Develop 08: Lawyer warns about ratings

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

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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40 comments
Hexagon_777
Hexagon_777

This is why the PEGI should do the age ratings for videogames in the UK, not the BBFC.

it009x9281
it009x9281

Anything happens these days the games get the blame

Valdir_Imrov
Valdir_Imrov

@ bfme2_master They allowed Bioshock 1 through, so I doubt they're going to ban Bioshock 2. The only games that have been banned so far are the Manhunt games, and the Manhunt 2 ban was overruled. But I do agree that the BBFC = bad news for the games industry, with their power to ban any game they want for reasons such as "the puzzle element doesn't detract from the action element." This is why I'm glad the PS3 is region free and that I can import my games from the US. If only I could do the same for my 360. You'd think that a company that made PCs would see the need for region free coding. I hate censorship. Censorship is just another form of dictatorship. I mean there are obvious exceptions, but on the whole, the age rating should be enough to indicate that some games are not for children.

bfme2_master
bfme2_master

haha! in the usa all game bans have been struck down as "unconstitutional". i can only hope that this defense holds. in the mean time, i'll pity the brits and aussies while playing bioshock 2.

ps3thabest
ps3thabest

mgs4 and bioshock? wow, what a bunch of losers.

tawagivercetti
tawagivercetti

would hate to offend those sensitive censors..... in twenty years people will laugh at what we censored. :)

sandshark8
sandshark8

No Bioshock 2!!! Don't leave me!!! :cry:

Blood_Diamond
Blood_Diamond

WHEN IS THIS GAME COMING OUT IN THE UK! THAT'S ALL I WANNA KNOW... or does the USA version work on uk ps3's? some please drop me a P.M. if you know the answer

WeWerePirates
WeWerePirates

This is a problem with the BBFC in general and not just video games. There is minimal accountability if they they arbitrarily decide to ban something. However in practice it isn't that big a problem, In principle they could ban anything on moral grounds leading to a lengthy appeals process which they invariably lose in practise they will do so very rarely. It's more worrying that they've decide to single out games as a battleground to make a moralistic stand. They can get away with attempting to ban one game every now and then and not enough people will be that bothered, do it too often and there'll be mainstream backlash on the issue of free expression. If that happens there will be political points to be scored in clamping down on the BBFC. So while on a point of principle I am sad that this afront to free expression is allowed to stand in practice it isn't a huge problem.

darkdragonmage9
darkdragonmage9

@VirtualTofu I guess if you consider nudity to be sinful then there is no way to could be the overly religious type that that post makes you look like nude is the way god made us after all that and we all came from 2 people so no matter who you do it's incest but you get the picture

pimpfrogpimp
pimpfrogpimp

The BBFC are idiots, I mean I don't even use the ESRB rating system...if i see a game I think i'd like i get it...I understand it is good for parents that don't really play video games but still buy them for they're kids, but other then that it's useless and groups like BBFC should just stick their nose where the sun don't shine and leave our games alone.

Irve
Irve

oooooo , scare mongering !! he does have a valid point the BBFC really dropped the ball with Manhunt 2 .. the edited version should have passed without comment .. but they wanted to prove a point and ended up getting burnt !

auntbessie
auntbessie

It's all crap, if you're already a psycho then a computer game isn't going to send you over the edge. The censors are a bunch of old farts out of touch with the modern generation who are deluded in thinking they're doing the right thing. They piss on my barbecue all too frequently for my liking, get's right up my arse

CureForLiving
CureForLiving

I have no problem with ratings what bothers me is the fact that people thing that by banning games the world will be a better place, but the truth is there are good people that do good things and bad people that do bad things and video games don't factor into that.

