Friday, March 14, 2008 

Manhunt 2 finally unbanned.

The other welcome good news story of the day could hardly be more different. The BBFC, after months of haughtiness, has finally been forced into giving Manhunt 2 the 18 certificate the makers originally requested:

The Video Appeals Committee today announced that the result of their reconsideration of the Manhunt 2 appeal remains that the appeal against the rejection of the work by the BBFC is upheld.

The Board’s decision to refuse a certificate to Manhunt 2 was successfully challenged on appeal to the Video Appeals Committee. The Board challenged the VAC’s decision by way of Judicial Review before the High Court, which quashed the decision on grounds of errors of law. The VAC has now reconsidered the appeal in the light of the High Court’s directions on the law but has decided, again by a majority of four to three, to allow the appeal on the basis that Manhunt 2 should be given an ‘18’ certificate.

In the light of legal advice the Board does not believe the VAC’s judgement provides a realistic basis for a further challenge to its decision and has accordingly issued an ‘18’ certificate.

David Cooke, Director of the BBFC said:
“As I have said previously, we never take rejection decisions lightly, and they always involve a complex balance of considerations. We twice rejected Manhunt 2, and then pursued a judicial review challenge, because we considered, after exceptionally thorough examination, that it posed a real potential harm risk. However, the Video Appeals Committee has again exercised its independent scrutiny. It is now clear, in the light of this decision, and our legal advice, that we have no alternative but to issue an ‘18’ certificate to the game.”

This entire petty situation could have been avoided if the BBFC had treated the game fairly from the beginning. Rockstar's case has always been that Manhunt 2, which it freely admits is a violent game and has never suggested should be sold to anyone other than adults, was treated far more harshly than any film purely because of the fact that it is a game. This might have been acceptable if the BBFC has separate guidelines for films and video games, but it does not. It should therefore have been judged on the exact same criteria as any of the current gory batch of horror films, such as Saw, Hostel and indeed the just released Frontier(s) are, all of which have passed uncut with no trouble or controversy whatsoever. Indeed, the BBFC's comments on Frontier(s) are an exact replica of what it should have done when first faced with Manhunt 2:

FRONTIER(S) is a subtitled French film that has been classified '18' uncut for very strong bloody violence.
The film contains scenes dwelling on the terrorisation of victims and the infliction of pain and injury. The inclusion of several 'strongest gory images' (mutilation) preclude the possibility of a '15' classification. However, all elements in this work are containable, uncut, by current guidelines for the '18' classification.
Current guidelines state: The BBFC respects the right of adults to choose their own entertainment, within the law.

Instead, the BBFC with Manhunt 2 clutched at the straw of "harm" which has so often in the past been used by both censorship bodies, politicians and campaigners alike with the aim of protecting children, when all this has actually done is prevented adults from choosing what they can and can't want watch, as well taking from them the responsibility to ensure that material that is not suitable for children does not fall into their hands. In actual fact, the BBFC were not just claiming that Manhunt 2 could be harmful to children, but to adults also, something which it knew it could not possibly provide evidence to substantiate, and which their very own research into video games and those that play them certainly did nothing to back up.

Always in the background of this case was the ghost of both a murdered teenager and that of outrage from the tabloid press. Despite both the police and judge dismissing the mother of Stefan Pakeerah's claims that her son's murderer was influenced by playing the original Manhunt, something itself undermined when the game was found in Pakeerah's bedroom rather than Warren Leblanc's, it's difficult to believe that the BBFC was not influenced by the possibility of a campaign, especially one led by the Daily Mail, about the classification body's latest insult to common sense. It was far easier instead to reject a game it could dismiss as containing "sustained and cumulative casual sadism" than have to deal with the Mail again demanding to know who actually makes the BBFC's decisions, something it howled for after it dared to give the remake of War of the Worlds a 12A certificate, a decision more or less in line with the rest of the world.

As always happens when the BBFC gives into the demands for a ban, all it's done is instead given the game/film a marketing advantage than any of the other producers would kill for. If Rockstar so wished, it could now advertise the game with "PREVIOUSLY BANNED!" splashed across it, milking the past few months' back and forth between the courts, the VAC and the BBFC itself for all its worth. This is idiotic not just because it could have avoided the embarrassment and also legal cost of its original decision, but also because the game itself has been rather harshly critically received, with one review suggesting that it's the original game with slightly better graphics and because of the toning done, less violent and therefore less satisfying. The BBFC has martyred a game when it could instead have left it to stew in its own mediocrity.

