Sparks fly at BBFC Manhunt 2 appeal

Rockstar Games argues that the game should never have been banned in the UK, but ratings body insists the line must be drawn somewhere.

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Today, Take-Two subsidiary Rockstar Games officially asked the Video Appeals Committee of the British Board of Film Classification to lift the ban of its controversial title Manhunt 2. The original version of the game was denied a rating by the board when it was submitted in June. A modified version which was later resubmitted was also refused a classification, despite going on sale in the US, Canada, and other parts of Europe.

Only one other game has ever been banned in Britain--Carmageddon in 1997, although this decision was later overturned on appeal. For the appeals process, an independent panel is gathered by the BBFC to hear the case from both sides and determine whether or not to uphold the ban or overturn it. Today in a daylong event, the seven jurors heard evidence from three witnesses and two lawyers--one for Rockstar Games, and one for the BBFC itself.

Representing Rockstar was Queen's Counsel Geoffrey Robertson of Doughty Street Chambers, who kicked off the appeal by stating, "We wonder why Manhunt 2 has been singled out for special treatment." He listed other violent games which have made it on to store shelves with little fuss, including Condemned: Criminal Origins, The Suffering: The Ties That Bind, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

He then took the gloves off and laid into the BBFC, questioning the board's ability to rate games, saying that it "doesn't understand them at all... This completely ignorant letter [that says]... 'unremitting bleakness, casual sadism, callousness of tone,' these are mere words culled from a thesaurus and have nothing to do with the gaming experience."

Rockstar put forward that in the game, the characters who are killed are all part of the evil agency, The Project. The people killed have no emotional depth, and will immediately attack the player on sight. Robertson explained, "These are not 'innocent victims,'" and underlined that no women or children die in the game.

Robertson also rubbished claims that the first game, Manhunt, had had a connection to the murder of 14-year old Stefan Pakeerah, stating that police had ruled it out, and that the killer had never owned a copy of the game. He said, "The failure of anyone in the last 20 years to show any link to crime and playing video games. There comes a point where you have to conclude that if there was a link it would have been found by now."

Next up, three witnesses were called. Fred Hasson, CEO of European game developer trade body Tiga, was first up on the witness stand. There, he told the panel that after playing the game, he had been a bit disappointed, jokingly saying, "I'd expected it to be a lot worse." Hasson was then asked if he felt that the game had been singled out because of media pressure, and after a pause, he admitted, "I can't see any other reason why you would have done that [banned it] given the content of the game. You seem to be wanting to single out a particular game rather than trying to work out if the violence is worse in any way that violence in other readily available media."

Also providing expert testimony was Dr. Guy Cumberbatch, a psychologist who has been studying media violence and its effects since the 1970s. He stated that he undertook a research project in which 86 people who experienced other 18-rated games and movies to play Manhunt 2. He then asked them if they rated the game equally, more, or less violent than other titles already on the market. He said that the study found that 68 percent said it was as violent as other games, and 80 percent said it was as violent as current movies.

Robertson then took back the floor and addressed the individual points from the statement which the BBFC made when it first banned the game. He said, "Unremitting bleakness? What's wrong with unremitting bleakness? Should we ban Bleak House as well?" Discussing whether the game has moral dilemmas, he asked, "Does tennis? Does football? Does tiddlywinks have a moral dilemma?"

QC Andrew Caldecott, representing the BBFC, argued that one of the major considerations must be that underage audiences are always going to get hold of the game, and the need to protect them was one of the reasons it was not allowed a certificate. He said, "In Utopia, over-18s could play what was suitable for them without regard to others. But you can't make classification decisions without regard to others, and it's as simple as that... It would be morally bankrupt."

Caldecott also said that a number of other factors had influenced the decision, including the fact that there were no "diluting agents" in the gameplay to offset the killing elements. "It's about stalking, and it's about killing," he said. "That's what the game is about." He concluded by addressing the panel, "Is there never a point where you can say 'this is unacceptable?' And if there is, where do you draw the line? Is this where a line should have been drawn or shouldn't it?"

Robertson responded by stating that had the game never been banned in the first place, it would not have achieved the kind of notoriety that makes it "forbidden fruit" to youngsters. "By banning this game, the board itself has made it notorious," He said. "Who would have read Peter Wright's recollections in Spycatcher were it not for Mrs. Thatcher's attempts to ban it? Stop the fascination. End the allure. Unban the game."

The independent panel has each played the game at least to the end of the first level, and seen videos of the most violent scenes. They retired to decide their verdict, which will reportedly be announced shortly.

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