VirtualTofu
VirtualTofu

We need ED (Educational; Suitable for Everyone, but Made For Different Age Groups ED4+, ED7+), EC (Early Child for Non-Educational Games), Everyone, Everyone 10+, T13+, T16+, M, AO (Adults Only), and Adults Geared. Adults Geared would have games like Playboy that may not have nudity, but are still adult orientated or Scene It, where an adult with more movie experience would enjoy the game better. I think some E10+ plus games are too violent, but way less than T games. I think Halo is far less violent than most M rated games, but what is God of War doing with nudity, violence to appeal to adults, and gore, when its' rated M. It should be AO. Games that reward players with violence like MK and God of War should be AO. Nudity should be for adults only, although I can't decide what's worse anymore. Porn nudity is worse than violence, nudity in general is tamer than violence, yet children see more violence today and are enthralled in it. Then again, if they saw adults being nude, they might feel its fine to emulate that. Nudity is illegal to view under 18, yet it exists in 17+ games. I don't think the plus is for "Must be over 17" Then again, nudity can exist in animation form as long as its on DVD, not television. Violence or nudity for fun should be considered sinful and kept from children, however, you can't condemn children taught to be violent like those captured in Africa or condem nudity in countries that legalize beach nudity for children or condem poor nude children seen on "Feed the Children" commercials, etc. I'm not saying young children would witness violence and porn that often, but I know many pre-teens who have played a GTA game. I also find it outrageous that gambling is in E games and Alcohol is in T games. The games don't usually authorize drinking, but shouldn't a game be 21+ if it involves doing something you must be 21 in real life to do? I always considered myself mature of course and played Casear's Pa lace at age 11, MK at 12, and Resident Evil at 15, but I never fell in love with the gameplay. Well, MK was cool for violence, but I now realize it doesn't make a game better. Unless you consider combos violent. Then, yes, combo violence makes a game WAY better.

somberfox
somberfox

"The ESRB system isn't the perfect solution either. I mean, why even have a category of AO when the console companies won't even allow that game to exist? It just doesn't make sense to me." Because there are PC games that carry the AO rating. Like the uncut version of the last Leisure Suit Larry game, or Fahrenheit (uncut version of Indigo Prophecy), or Playboy: The Mansion's Private Party expansion pack for example.

Birdman1333
Birdman1333

Has anyone thought about legally trying to get an AO game on a console? I would think there is some wiggle room to challenge that restriction. You don't have dvd player manufacturers dictating what can go in the dvd player.

xlizard-beta
xlizard-beta

i think its rediculouse they have ratings and the players are warned before the play the game and i mean you have to be a certain age to buy rated M games so just let M rated video games be.

killer_rabbit20
killer_rabbit20

I don't understand why we need ratings anyways. They are just games, it should still say on the back "violence, laungage, ect" but that's it. They are games, and they are animated charactors fighting eachother. What's the big deal anyways?

akiwak
akiwak

The thing about ratings is that we are all different people and we grow accustomed to different things differently. What the ESRB has done right is that they have been put in place in order to prevent the government from having to step in and dictate what we can and cannot play. I do agree that it was wrong of me to assume that the same that works here will also work there and I apologize for my ignorance. Having a system LIKE the ESRB would help and just like the ever evolving world that we live in; the ratings system should also have to constantly evolve AND should include input from all people involved with games.

Royas
Royas

As I understand it, the ESRB can be challenged. They have internal appeal processes, plus a developer or publisher could sue them if they really wanted. It would also be bad business for the ESRB to misuse the ratings. Given that the ESRB is optional, if they started to use their power capriciously, they would find nobody submitting games to them to rate. The ESRB ratings only work because there is mutual agreement to make them work, if one side or the other said "screw this", it stops working and is no longer used, simple as that.

eryk1
eryk1

lorek_Byrnison: In no way did I every say that I like or agree with the ERSB. I find them as useless and the movie rating board. There is no transparency and there are no facts given, just a rating. That said, I have no clue, nor did I elude to having one on the laws governing human rights in the UK or the freedom of speech laws. My comment came from them being a government body with the ability to but a ban on (what can be consider) freedom of expression ie. speech at will. I have yet to see an unwarranted use (misuse) of the AO (same as a ban in the US) by the ERSB. Now, I know that I could be wrong about it (and that is subjective to the potential player) I don't think it OK for a government body to diced what is good for me. I want and deserve to make my own judgments about it; and that go's for console makers as well. I bought your hardware, I should chose how I use it, and only me.