The one bright spot is that the BBFC's authority has been challenged and even potentially critically wounded, and it will also no doubt influence the decision on the part of TLA releasing on whether to appeal against the BBFC's ban on Murder Set Pieces. While it might not have much effect in the short term, it could well be another step on the road towards the BBFC losing all its powers of censorship, and instead turned into the actual classification body that it long should have been transformed into.

Related post:
Lee Griffin - Manhunt 2 is no longer banned

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Friday, December 21, 2007 

Yet more on Manhunt 2.

The BBFC have found a judge willing to let their ridiculous argument against personal responsibility justify a judicial review:

British censors have won the right to fight the UK release of video game Manhunt 2 in the High Court.

A judge accepted the British Board of Film Classification's argument that the game had been approved for release on a misinterpretation of the law.


The BBFC said that the VAC had been guilty of "a very serious misdirection of law" on the question of harm.

The judge said: "I have taken into account the high public interest in the possibility of harm to children."

Mr Justice Wyn Williams ruled the Board had an arguable case that should go to a full hearing.

Both sides agreed that the game was not suitable for children, but the BBFC argued that if given a certificate for release, it could still end up in the hands of minors

Now this is interesting. The BBFC's original decision to reject Manhunt 2 made clear that

to issue a certificate to Manhunt 2, on either platform, would involve a range of unjustifiable harm risks, to both adults and minors.

The BBFC seems now to have abandoned their specious argument that its content could harm adults, and fell back on the always persuasive but bankrupt claim that even if the game was released at 18, it could still get into the hands of children. This is the exact same argument as used at the time of the video nasty moral panic: Mary Whitehouse and co didn't want to stop adults from choosing what to watch, they only wanted to protect the children, but to do so would involve err, stopping anyone from being able to make that choice. The compromise measure was the Video Recordings Act, but by then some of the "nasties" had already been prosecuted under the fundamentally illiberal Obscene Publications Act, where the jury only had to find that whatever was brought before the court had the potential to "deprave and corrupt", and in James Ferman, there was a censor who was more than prepared to cut and ban the "trash", but who came out in defense of "art", such as Crash.

While the BBFC should always consider whether films and video games that are made for adults have the potential to "harm" children, it should never be used as a reason for banning either from adult consumption. We don't ban alcohol or cigarettes because they're especially damaging to children; we age restrict them, and it's up to the retailers and parents to ensure that they don't get into their hands, not the manufacturers or in this case, the BBFC's. The BBFC's final comment on refusing Manhunt 2 a certificate is still telling:

...and accordingly that its availability, even if statutorily confined to adults, would be unacceptable to the public.”

The BBFC has of course no evidence whatsoever to prove this would be the case. It instead took into account the reaction it
imagined that its certification would receive, especially considering the Daily Mail and certain politicians' opportunism following the Stefan Pakeerah murder. It would have never been so cowardly about almost any film: video games are however now subject to the same fallacious moral panic that horror films were in the early 80s.

There is one silver lining for Rockstar:

The BBFC said it would pay any damages that developer Rockstar might suffer as a result of the stay, if the Board loses its legal challenge.

I still can't see any other decision than one against the BBFC in an actual review; Rockstar still might yet get its revenge.

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Monday, December 17, 2007 

BBFC still gunning for Manhunt 2.

Going from one organisation clutching at straws to another, the BBFC is to seek a judicial review into the Video Appeals Committee's decision that Manhunt 2 should not have been banned:

The BBFC is applying for a judicial review of the decision by the Video Appeals Committee to overturn the Board’s rejection of the video game Manhunt 2. The Board’s challenge also seeks suspension of the Committee’s decision that the game should be classified.

The BBFC is contesting the VAC judgement because in the Board's view, it is based on an approach to harm which is an incorrect interpretation of the Video Recordings Act. The VAC judgement, if allowed to stand, would have fundamental implications with regard to all the Board’s decisions, including those turning upon questions of unacceptable levels of violence. If the VAC’s decision is suspended, then the game will not be classified before the outcome of the Judicial Review.

There is again the precedent set by the legalising of hardcore pornography. In that case the VAC decided that the BBFC should have awarded R18 certificates to 7 submitted works, with the BBFC applying for a judicial review. They lost, with the high court finding that the VAC's decision had been correct, resulting in the BBFC shaking up its guidelines for R18s and in effect legalising the sale of hardcore pornography over the counter, or at least in sex shops.

