Develop 08: Lawyer warns about ratings

Arbitrary nature of the UK system for denying games classification puts the industry at risk, says developer representative.

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BRIGHTON--Attendees at the 2008 Develop Conference and Expo today heard that BioShock 2 could theoretically be next in line for a ban in light of the BBFC's attempt to block the publication of Manhunt 2.

Vincent Scheurer of Sarassin LLP, who represents UK games developers, gave a talk titled "Games Censorship in Britain: What really happened with Manhunt 2 and why your game could be next." He addressed what details there are about the reasons behind the BBFC's 2007 decision to ban Rockstar's survival horror game and what that decision and the subsequent legal wrangling mean for developers.

He also touched on the current "playground fight" between ELSPA and the BBFC over the future of game ratings in Britain but made it very clear that the current system through which games are potentially refused classification is an entirely different issue to the classifications themselves.

The BBFC's reasons for banning Manhunt 2 lack the clarity expected or demanded of a public body, Scheurer said, and those reasons that they have made clear fail to hold water in any meaningful way. It is this lack of clarity, and the seeming arbitrary nature of the decision, that pose a clear and present danger to UK developers, he explained. The ban was overturned by the decisions of the Video Appeals Committee and High Court.

Other than the initial release citing the game's unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone, the only publicly available information on the reasons behind the BBFC's decision are those statements made in court during the process of the appeal. These include their recommendations to the Video Appeals Committee and some of the statements made during the hearing held by that committee.

It is those recommendations and statements that make the most chilling reading, according to Scheurer. The lawyer representing the BBFC at that hearing cited as problems, among other things, that violence was being perpetrated against "real people" and not "daleks or griffins" and that the weapons were generally everyday objects rather than "magic wands." The statement from the BBFC head made to the VAC was obtained by Scheurer. The BBFC executive took particular exception to the game's emphasis on stealth and the advantage conferred on the player by sneaking up on enemies, rather than fighting them face-to-face, and cited the game's emphasis on sneaking and sneak attacks as a particular reason for the decision to deny it certification. The realism conferred by the visceral nature of the game's soundtrack was also called out as a particular concern.

Scheurer was at pains to point out that Manhunt 2 broke no laws, criminal or civil. He said that there are laws in place to ensure that publications of any kind--be they books, movies, or games--that do break such laws are removed from the public domain and to ensure that those responsible for their publication are punished. The difference, according to Scheurer, is that the BBFC system is not based on evidence or proof of any kind, but merely the moral judgement of those at the top of the BBFC. The BBFC itself cites such things as "reinforcing unhealthy fantasies" or "limiting [players'] ability for compassion" as potential reasons for blocking publication of anything that falls under its remit.

The upshot of all this, Scheurer said, is that under the current legal system and with the Manhunt 2 case as precedent, the BBFC could on a whim decide to ban any other title that it feels has "no humour substantial enough to alleviate the unrelenting bleakness" or where "the puzzle element is limited and does not alleviate the dominant violent theme" as it did with Manhunt 2.

So what does this mean for UK developers? Addressing the points made by the BBFC in their decision, Scheurer indicated that games such as Metal Gear Solid 4 and BioShock could easily have fallen foul of any number of the criticisms levelled by the BBFC at Manhunt 2, especially given the abhorrence for stealth gameplay in evidence. This puts UK developers in a legal quandary, as many publishing contracts are dependent on games passing classification hurdles and the current uncertainty makes the process of independent games development that much harder and more uncertain.

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