The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is lobbying the ESRB to give Manhunt 2 for Wii an AO rating, and honestly, if they succeed, I’ll be very happy. Still, as their spokesman points out in the article, it’s likely their campaigning will be superfluous–that the game’s content is so raunchy, it will get an AO, stat, regardless of the Wii controller’s unique properties–but I’m glad they’re making the effort… even the official PlayStation Magazine was shocked when the original Manhunt got a tepid “M.”
Now, us cynical gamers tend to think that the ESRB lacks the nerve to rate a game “AO” for violence… that’s not true, actually. Console games get rated “AO” all the time, and then they are sent back to the publishers, which invariably poke around and try to figure out what the offending content was. I’m simply concerned that, in Grand Theft Auto you can beat a man to a pulp with a baseball bat and that’s “M,” but you can have cheesily-implemented, under-the-covers interactive sex with a woman in a hidden scene and that’s “AO.” Honestly, a decision by the ESRB that Manhunt 2’s violence is strong enough to rate an “AO” would make me quite happy. If Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, by God, had gotten the AO it deserved those years ago, there never would have been a Hot Coffee scandal, just as there had not been one in Europe, where GTA:SA is rated “18+.” (It also has to do with our culture; after all, UK news programs rebroadcast Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction uncensored when reporting on the US nipple firestrom of 2004, and nobody batted an eyelash. It’s just easier to send Americans into a sex panic, for some reason.)
And, if the interactive element of dismembering somebody with a Wii controller (not simple hack-and-slash, where you’re essentially waving a baton, but an attempt to make the player the active perpetrator of acts of violence) gets the game an AO rating on its own, I’ll be happy because that’s the kind of subtlety and nuance I usually do not see in the videogame violence debate (“A generation of homicidal MURDER MACHINES!!!1!” vs. “Fat sacks of money clearly absolve us of any social responsibility“). (Link warning: bad words.) However, graphic violence of this kind should get an AO rating outright, and it probably will. If the game gets an AO rating and it sticks (no token concessions for an “M,” please, this game is “AO” at its core and can’t really be dumbed down without, say, adding cel-shading and calling it “Katamanhuntari Damacy”) I’ll be pleased, not only because it will mean we’ve finally started to become rightly disgusted by heinous acts of violence (maybe seeing them on the news each night from each side of the war in Iraq is doing the trick), and made a sincere commitment to keeping hyper-violent games out of the hands of children (and not just political posturing towards the center), but the Rockstar name will give the AO rating legitimacy that it’s never had before, keeping it from being de facto censorship. I’ve always been irked by the fact that big-box retailers sell plenty of “unrated” movies but will never sell an “AO” game… (under the premise that games are for “children,” which is, by and large, hooey and a weak precedent). If “Manhunt 2” gets the AO it deserves, we could finally see mainstream acceptance of AO games on store shelves (in their own little section, of course), so that us adult consumers can buy whatever we want (although, keep in mind, we’re not really endless, bursting bundles of maturity ourselves…).
I don’t like censorship… and that’s part of why I want Manhunt 2, for all systems (but even just Wii would be nice considering the nuance added by the controller), slapped with an AO postehaste. The other part is simply that I wish we weren’t so desensitized to violence, and I’d like dismemberment to be seen as the brutal, ugly crime that it is. People really get cut to pieces like this in Darfur, for instance… tortured in China, in Saudi Arabia, Guantanamo Bay, et cetera… I’m all about making art about the full range of human experience, but it’s not to be taken lightly, and it’s high time the flimsy excuse of “it’s just a game” were removed outright. We want games to be taken seriously, and we need to face the consequences of having our games taken seriously. Otherwise, we’re just being immature.
By the way, I’m squeamish and take a great amount of pride in that I want to ensure I stay, forever, disgusted and non-desensitized to the sight of heinous violence. Obviously, I cannot control what others do, and if you have a stronger stomach than me, good for you… it’s just that I think that the debate about GTA and videogame violence is seriously misaligned when we fail to realize that it’s impossible to play GTA without running people over like Pac-Man dots and hearing their spines snap beneath your tire. People who speak breathlessly about its openness and freedom rightly recognize its innovative gameplay, but fail to realize it’s a crime-spree simulator through and through, and it desensitizes children around the world to the horrors of violence by making it look routine, everyday, and the legitimate means to an end. Those kids who shot into a street, inspired by GTA, had no idea what they were doing… decision-making doesn’t develop fully in your brain until you’re an adult, and even though these kids seemed to be doing something particularly stupid, it’s easy to recognize the importance of keeping these games out of the hands of children so that they do not think of violence as something routine and laughable, or have it impair their ability to see the world in a just and moral way. Again, this isn’t a cry for censorship because videogames are immutably an art form, and parents need to make the ultimate choice about what is okay for their household and their children. I just think we need to get serious about GTA and Manhunt and set them apart from, say, Parasite Eve (long ago rated M for some skin and violence), Halo (rated M for full-blown gore in the context of war), or Dead or Alive X-Treme Beach Volleyball (rated M for the most salicious, pre-adolescent sexual content ever to be slapped upon a frail skeleton of gameplay–it’s beautiful, but it’s digusting) by giving AO-meriting games the AO rating they so richly deserve. You can’t–you shouldn’t–be able to dumb down either game to M. Their AO games to their core. Until we get serious about this, politicians who say that the ratings mislead parents are sadly right.
I saw Sin City once, and I nearly barfed… but it was a work of art, so it’s not my right to say people shouldn’t see it. It’s harsh content is why it’s rated R… which I think is a bit harsher than games’s M.
The ESRB needs to get tough and hold onto the AO rating when it’s warranted, and not let game publishers talk them down with token concessions. Otherwise, the game ratings system will be meaningless, and the industry will be ripe for the picking by opportunistic politicians eager to court the “family values” vote (and not afraid to look really stupid, since everybody in American politics seems to these days).
UPDATE: That didn’t take long. Hold firm, ESRB, hold firm.