One suspects that the BBFC are now playing for time. Last week, when the VAC decision was announced, Rockstar were very optimistically hoping that the game still might be on shelves by Christmas. The BBFC's clutching at the "harm" issue is revealing in this regard: as far as I can tell, no film has been cut for its depiction of violence itself, as opposed to sexual violence at 18 since the BBFC published the landmark findings of its survey of public opinions back in 2000. The survey overwhelmingly found that at 18 more or less anything apart from sexual violence and things already legislated against, such as animal cruelty, was acceptable to the public. Pseudo-documentariesdepicting real violence have been banned, and there's also the case of the cutting of the "Hanging Song" from a Ren and Stimpy cartoon which rightly disturbed and vexed its fans, with the BBFC apparently saying that it would be cut even if it were to be classified at 18, but apart from I can't recall any such cuts which would fall under that definition. Seeing as the violence in Manhunt 2 is strictly physical rather than sexual, I can't see how they have any chance of winning the review.

This is in actual fact an old BBFC ploy. Back in the bad old days under James Ferman, the organisation often did its best to be as unwieldy as possible. If a certain distributor wanted to get a "challenging" film to be certified, i.e, one likely to fall victim to Ferman's scissors and editing technique, it would often accept any recommendations and slashes made after the first viewing rather than attempt to do things its own way, mainly due to how when it came to submit a more commercial venture, such as a family film for half-term, the BBFC would often delay issuing a certificate to ensure it missed the most profitable time. This old petulance seems to have been resurrected in the 21st century because of Rockstar's attitude towards the BBFC's ban, as evidenced by their contempt for the decision shown at the VAC appeal. Unlike films and DVDs, games tend to age quickly, especially one like Manhunt 2 which has already been criticised for its relatively poor graphics. By the time this new judicial review reaches its conclusion, most of those in this country who haven't already imported it from the continent are likely to have completely forgotten about its existence.

Manhunt 2 then may as well have remained banned. Anyone for, err, Manhunt 3?

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Monday, December 10, 2007 

The witch hunt over Manhunt is over. For now.

Some very welcome news which seems to have slipped completely under the radar:

The Video Appeals Committee (VAC) announced today the outcome of the appeal by Rockstar against the BBFC’s decision to reject a modified version of the video game, Manhunt 2. The appeal has been successful with the VAC deciding four votes to three in favour of Rockstar.

For those late to the party, the BBFC previously rejected, i.e. banned, Manhunt 2, where you play as a character who escapes from an insane asylum and are able to choose how to "execute" your victims. If you want to read the whole typically convoluted storyline, it's on the Wikipedia page.

As unpleasant a game as Manhunt 2 seems (although hardly any of those actually killed in the games are "innocents", as opposed to how you can slaughter wantonly in Grand Theft Auto for example, even if it attracts the attention of the police), the decision to ban it outright more than smacked of an organisation fearing the wrath of both politicians and the Daily Mail more than out of any real justifiable concerns about its content and effects on those playing it. The original Manhunt was blamed, both by the Mail and by the mother of Stefan Pakeerah for her son's death at the hands of Warren Leblanc, despite a complete failure on the behalf of either to come with up even circumstantial evidence which would suggest he was influenced by the game. On the contrary, the actual evidence presented at his trial suggested that Leblanc's only motive was robbery, with both the police and judge in agreement. To make matters just that little bit more shambolic and laughable, the game itself was found in Pakeerah's bedroom, not Leblanc's, although Pakeerah's mother argued Leblanc had lent it to him, but that still rather undermined her argument for restricting games from adults when she couldn't control what her own son was playing. When some stores subsequently removed it from the shelves, the sales elsewhere predictably went up.

The decision to refuse the game a certificate has also came at a time when exceptionally gory horror films have once again been in the ascendancy, without any of them being subjected to even cuts, and quite rightly so. The argument against the games is made that in films you aren't controlling the person doing the slaying, while in games that you are, although even this has become blurred when films like the Devil's Rejects feature serial-killers as anti-heroes, but the very research recently commissioned by the BBFC found that gamers almost unanimously rejected any link between games and real-life violence, with all of them getting involved in the game role and finding film violence to be far removed from that which takes place in games, even with the huge graphical advances in recent years.

