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If you walk into a store in the United Kingdom to pick up a copy of Capcom's eagerly awaited Xbox 360 title Dead Rising next month, you'll find that the methods of dispatching zombies available to you in the game are somewhat, well, unadulterated. Smashing undead skulls into the floor and lopping heads off with well placed scythe slashes are only two of the many, many carnage related options which will be open to players of the game, which borrows many of its cues from classic zombie movies such as Dawn of the Dead.
The interesting thing about this level of violence and gore isn't that it's present in the first place - after all, zombie films and other horror and action movies have been blowing apart the undead in showers of claret for decades, and "decency" campaigners seem to have given up on moaning about escapist fantasy movies quite some time ago. No, what's interesting is that despite the game having a rocky time with censorship and ratings boards elsewhere in the world, in Britain it will be released entirely uncensored, with not a single change to the content.
That's a situation which movie aficionados have gradually become used to in this country; the British Board of Film Classification, empowered by the excellent if sometimes weakly enforced age rating system which is applied to media in the UK, has been passing more and more films without cuts. Instead, films are rated 18, and the board takes the view that if content is not clearly going to be harmful to adults, then adults should be permitted to view or experience it.
Now the BBFC is applying the same logic to videogames - and the straightforward, reasonable point of view expressed by the board brings a breath of fresh air to the debate over videogame violence and censorship, which has become increasingly bogged down in rhetoric and embarrassing public spats between key proponents on both sides in the last year or so.
You can read the board's full comments on why they're passing Dead Rising as an 18-rated game, uncut, in this news story - but suffice it to say that the guardians at the gates of Britain's sensitive minds not only regard claims that videogames turn people into killers with a sceptical eye, but they also, crucially, get the joke. Their statement to us not only acknowledges that the game is aimed at an adult audience (a fact commonly missed in discussions about violent videogames), but also that the violence has a fantasy element and crucially, that the game has "a sense of humour, albeit a macabre one."
Herein, perhaps, lies the clearest sign we've seen in quite some time that the tide is turning in favour of interactive media. The key problem faced by games for years has been that they are widely seen as being a form of entertainment which was aimed at children and which was both straightforward and unsubtle. When a newspaper talks about a film featuring a violent or sexual scene, readers automatically assume that this falls into the context of the film; when we talk about games featuring similar scenes, many people automatically assume that this game is an outright "violence simulator" or "sex simulator", because they cannot conceive of a game having complex narrative, satire, humour or subtlety.
In acknowledging the humour which drives Dead Rising, the BBFC acknowledges the maturity of the videogaming medium. In granting it an 18 rating - described by a spokesperson as "a fairly straightforward 18" - it acknowledges it as entertainment for adults. In making these viewpoints public, as much as in granting the rating in the first place, it shows us how far the perception of videogames in the British political establishment has come.
We welcome, of course, the opportunity to enjoy Dead Rising as its creators intended - an experience no more harmful, and possibly even more fun, than spending an evening with friends watching cult classic George A Romero films. More than that, however, we welcome the implicit confirmation of the BBFC's view that games deserve equal treatment to their counterparts in film. The censorship debate will roll on regardless, of course - especially in the USA where much of it focuses on the ability to ban the sale of violent games to minors, something which the UK has already done for years - but the end of this long dark tunnel is more clearly in sight than ever before.
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