Gratuitous violence or an example of proper batting stance?
It is official; Take-Two Interactive Software has postponed the release of Manhunt 2 “indefinitely.” The game has been under intense international scrutiny over the past weeks due to, as the British censors judged, “unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone.” Politicians and “concerned” parents across the globe have been uniting to stop this latest attack on the gentle sensibilities of, who else, the children. Italy’s Communication Minister Paolo Gentiloni, advocated for an official ban of the game from breaching the country’s booted shores citing Manhunt 2 was, “More than violent, the game in question is cruel and sadistic, with a squalid environment and a continuous, insistent encouragement to violence and murder.” Meanwhile, the Italian government was silent about a game where an Italian criminal can choke civilians to death, throw them off buildings, or bludgeon them with a baseball bat. Mr. Gentiloni must have enjoyed “The Godfather: Don’s Edition” more then the rest of us. The Irish Film Censors Office that banned Manhunt 2 from the country was slightly less eloquent in their appraisal stating, “the level of gross, unrelenting and gratuitous violence is unacceptable.” That statement could also be applied to the centuries old IRA violence that the citizens of Ireland have been forced to endure. In the US, the game was slapped with the dreaded scarlet letters AO by the ESRB. An adult’s only rating is a relative “kiss of death” for video games because most, if not all, major US retailers refuse to carry AO games. With the ’08 elections already heating up, expect a bipartisan denouncement of violent video games in the media. As an industry, we can all remember what happened last time Hilary Clinton got involved with video games. Rockstar is no stranger to controversy; our coffee has barely cooled off from the last major release by the company. This latest whirlwind of controversy demonstrates that many issues plaguing the video games industry have yet to be resolved.
When a video game is targeted by the moral rifle of politician and parents, the industry has always fallen back on the “What about movies?” defense. While one could argue the violence equivalence between the movie Hostel and Manhunt 2, there are several reasons why this argument does not hold sway with censors, parents, and politicians. The biggest opponent that the video game industry faces is the perception that “games are for kids.” Movies do not face this same public assumption. Parents don’t assume “Hostel” is intended for their 10 year old. The “level of gross, unrelenting and gratuitous violence” and “unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone” are accepted because public assumption is that it was created for adults. The same parents assume that if it comes in a green or white box and goes into the machine that lights up and whirs, it is age appropriate for their children. This false assumption often forms the basis for many of the objections. Mom is horrified when she walks past the television and little Johnny is beating a hooker with a baseball bat. The industry’s history plays a role in this false perception. In the industry’s infancy, and partially due to lack of technology, video games were created and marketed for children and teenagers. Gone are the 8-bit days when a parent could pick up any game in the toy store and assume that it was age appropriate. As gamers know, the primary demographic for most titles is not in the 4-12 year old age range. Many games are created and marketed for 17+. In short, the gaming industry has evolved faster then the general public’s perception of it. Parents and politicians assume that titles like “Manhunt 2” were created for their children, when in reality; nothing could be further from the truth.
Looks like somebody just listened to the new Paris Hilton album
Whether “Manhunt 2” actually contains “…a squalid environment and a continuous, insistent encouragement to violence and murder” as Mr. Gentiloni asserts may still be up for debate. However, a larger question and more critical question looms over the video game industry as a whole. Are video games art? Any gamer or game developer will undoubtedly jump up and answer an emphatic “Yes!” If we operate on the premise that these dedicated teams of programmers, designers, and many others are, in fact, “artists” working on their craft, then they should be afforded the creative freedom to produce a game that expresses their artistic vision. The fact that “Manhunt 2” elicited feelings of “unremitting bleakness” should be celebrated as a victory not chastised. The art triggered an emotional response. It is not the responsibility of the artist to make sure that the response is positive. After all, isn’t one of the goals in any art form to evoke a visceral reaction? As gamers, we can all remember playing a game in a darkened room and jumping back from our chairs in fear, staring in amazement at a beautifully rendered landscape, or sitting on the edge of our seat because of a surprising plot twist. Are video games entertainment? Of course, but these are also reactions to an art form that happens to involve pushing buttons. If other genres of art are afforded the ability to stretch the bounds of creative expression, why aren’t video games?
The Paradox of Realism
As an industry, we find ourselves caught in a paradox. Hardware and software developers are continually making strides to increase graphic realism in games. We don’t just see realistic faces anymore; we see the pores on those realistic faces. As graphical improvements increased, so did gamers’ IQs. They started to care not only that someone fell, but if they fell correctly (realistically). They didn’t care just that Kobe made the game winning shot, but if the ball bounced on the rim well. Game developers responded with more accurate physics engines. Along with the graphic developments, gamers expect extremely immersive stories with deep character development. Characters now need motivation to do what they do in the games. Subsidiary characters are required with their own unique subplots. As in life, characters have grown more morally ambiguous leaving it up to the player to decide right and wrong. Now, it appears Rockstar is being chastised for the realism that the industry has been striving to achieve. The censorship of this game could potentially affect the rest of the industry. Imagine game developers scaling back on the realism of graphics of video games because they are “too real” Picture game companies simplifying storylines because they may be too morally complex. Censorship scares people, and the ban of “Manhunt 2” sends a clear message to developers. Don’t push the boundaries. As gamers, do we want to play games from companies that are afraid to push boundaries?
The conservative estimate that it will cost Rockstar to edit some of the violent content from “Manhunt 2” is around one million dollars. The question is can it even be edited? Short of putting pictures of kittens over some of the “gross” elements, there may be little Rockstar can do to achieve the M rating in the US. In any case, Rockstar has a decision to make. Do they fight censorship and release the title “as is” despite the multiple bans, or do they use the kittens? Arguably, there has been enough buzz for the title to still sell relatively well despite major US retailers refusal to carry the game. Whether or not the game will sell well is not the issue. Until the general public’s perception of what video games are and who they are intended for is changed, this censorship will occur time and time again. It didn’t end with Mortal Combat or Grand Theft Auto, and there will undoubtedly be another game that raises more ire then “Manhunt 2.” Politicians and parents will continue to scapegoat video games for tragedies and violence because they do not understand them. Games like “Manhunt 2” are easy to blame for the corruption of children despite the fact that parents continue to buy the titles for their kids. The “level of gross, unrelenting and gratuitous violence” in the actual world surrounding their children is a much more uncomfortable subject because parents, censors, and politicians can’t ban reality.
We’re gonna’ need some kittens in 3… 2… 1…
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