More than anything, the BBFC's own guidelines declare that at 18 "concerns will not normally override the wish that adults should be free to chose their own entertainment." The original Manhunt and the entire series of Grand Theft Auto games have all been passed at 18 without any cuts. The simple fact ought to be that when a game or film is rated as an 18 the concerns about the effects on children, although they should be considered, ought to be a more minor factor than that of the chilling effects of cutting some of its content or banning it outright. It shouldn't be the responsibility of the BBFC or indeed the makers of the game if it gets into the hands of children; the retailers and parents themselves, who are often badgered into buying age restricted games by their children in the first place, are the ones who ought to be held accountable.

It should also be remembered that the reform of the BBFC in the 80s was down to the moral panic over video nasties, a debacle which is now rightly looked back upon with dismay and bemusement. It took almost two decades before the censorship regime in this country finally came into line with our more enlightened European and American cousins, although countries such as Germany are still cautious, while the American MPAA
has rightly came in for trenchant criticism, especially over the NC-17 certificate and how most theatres won't show films that receive that classification. Films there can however be released "unrated" on DVD without any need for them to be classified. Even now hardcore pornography, despite being available in abundance on the internet, is still shut off behind the closed, dimly lit windows of sex shops, whilst it is often cut to ribbons by the BBFC over some of its more dubious content.

It was in fact the appeal to the Video Appeals Committee by two distributors of hardcore back in 1999 which finally led to its legalisation after the committee found in their favour. Their decision this time round in favour of Manhunt 2 is to be applauded, and although the BBFC is "considering its position", it seems that it will have to allow the modified, "censored" version to be sold with an 18 certificate. The backlash, which will doubtless come once the decision has been noticed, will most likely be fierce, but the VAC has undoubtedly today struck a blow against both censorship and the last rump of the "moral majority".

The biggest losers might be gamers themselves caught up in the hype. The reviews have been mostly mixed, with one being particularly withering:

The kills are censored. The graphics are five years old. The story sucks. The gameplay is full of glitches, and there is no payoff in the endings, just an excuse to make a sequel. Why did we care about this game again?

The BBFC didn't even martyr a good game, which the Grand Theft Autos unanimously are.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007 

Hunting for witches in Manhunt.

Before getting into why the BBFC have decided to ban Manhunt 2, it's worth mentioning just how an organisation that was previously the most draconian censorship body, most likely in the Western world (Germany is probably now even more strict than the BBFC is) has managed, without legislation and with the ever scandalising and moral panic purveyors in the tabloids watching their every move, to reform itself. The great turning point was the retirement of James Ferman as director - ironically enough, being the chief butcher of the organisation and more feminist than his female colleagues were in his views on films' portrayal of sexual violence - over his realisation that in order to stop the real hardcore pornographic material becoming legal, he had to give into the slightly softer variety, which nevertheless sparked the tabloids into mass outrage.

To be fair to Ferman, there is probably now a revisionist account to be written of his years at the helm of the BBFC which takes into consideration the fact that he probably did the best he could, faced with the "video nasties" moral panic and later the Bulger killing, erroneously linked by the judge in the case to films which there is no evidence to suggest the boys ever saw, in helping to stop both politicians and the media from demanding even more chilling intrusion into what adults decided to watch in their own homes. He was one of those who lobbied furiously against the opportunist attempts by David Alton to effectively ban all 18-rated films from being released on video in the aftermath of the Bulger trial, something which looking back, only 13 years on, seems almost beyond belief, considering how close it came to fruition.

Even so, within a year of Ferman leaving, films that had previously never been available since their original theatrical release, purely because of his own views on them, such as the Exorcist and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, were passed uncut. This was swiftly followed in 2000 by the BBFC's failure to overturn a decision by the Video Appeals Committee which gave an R18 certificate to 7 hardcore titles, which it decided not to appeal against, finally leading to the full legalisation of hardcore pornography, if only available from licensed sex shops. The same year also brought a step-change in its guidelines for films as a whole, after research commissioned by the BBFC overwhelmingly showed that adults unsurprisingly didn't want to be limited in what they could watch. No longer was extreme violence or gore liable to be cut, unless it was either of a sexual nature, which has always troubled the organisation for good reason, or involving the breaking of the law as it stands, such as animal cruelty. Since then only a few mainstream films have been cut, with Ichi the Killer and Baise-Moi falling foul of the sexual violence guidelines, for instance, while a decent number of the former "video nasties" have been passed entirely uncut, some even with a 15 certificate. The organisation now mainly finds itself cutting R18s for some of their more dubious content, even though it's completely consensual, something which understandably irks its distributors.

