Video-game ratings and artistic freedom

[31 July 2007]

By Victor Godinez

The Dallas Morning News (MCT)

Artistic freedom just ain’t what it used to be.

After the Entertainment Software Rating Board slapped the upcoming Manhunt 2 (a game in which you could use a pair of pliers to tear a man apart bit by bit) with an Adults Only rating, a vocal throng of gamers and game makers wailed to the heavens about the chilling effect of censorship.

Since none of the main console makers will sell an AO-rated game, and many big retailers refuse to carry them anyway, the rating is essentially the kiss of death.

(By the way, I’m curious whether Nintendo and Sony would have been happy to have Manhunt 2 in all its grisly glory on their consoles if the ESRB had simply rated the game as a Mature title.)

Anyway, it turns out, there is a chilling effect from the Manhunt 2 affair, but if the tale of Condemned 2: Bloodshot is anything to go by, we might all be better off.

Speaking to Computerand, senior producer Constantine Hantzopoulos lamented all the great scenes that his team had to remove from that game to comply with the ESRB’s new get-tough policy.

“An example of what we cut would be putting someone’s head in a vise,” he said. “That was too much, you know. There are also some decapitations we’ve lost. But this is more `Sin City’ than it is real world, and we want people to know that this is not a real world.”

Geez, if I can’t squeeze someone’s head in a vise until his noodle explodes in a red mist of brains and eyeballs, haven’t the terrorists won?

Haven’t we - and by “we,” I mean society - lost our way once we’ve lost our decapitations?

When they came for the decapitators, I said nothing, because I’d never been guillotined.

When they came for the vise squishers, I said nothing, because my tool shed was starting to smell a little funky from all the splattered brains.

But when they came for me, all I had left to defend myself with was a used copy of Barbie Horse Adventure.

Seriously, is this really what artistic license has come to in the game industry?

We roar our disagreement when Roger Ebert argues that games can never be high art but bellow in disbelief when a company says, “You know, gruesome, pornographic violence might not be something we’re interested in selling and having associated with our brand.”

And it’s not as if these guys are pushing the boundaries of taste because they believe this is some kind of major campaign against the Man. It’s a money grab, an attempt to generate publicity.

Here’s something else Hantzopoulos had to say in that interview about Condemned 2: Bloodshot:

“There were things we were doing that even I couldn’t believe we were going to those places,” he said.

This past week, a former Web site producer at Rockstar Games posted an account on of life at the company behind Manhunt and the Grand Theft Auto games.

Of his work on the original Manhunt, he wrote: “Manhunt, though, just made us all feel icky. It was all about the violence, and it was realistic violence. We all knew there was no way we could explain away that game. There was no way to rationalize it. We were crossing a line.”

So before gamers get all up in arms over the death of artistic freedom, we might want to think about whether we really want to classify some of this stuff as art.

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