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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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