Iorek_Byrnison
Iorek_Byrnison

ERYK1 really saying that the ERSB rating system is better is ridiculous since they are a private body there is no way to hold them to account for their actions if they give an AO rating then no one can challenge it and it effectively bans the game since the console manufacturers wont allow it on their systems. The system in the UK allows you to challenge them in court and to bring a judicial review of the decision under the Human Rights Act 1998 which domesticated the European Convention on Human Rights, the most successful international human right regime in the world. You can see challenging the BBFC is doable and their position can be overturned whereas with the ERSB there is nothing that you can do to over turn it. the BBFC has its faults but making it a private entity will not solve any of the problems it will decrease the value people place in its judgements and the trust that exists between the public and the BBFC. No one likes censorship per se but ratings do serve a useful purpose and in the UK they are legally binding. Also I find it doubtful that any ban would be upheld under article 10 of the ECHR unless the game is particularly obscene. However it must be said that Manhunt 2 probably came as close as youd want to the threshold.

eryk1
eryk1

akiwak Ether you didn't read the hole article or you didn't understand it. What it seas is this: If your a game developer trying to sell a game in the UK, there is no precedent that you can use to model your game to pass there rating/outright ban.

DoomKid
DoomKid

Rockstar IS 2k games (a.k.a. Take 2), and I think parants are to overwhelmed because I see kid buy M rated game without an adult no matter what 2k games think.

snakes3425
snakes3425

The only thing they're really succeeding in doing is convincing people to smuggle these banned games into the country.

mrklorox
mrklorox

There's too much subjectivity on these ratings boards. I wonder if there are any actual gamers rating these games.

eryk1
eryk1

VegetaMaelstrom: "The ESRB system isn't the perfect solution either." Your right. But the great thing about the ESRB is that they aren't part of the us government. The BBFC allows for government censorship. Thankfully, in the US, this violates the first amendment. There needs to be some serious work done to alleviate this power from the BBFC and put it with a privet entity so an unbiased game rating can be given and decisions made from that. Good luck to all in the UK.

VegetaMaelstrom
VegetaMaelstrom

The ESRB system isn't the perfect solution either. I mean, why even have a category of AO when the console companies won't even allow that game to exist? It just doesn't make sense to me.

akiwak
akiwak

They should just adopt the same rules as the ESRB eC- Early Childhood, E- Everyone, E10- 10 or older, T- Teen, M- Mature, AO- Adult Only. Then go after retailers who don't follow the rules. Besides it is also up to parents to decide what their kids can and cannot play. The current system in place ignores the freedoms of the Adults and is just causing undue pains on game devs.

1valiantknight
1valiantknight

I agree with you Pokomo and indeed I hope your right that this will be a thing of the past in years to come.

pokomo
pokomo

Give it 5 or so years, and this will be a thing of the past, like outdoor raves in the early nineties, or risque music videos on MTV. Sensationalism by small minded people who refuse to see that any problems society have are not always from the different medias, but from ourselves failing to evolve as a society.

redskinStu
redskinStu

Censorship is a way of life in Britain. Any time something happens that British politicians don't like or are afraid of, they instantly crusade to have it banned, destroyed, censored etc.

nofriekinlemons
nofriekinlemons

this is crap no reason for this if they do shut down bioshock I'll raise hell

raverrozza
raverrozza

yucktoo. and 18 rating means 18years old and above rather obviously. and last time i checked when your 18 your an adult so effectively our 18 class games are AO

Royas
Royas

While it is apparent that there is a problem within the BBFC (vague explanations, poor logic), I don't think the situation is as bleak as all that. The appeal committee (and the courts in refusing to overturn the committee) rejected the BBFC decision on Manhunt 2, and I imagine the poor explanations as to why it was banned had a role in that. If the committee and the courts continue to hold the BBFC to the higher standards a public service body should meet, they should eventually get the message.

Alastes
Alastes

I would say I am glad to be in the US but we have problems with this crap too

Yuck_Too
Yuck_Too

I don't know about how the entire thing works but is there no "AO Rating"...there is in N. America and if worse came to worse it could be labled that instead of just "M".

Then again I think the whole thing is somewhat silly.

I grew up when people were saying the exact same things, about how the "youth are being twisted because of this game", but the thing was back then it was in direct relation to the publication of the rule books for Dungeons & Dragons.