"Grisly gang film to be screened uncut - Britain's film censors are facing controversy over their decision to allow one of the most violent movies of recent years to be screened without any cuts." So ran an article in the Sunday Times last weekend that caught the eye between televised bursts of English sporting misery.
In short, controversial movie director David Cronenberg's latest flick, Eastern Promises, has been awarded an '18' certificate by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in its original form. The film may, we're told, shock some viewers with its graphic depictions of violence; in particular, the story notes, a scene "in which a knife is twisted repeatedly and gleefully into a man's eye". Popcorn with that?
Now, whether or not you care for Cronenberg's methods or content is beside the point. The sane reaction to this news is surely to praise the BBFC for its robust defence of lawful artistic expression and sober faith in a stringent regulatory system designed to prevent minors from accessing inappropriate material, while allowing everyone else to make up their own minds like proper grown-ups. Jolly good show; now what's going on in the Grand Prix?
But hang about: what's this got to do with video games? Well, as you're probably aware, this is the same lot that has now twice refused to classify Manhunt 2, effectively banning it from sale in the UK. BBFC director David Cooke highlighted the game's "unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone... which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing." Right up Cronenberg's street, then.
This was the first games title refused by the BBFC since Carmageddon in 1997, a decision which was overturned on appeal. One would therefore assume it had a bloody good reason, if you'll excuse the pun. Well, back to Cronenberg's movie, and an obvious question is raised: is the BBFC as even-handed as it professes to be?
Let's take a look at how it defended itself in the Sunday Times article; the devil is in the detail: "'Scenes that make people turn away are part of the fun of going to movies,' a spokesman said. The board added: 'These days we are not here to cut; we are here to provide information and let people then make up their minds ... People also have expectations of what a Cronenberg film is.'"
Oh, really? Now replace the phrases "going to movies" with "playing games" and "Cronenberg film" with "Rockstar game". Yes, you've got it. What the BBFC is basically saying here is: "Yeah, well, we know there's some pretty nasty stuff in it - I wouldn't take the wife along, put it that way! - but everyone knows what a sicko that Cronenberg bloke is. And anyway, it's hardly our business telling adults what they can and cannot watch, is it?"
Given the scale of the Grand Theft Auto series' success, can anyone at the BBFC possibly argue that people do not "have expectations of what a Rockstar game is"? Yet these very same adults are, it seems, not to be trusted with a fuzzy PS2 game.
Now, I happen to think that the original Manhunt is at best an average action game which employs cheap shock-tactics purely as a marketing tool. And it's hard to feel sympathy for Rockstar, a company with an arrogant, cavalier approach to its responsibilities as a leading industry publisher. Certainly, many will have tasted "had-it-coming" schadenfreude with the BBFC's decision.
But this is irrelevant. The wider issue is that there is clearly an audience for this type of product; and if Rockstar chooses to exploit this within established legal boundaries (i.e. no kiddy-fiddling, brutal rape or dog-humping) then that is its right.
The BBFC's David Cooke said on refusing the resubmitted, edited version of Manhunt 2: "There has been a reduction in the visual detail in some of the 'execution kills', but in others they retain their original visceral and casually sadistic nature."
Which begs the question: why are adult filmgoers more capable of "making up their own minds" than adult gamers? A cursory dig around the BBFC's website reveals that this is merely the tip of a hypocritical iceberg which threatens to shatter the games industry's trust in the body.
"Extremely visceral violence"
Allow me to suggest a few answers to the above question:
"Manhunt 2 is basically much more gruesomely shocking than Eastern Promises" - Well, let's take a look at the BBFC's own comments in its September 4th classification notice: "In Eastern Promises there are three key scenes of extremely visceral violence, two images of throats being slit and one of a man's eye being viciously and repeatedly stabbed."
The BBFC adds that it "also contains frequent use of strong language, a single sex scene which lacks strong detail and references to the rape of an underage girl. Finally the film makes reference to the forced use of heroin on an underage teenage girl brought into England with others to work as prostitutes for criminal gangs." Hardly Bambi 2, is it?
Also note that, while Manhunt 2 was originally classified by the ESRB as AO (Adults Only) in the US - which is as good as a ban, since Sony and Nintendo refuse to license AO titles - the resubmitted version was passed as M (Mature).
According to the ESRB's guidelines, "Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language."
This is a step-down from the 18-plus AO guidance that: "Titles in this category may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity." Not enough of a stepdown for the BBFC, though. Hmm, okay, let's try another one.
