s in the game. video game news sites have almost exclusively taken an anti-BBFC stance.”
Part of the criticism stems from the fact that this represents a dangerous censorship precedent. But some don’t see recent events as a reason for worry.
“The potential consequences are basically zero. The main reason why Resistance got such a hard time is because it sold newspapers,” says Rob Yescombe, screenwriter at Free Radical Design. “Likewise, the ‘moral objections’ that certain retailers have to stocking mature products magically melt away when those products are flying off the shelves elsewhere. The production of – and objection to – products in this industry are driven by money.
“I have no doubt that the so-called graphic content of Manhunt 2 will become the standard within a very short amount of time – just as the once shocking aspects of Grand Theft Auto have become so.”
If nothing else, the general reaction by gamers to the Manhunt 2 fiasco serves as further fuel for the image of a violence-obsessed, worryingly desensitised community. The very image, as an industry, we should be actively trying to dispel, surely? At least, if recognition of the medium is truly what we seek.
“Personally, from what I have heard of [Manhunt 2], it seems like this is exactly the sort of game as an industry we should not be making as it gives ammo to our detractors, but having said that I have not seen it myself, so I am aware this is a little hypocritical,” admits Braben, who quickly adds he was nevertheless of the same opinion of the first game.
“Games like these have done a great deal of damage to the reputation of the games industry in the minds of non gamers, as such controversy, and the manufactured controversy over Resistance: Fall of Man is perhaps the majority of what these non-gamers hear about us,” he adds.
Others see such occasions as a genuine move forward, however.
“It’s a watershed because that politicians are showing that they are prepared to ask questions and understand that ‘games’ are a medium rather than a niche form of entertainment,” argues Hasson.
“Gaming can no longer hide under this mantle of a niche form of entertainment – it is now mass media and society is beginning to wake up and understand the medium because their kids are using it so much.”
Which brings us back to the initial question of whether developers have to be more aware of what they create, particularly as the graphical content of the latest games is increasingly convincing.
Jason Della Rocca, IGDA’s executive director doesn’t actually think better visual fidelity is an issue. “The current arguments and concerns are exactly same as they’ve always been. Arguably, this all came to a head with Mortal Kombat, which has laughable graphics by today’s standards.
“The core issue is that a non-gamer will look at the screen and simply not understand what’s truly going on. Seeing realistic graphics does not provide the context for player agency, the backstory/motivations, the potential for embedded irony or satire, etc.”
The trouble is, of course, the above elements aren’t always included. “What video game companies often lack, is the will or ability to provide context and subtext with violent games. Meaning is important – it’s one of the things the BBFC picked up on in Manhunt 2. If videogaming is to be part of mainstream culture, it must play by the same rules,” argues Stuart.
“There are ways for interactive entertainment to explore darker themes of violence – Super Columbine Massacre springs to mind – but these aren’t through standard retail channels.”
Braben reaffirms his belief that it is vitally important to be responsible for what is in a game, in the same way he would expect film makers to take responsibility for things depicted in films. “But it is also vitally important to stand up for those decisions if they are later criticised,” he says. “As an industry, we need to field people to answer the accusations head-on, rather than simply provide dry, written statements; but also we need to be careful about what we do in our games.”
So the Manhunt 2 incident is likely to get developers to think a little harder about their creations, but in fairness, the majority probably already did.