Over-censorship a worrisome trend facing video games

Owen Sound Sun Times (On)

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Have video games gone too far? Or are critics overreacting?

“Grand Theft Auto” and Rockstar Games have come to almost symbolize video game controversy.

The game puts the player in the role of a low level gangster in a fictional version of California. Unmodified, the game is a sprawling urban world full of drugs, guns and other illicit activity.

Rockstar Games’ biggest controversy was GTA: San Andreas (released on Playstation2 2004).

Shortly after the game was released for PC in 2005 an unfinished, hidden mini-game involving simulated sex dubbed the “Hot Coffee Mod” was discovered. Considered too offensive, even for GTA, it was dropped from the game, but remnants were left in the code.

Users found a way to access this content, both on PC and console versions, which led to original copies of the game being rated AO (Adults Only) and being recalled to completely remove this content.

The franchise has taken a direction somewhat akin to the movie “Scarface.” In each iteration you rise to the top by killing, running drugs, evading the law. Anything but tame to begin with, scenes of crudely rendered, clothed sex, never intended for the public to see, made the game completely inappropriate and the public reacted.

Before “Hot Coffee,” Rockstar had released “Manhunt” (2003).

In “Manhunt” you play a death-row convict who wakes up hearing a mysterious voice through an earphone. It tells you to kill people in the most gruesome ways possible to avoid execution.

The result is one of the most violent games ever released. It was made a criminal offence to play or own the game in New Zealand. In Canada it was classified as a film (meaning no one under the age of 18 could purchase it). It received the equivalent rating in the U.K.

Both of the aforementioned games have received considerable critical praise. Both games have a meticulous attention to detail that really brings the player into the game’s world. Combine that with tight controls, top-notch animation and voice acting and you’re left with a quality game, but a quality game not suitable for many gamers.

Enter “Manhunt 2”, slated for release this July.

It has had its controversy ante upped even further. Walking a similar line to the first game, but sporting updated graphics, it has already been banned in the U.K. and Ireland and the ESRB (North America’s video game ratings board) has rated it AO. These actions have caused Take-Two Interactive, the game’s publisher, to suspend the game’s release.

The high ESRB rating in North America is well meaning but restricts access to the game beyond its intention. Big retailers like Wal-Mart and BestBuy have policies against carrying any AO games, and Nintendo and Sony have policies against all AO games on their systems. This led the publisher to reconsider the game’s release, meaning that the game may not be released for these platforms.

Most other forms of media do not have such stringent rules applied to them. Movies have a rating system but that system does not cut off as wide an audience as the AO rating for games. Books have no such rating system.

I think banning “Manhunt 2” or any other game is very negative. Video games seem to be overly scrutinized and banning cuts off access to a large group of people who are generally deemed mature enough to take games for the fictional worlds they offer.

Censoring games is worrisome. Evolving game technology is allowing an art form once hinted at to become reality. Over-censorship could stifle creativity.

The content of games, “Manhunt” and “GTA” in particular, is extreme enough that some degree of control must exist. The voluntary ESRB rating system for all games is a good idea, but it relies on parents to provide oversight. Without that things get out of hand and games get banned.

Now I welcome your thoughts on all of this: Many games that get caught up in controversy are very good games that many people like. Are we stifling the creative output with all the ratings and banning of games? Or should we keep this up to protect everyone from inappropriate content? Are games a totally separate entity from movies, or should the rules be similar?

Calen Henry is a fourth-year student of Japanese Studies and Multimedia at McMaster University. He grew up in Owen Sound, has been a gamer since childhood and is also interested in music and film.

© 2007 Osprey Media Group Inc. All rights reserved.