Editorial: Part of Free Speech is Knowing When to Shut Up


In the first of a new series of articles on the gaming industry, Senior Editor Dana Massey looks at the line of how much is too much in gaming. Rockstar is set to released Manhunt 2 for the Nintendo Wii this summer that, among other things, asks players to use the Wiimote to saw through their enemies. They have the right, but should anyone really be making this kind of game? What are the potential consequences?

Editorial: Part of Free Speech is Knowing When to Shut Up
Manhunt 2: Violence In Games Gone Too Far
Editorial by Dana Massey (Senior Editor, WarCry)

imageOn July 10th, Rockstar once again plans to throw down the gauntlet to gaming industry critics, parenting groups and politicians when Manhunt 2 for the Nintendo Wii ships to stores across North America. Unlike the previous generation of violent games, in the Wii version, players must use their Wiimote and Nunchuck to shoot, maim, manually strangle and castrate their enemies.

In the ongoing violence in games debate, I firmly believe that governments should not get involved; rather it should remain up to individual developers, retailers and bodies like the ERSB to properly communicate the content of games to consumers. Developers, however, also have a responsibility to the industry from which they make their living not to needlessly bait vocal gaming critics like Jack Thompson and Dr. Phil McGraw. Manhunt 2 crosses into that territory.

The first edition of Manhunt was controversial back in 2003. In this sneaker/gore hybrid, the player took his character through a variety of areas, killing his enemies in a variety of gory and ridiculous ways. It got people’s hackles raised, but it also had the feeling of a slasher movie. Player actions dictated the severity of the kill, but the actual event was a predefined animation that simply played.

imageThe much hyped interactivity of the Wiimote changes that. The kill scenes become interactive. You don’t just see your character saw someone in half. You saw them in half.

It gets even more graphic. In preview last week, IGN wrote that the player can “use a pair of pliers to clamp onto an enemy’s testicles and literally tear them from his body in a bloody display.”

The Nintendo Wii is the early leader in the much hyped next-generation console wars and part of that comes from its ability to transcend hardcore gamers and appeal to grandmothers and six-year-olds alike. In fact, it’s lack of “hardcore” games has made some analysts ask if the console has the staying power of its more traditional brethren, the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. This game definitely puts something out there for hardcore gamers, but will it do so at the expense of its non-traditional audience?

imagePicture an episode of Dr. Phil as the charismatic doctor of education gets up in front of millions of American housewives, many of whom have bought a Wii for their children, and manually strangles a virtual foe with his Wiimote. That’s good TV, but for Take2 – a company already hammered by accounting and inappropriate content scandals – very bad news.

For some time, games have been the target. In the wake of the tragic Virginia Tech shootings, both Dr. Phil and lawyer Jack Thompson blamed videogames. As it turned out, the shooter did not own any. Nonetheless, it fed the perception that games somehow encourage violence. As the U.S. Presidential Primaries heat up, the climate is even more politically charged, and it only takes a solitary spark to make this a front burner issue.

Leading Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has made noise on the issue during her tenure in the senate, and could likely make easy political hay off such a visceral and exaggerated example as Manhunt 2. If she wins, it is not too much of a stretch to speculate that could mean increased government involvement in the trend-setting US market. And those changes would instantly trickle down to the rest of the world.

imageWill Manhunt 2 be that spark? According to IGN’s preview, players can “use a saw blade and cut upward into a foe’s groin and buttocks, motioning forward and backward with the Wii remote as you go.” It’s definitely going to upset some people.

From a content perspective, Manhunt 2 may represent the pinnacle of interactive mutilation. It comes from mainstream media whipping boy Rockstar/Take 2 and is the sequel to a game that allegedly already inspired a murder (story http://news.scotsman.com/edinburgh.cfm?id=871302004). When contacted today, Take2 told WarCry that the original Manhunt sold in excess of 1,000,000 units across all platforms. Assuredly Rockstar wants to take that up a notch with the sequel.

With the extreme content, high profile and controversial developers, Manhunt 2 could easily create a perfect storm of controversy, much to the detriment of the industry as a whole. There is no question in my mind that Rockstar has every right to bring anything they want to market. In a perfect world, people would understand that like slasher films, this is just entertainment and not likely to independently send people on killing sprees. But, this is not a perfect world.

imageThis game is entering a world in the midst of a media war. It will also probably make Take2 and Rockstar a pile of money. Around the Themis offices, a lot of people sounded excited about the prospect of sawing people in half. That IGN preview positively gushes at the idea, and alluded to another game that promises to be even more violent.

Game developers owe it to each other to know when to stop. There is absolutely no need for a game that is this violent and interactive. I don’t think anyone will kill anyone because of it, but in the long term business interests of all game developers, someone should have asked what this will mean. It might make Take2 a few million dollars, but they’ll likely spend that in litigation. Jack Thompson has already made noise and then been sued over Manhunt 2 to make him stop [correction: originally, this sentence incorrectly said Thompson had sued Take2, which was not true]. Then, if the government gets involved in oversight of the industry, the losses could go even further. Part of free speech is knowing when to shut up.

imageNintendo has made massive inroads when they sold their new console to non-gamers. That’s what this industry needs to do to grow. Games like this alienate those people. I can see parents in a store, browsing the titles in advance of buying little Timmy the Wii he always wanted, seeing Manhunt 2 and immediately putting the console back. I bought my younger brothers a Wii for Christmas and the idea of them playing this positively horrifies me.

Sure, you can make all the traditional arguments here: “it’s just a game”, “parents should monitor their children more closely”, “killing pixilated people is not close to reality”, “if you don’t like it don’t buy it”, “it will be rated M anyway, who cares?”, etc. It’s all rationalization. When a parent picks up a game that promises to let people saw each other in half in real time with the Wiimote and see the “M” on the box, there is no way they don’t wonder what the hell’s in that other “M” rated game beside it.

Games like this hurt everyone in this industry. It’s time that developers realize that the short term financial windfall isn’t worth the long-term damage it does to the industry’s reputation and market share. Sure, Rockstar has every right to make this game, but it’s absolutely reckless that they did.

Now it’s your turn. Tell us what you think on our message boards.

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