Miscellaneous Travis Hite on 20 Nov 2007 09:07 pm
Generally speaking, when someone comes to me and blames the problems of our nation’s youth on video games, I tell them they are misinformed. When they bring up “Grand Theft Auto” and refer to it as a “murder simulator”, I casually explain that the game implements one of the best scripts this side of Hollywood, taking cues from such ground-breaking movies as “Scarface” to “Menace II Society”. The games are voiced by such noted actors as Ray Loitta and Samuel L. Jackson. The average gamer these days is well into their late twenties even by the worst estimates and these games are distributed explicitly for an adult audiences. Most retailers, especially retailers primarily devoted to video games, know better than to sell to children: it can cause them both financial and political problems. As such, these games are not murder simulators, but well written stories intended for adults. The fact that they include death is roughly as meaningful as mentioning that “Casino” includes murder, and more f-bombs than I used after falling off a three-story building.
Then comes a game like Manhunt, and suddenly defending it becomes a bit harder. Created by the same company as “Grand Theft Auto”, the concept behind the game is to get into the mind of someone who commits horrendous, unspeakable acts. This is not mindless killing for the sake of killing, unlike the abysmal flop “State of Emergency” which literally was nothing more than gunning down people in a mall. I should probably mention that Rockstar also produced “State of Emergency”. But, whereas “State of Emergency” was rather cartoony in nature and felt about as real as punching a blow-up clown, “Manhunt” is quite the grisly game. As the title of “Manhunt” might suggest, you play as a hunted man. The only way to escape your would-be killers is to kill them first. The producers like to refer to it as a work of art, to show the fall of a man trapped in a situation beyond his means and what he will do to survive. While the original “Manhunt” was acknowledged as not only being believable but almost sympathetic in its portrayal of its anti-hero, “Mahunt 2” goes more for the blurring of reality through the eyes of a madman. This only furthers the “murder simulator” reference, as if it were desensitizing most people. One reviewer, as seen in the video below, makes note of the fact that this sort of mindless violence is more the area of teenagers who find this sort of gory social commentary interesting, whereas most rational adults would likely look at something like this and recoil. (Note, some foul language in this review, may not be safe for work)
If you could not tell form the previous review, at the end of the day, reaction to this game amongst gamers was lukewarm. A small graph, from the people at Penny Arcade, pretty much sums up your average gamer’s reaction to “Manhunt 2”
As you might imagine from the graph, it brought up a lot of controversy – of which a lot of gamers genuinely yawned at and went about their days. This article describes the entire debacle far better than I can, but I will attempt to summarize. In one short day, not only was the game banned in the U.K., it was given the “AO” rating in North America. Those unfamiliar with the ESRB rating of “AO” may say to themselves “well, it’s just a rating.” However, “AO” is regarded on this side of the pond as a death sentence to a game. Retailers often are unwilling to sell such a game, and those that can will generally hide it under the counter. Development was pushed back by months, and the game was only unbanned in the U.K. and given an “M” rating here. Though “M” rated games can be sold at most stores, selling these games to children under the age of 17 is not only frowned upon but illegal in some states. One might think, “whoo, crisis averted.” For some time, it was. The game went out with little fanfare and made a modest return, though certainly not enough to warrant the extra development time that was needed to tone it down. Generally lukewarm reviews on most platforms really did not help either. But, games as a medium were allowed to trudge on despite violent content and be considered on an individual basis.
There’s a small hitch though, that came rather a bit of an aftershock. The ESRB has generally received praise from Capital Hill over the years for its enforcement of game ratings and keeping parents informed of in-game content they may not wish their children to read. This strong backing has kept them in the business of ranking games and keeping the United States from seeing gaming bans such as those seen in the U.K. and Australia. However, a recent letter from Joe Lieberman, Hillary Clinton, Evan Bayh, and Sam Brownback may be the small wound that those opposed to violence in games may need to rip apart the ESRB. As noted in the letter,
“We ask your consideration of whether it is time to review the robustness, reliability and repeatability of your ratings process, particularly for this genre of ‘ultra-violent’ videogames and advances in game controllers.”
As for the last part of that statement, this is the crucial crux of their argument. For those unfamiliar with the Nintendo Wii, it uses a remote-control style controller instead of your classic gamepad and buttons control scheme. This “Wiimote” uses motion sensor technology to enable the user to wave the remote to illicit a reaction from the machine. Some moves on the Wii version of Manhunt take advantage of this fact and allow the user to use gestures to get the on-screen character to reproduce their own movements. The argument of the senators is that this crosses the line, and may need to be a new consideration in reviewing games, more than just reviewing based on video evidence.
The effect of this letter has yet to be seen, but one ding in the armor of the ESRB may be enough. Considering a bill currently being revived in Congress, may pressure the ESRB to be far stricter in their reviewing process. This bill may be damaging to games with branching storylines, as forcing the rater to play through the game and seeing each and every possibility may be utterly impossible. This is especially true in more dynamic games or games with user-created content. The early warning of ratings may be vital for games on the tipping lines between ratings, as early warning can give them more time to effectively correct questionable areas. In an industry with fast stringent deadlines; the more time given the better. As well, anti-games activists such as Jack Thompson may use this as fodder in their campaigns.
Much like the infamous Hot Coffee debate, this seems like one that is going to loom over the face of gaming for some time. As well, despite such friendly titles as “Table Tennis”, Rockstar finds itself in a bad place politically. Many censors now have their sights locked in on Rockstar, and are waiting for that one fowl-up that could potentially end the company. They are already in some pretty hot water due to financial problems, not helped by the delay of blockbuster title “Grand Theft Auto 4”. Still, Rockstar has proved cunning in the past, and likely will continue to be so in the future – while continuously pushing the boundaries of good taste and testing the system it finds itself in along the way.
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