"Eastern Promises is dark psychological exploration as art; Manhunt 2 is just murder for murder's sake" - let's take a look at that BBFC notice again: "These images focus on the actual process of violence in bloody detail and with a clear element of sadism which goes beyond what is suitable at '15' but is suitable for adults at '18'." Yet Manhunt 2's "casual sadism" is unsuitable for adults?
And this is what Cronenberg had to say about audience reaction to the film in a recent interview with The Times: "That's just a nervous reaction... What they are reacting to is the outrageousness of killing. I don't believe in an after-life, so killing someone is an outrageous thing to do, and therefore I show it all, unflinchingly, and that provokes that kind of reaction." Nothing at all like killing for killing's sake, obviously.
"As an interactive medium, gaming poses greater risks" - Let's ignore for the moment the fact that, despite numerous studies, there's not a shred of compelling evidence to support strongly such an assertion. Instead, let's look at the findings of "Playing Video Games", the BBFC's own report into gaming, published on April 17th 2007.
Here's a selection of the report's key conclusions:
"Gamers appear to forget they are playing games less readily than film goers forget they are watching a film because they have to participate in the game for it to proceed. They appear to non-games players to be engrossed in what they are doing, but, they are concentrating on making progress, and are unlikely to be emotionally involved."
"While there is an appeal in being able to be violent without being vulnerable to the consequences which similar actions in real life would create, gamers are aware that they are playing a game and that it is not real life."
"Gamers are aware that violence in games is an issue and younger players find some of the violence upsetting, particularly in games rated for adults. There is also concern that in some games wickedness prevails over innocence. However, most gamers are not seriously concerned about violence in games because they think that the violence on television and in films is more upsetting and more real."
"Non-games playing parents are concerned about the amount of time their children, particularly boys, spend playing games and would prefer that they were outside in the fresh air. However, they are more concerned about the ‘stranger-danger’ of internet chat rooms. While the violence in games surprises them and concerns some of them, they are confident that their children are well balanced enough to not be influenced by playing violent games."
So, if gamers aren't worried, nor parents, and the BBFC's own research demonstrated that gaming is less emotionally-involving than watching a film, by what rationale was the decision taken to reject Manhunt 2 while allowing Eastern Promises safe passage? Surely the work of a famously controversial film director isn't receiving more respectful treatment than that of a grisly, trouble-making games company?
It would arguably be reasonable to voice concerns over the Wii version of Manhunt 2 in isolation, since the controller is used to mimic the murderous actions in the game. But the BBFC has already stated it doesn't consider the method of control a major issue. And note David Cooke's comments on the BBFC's report, which are worth quoting at length (my emphasis):
"The element of interactivity in games carries some weight when we are considering a video game. We were particularly interested to see that this research suggests that, far from having a potentially negative impact on the reaction of the player, the very fact that they have to interact with the game seems to keep them more firmly rooted in reality. People who do not play games raise concerns about their engrossing nature, assuming that players are also emotionally engrossed. This research suggests the opposite; a range of factors seems to make them less emotionally involving than film or television. The adversaries which players have to eliminate have no personality and so are not real and their destruction is therefore not real, regardless of how violent that destruction might be.”
Unban this sick filth
Confused yet? Clearly, the overriding concern with mature gaming content is that it does not get into the hands of children. That is why the BBFC exists, and has been successfully and sensibly classifying games for years, as part of the same system that covers film and video.
Working in tandem with the voluntary PEGI system, the UK should rightly be proud of the stringent regulatory process to which all games are subjected, which provides a sturdy defence against the censorious hectoring of the conservative right. Indeed, BBFC ratings appear larger on game boxes than DVD cases as an extra measure in both informing and educating consumers on interactive entertainment.
The BBFC is reviewing its guidelines on classifications across the board over the next year. The UK government's report on mature content in games and children - The Byron Review - is due next March. As an independent body, the BBFC insists it was not swayed by political pressure or fear of a media backlash in twice refusing Manhunt 2 (the original game was linked, wrongly, to the murder of a 14 year-old in 2004). If so, and given its staunch defence of Cronenberg's latest grotesque work, exactly in whose interests was this decision taken?
Many would doubtless be utterly appalled by the knifed eyeballs of Eastern Promises and cheap slaughter of Manhunt 2. Fair enough; and these titles are easily avoided. But there's plenty that would relish such gruesome, harmless thrills - and in a free, democratic society, they should be allowed to enjoy both.
This editorial originally appeared on our sister site GamesIndustry.biz.