All of which makes it all the more surprising the Manhunt 2 has been refused a certificate. The only recent titles to have been entirely refused a certificate instead of being cut have been prurient, real-death displaying documentaries, such as Terrorists, Killers and other Wackos and Traces of Death, extreme bondage/S&M material like Severe Punishment, and "Women in Prison" exploitation flicks, Jess Franco's "Women in Cellblock 9" being the last to be banned. Objectionable as all those decisions are, none comes close to the lack of legitimate reasons, or at least lack of honest reasons for why Manhunt 2 has been rejected.

Despite all the BBFC's carefully considered and detailed arguments for rejecting the game, it's almost impossible to believe that they weren't at least slightly influenced by the case of Stefan Pakeerah. Pakeerah was murdered by Warren Leblanc, according to the police, judge, and the evidence presented at his trial out of a motive of robbery. It was only after Leblanc pleaded guilty that Pakeerah's family, especially his mother, Giselle alleged that rather than Leblanc, Manhunt was to blame. There has never been any even circumstantial evidence presented that Leblanc was influenced by the game, let alone that he was obsessed with it. The game, rather than being found in Leblanc's possession, was in fact found in Pakeerah's bedroom. His mother says that Leblanc lent it to him, which rather undermines her argument that young people shouldn't have access to such games, seeing as she wasn't able to impose her own authority over her own son, let alone those of others. Predictably, despite some retailers removing it from their shelves, those that refused to do so reported a rise in sales.

The damage however had already been done, with the tabloids, long since having moved on from attacking films, now turning their sights on video games. Keith Vaz, another opportunist, attempted to resurrect his long dead political career by campaigning against such games, without showing even the slightest knowledge of what he was talking about. The furore, along with that directed towards Grand Theft Auto and the publicity surrounding its Hot Coffee mini-game which had been discarded in the code only to be rediscovered, inspired the BBFC to commission its own research into them, which very recently released.

The research is hardly a ringing endorsement of the BBFC's subsequent decision to reject Manhunt. Among its key findings were:

younger games players are influenced to play particular games by peer pressure and word of mouth, but negative press coverage for a game will significantly increase its take up;

violence in games, in the sense of eliminating obstacles, is built into the structure of some games and is necessary to progress through the game. It contributes to the tension because gamers are not just shooting, they are vulnerable to being shot and most gamers are concentrating on their own survival rather than the damage they are inflicting on the characters in the game. 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;

gamers are virtually unanimous in rejecting the suggestion that video games encourage people to be violent in real life or that they have become desensitised. They see no evidence in themselves or their friends who play games that they have become more violent in real life. As one participant said: “I no more feel that I have actually scored a goal than I do that I have actually killed someone. I know it’s not real. The emphasis is on achievement.”;

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;

All of which they probably well knew before they bothered to commission proper research, but it identifies just how video game violence, despite the player being the one perpetrating it, is viewed differently from that in films, which is both far more realistic and troubling than anything yet to be portrayed in any game.

Manhunt is undoubtedly a violent, unpleasant game which as the BBFC describe in their justification, has few of the relenting or redeeming qualities which the likes of Grand Theft Auto have, where senseless, wanton violence quickly results in you getting arrested and failing certain missions, while the non-linear content of the game means that it's not all kill, rob and sex. The graphics have probably been improved considerably since the original was released, but a video on YouTube shows the type of violence which it contains, and there's very little that's overly gory, detailed or glorifies the content; if anything it just looks silly. The decision to reject it has to be put into the context of how the undercurrent, especially in recent horror films, is to be completely unrelenting and grueling in their depiction of violence, with the emphasis on nihilism, even giving the killers in films such as the Devil's Rejects anti-hero status, all with the films being passed uncut at 18 and with few critics other than the Daily Mail's hack Tookey getting out of their pram about them. Why should adults who can make their own decisions to watch those films not be allowed to play similar games? The original Manhunt was 18, and if parents did their jobs properly and didn't give in to their kids' demands to buy them such age-restricted games, there wouldn't have been any panic in the first place.

The saddest thing is that as the BBFC's own research pointed out, gamers are now more likely to be intrigued and delight in its banned status, importing copies from Europe where it will be easily available, as I'm reliably informed that the first one wasn't up to much. Why martyr such a unsatisfying game because of the well-intentioned but utterly wrong cries of the tabloids and a grieving mother? The BBFC should let us know.

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