Manhunt or witchhunt?

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Manhunt was released on the 28 November 2003 to critical acclaim but barely a whisper about the violent nature of its content.

By John Gillooly, Atomic

Manhunt was released on the 28 November 2003 to critical acclaim but barely a whisper about the violent nature of its content. It is a game that sparked debate among gamers and the industry but it didn't gain mass media notoriety until recently when media reported that it had been linked to the violent murder of a teenager in the UK. It was initially reported that the alleged assailant was obsessed with the game, but after a few days passed police involved in the investigation revealed a copy had been found, but at the victim's house.

This instant notoriety meant the game was pulled from major retailers in London and soon enough the controversy reared its head here in Australia. Western Australian Minister for Justice, Michelle Roberts, put forward a request to the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) for reclassification of the MA15+ rated game and on 29 September the decision was made to reclassify Manhunt to Refused Classification, which means a complete ban on the sales, hire, distribution and promotion of Manhunt in Australia. We contacted the game's publisher, Take 2 Interactive, but they declined to comment on the ban.

While many column inches will probably be devoted to the fact that this has happened, I wonder whether the wider implications of the decision will really be given the attention they need. While the OFLC decision highlights the fact that Manhunt is indeed an excessively violent game for children, there was not even an option available for the OFLC to classify the game for adults. Over recent years the fact that there is no R classification for games has become more of an issue as gamers grow up and the number of mature titles being developed increases.

Developers of Manhunt, Rockstar North, are no strangers to run-ins over mature titles. In 2001 it released the landmark game Grand Theft Auto 3, which took the gaming world by storm, sold through the roof and was refused classification in Australia. After Rockstar North tweaked the game to remove the offending content, which included a small section of an in-game movie and a side effect of the game design by which the protagonist could kill prostitutes after paying for their services, the game was reclassified as MA15+.

In 2002 Rockstar North released Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest games of all time. It passed through classification with an MA15+ (the developers new what they needed to remove to get it passed this time around). Then a year later Rockstar North released Manhunt, that cleared the OFLC with nary a query. Manhunt did not receive either the success or relentless promotion of the Grand Theft Auto titles. It seems that the developers used the game as both an experiment in tense psychological gaming and a testbench for technology being flowed into Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which is due for release on PlayStation 2 next month.

Manhunt is all about being part of a snuff film. You play as James Earl Cash, a death row inmate who awakens after he was supposed to be executed, only to find he had become an unwitting participant in a series of increasingly violent set pieces, played out for a mysterious director of ultra-realistic filmic violence. It is brutal and disturbing in nature but no more so than any number of R rated movies out there.

This is what the banning of Manhunt really highlights - the fact that there is no way in Australia to legally restrict the sale of the game to adults. People are still stuck in the mindset that games are the domain of children, but this is something that has changed dramatically in recent years. Surveys by the US based Entertainment Software Association (www.theesa.com) have highlighted the fact that the average age for gamers is now 29 years old, yet still we have no 'adult' games classification here. It is also an industry that has revenues exceeding the annual box office take for the film industry, yet while we can spend our Saturday nights hiring phenomenally gory DVDs like The Passion of the Christ and Saving Private Ryan from the video store, there is no way for adults to obtain games made for adults.

It goes both ways too. There are numerous games that are given MA15+ ratings that do not necessitate such a rating, simply because the only option is MA15+ or refusal of classification. If an R rating were to be introduced it would mean that these games are appropriately restricted as well. Unfortunately bad timing meant that the last major review of classification happened in 2002, with the initial public submission phase ending mere days after the banning of GTA 3 was announced. This meant that by the time attention was called to the issue it was too late. There are no announced plans for another review, but this is certainly an issue that will only become increasingly important as the games industry continues to adapt and adopt the kinds of content that game playing adults want. 

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