Video game violence is, as ever, a hot topic, and Gamasutra and GameProducer.net asked former Thrill Kill
and current Sony producer Harvard Bonin, Bizarre Creations' Peter O'Brien, Stainless Games' Ben Gunstone, and Gas Powered Games' Frank Rogan to discuss legislation, responsibility, and mature games.
Thrill Kill & Ethical Censorship
Said Bonin, "This particular topic is very timely, and also very, very complicated. As the publishing producer of a notable fighting game [Thrill Kill
, pictured] that was canceled years ago I believe I have unique insight. Unlike the recent Manhunt
saga it was a business and ethical decision - not a governmental censorship issue."
Noting this, he continued, "There is a key difference in most of the regulatory efforts of our government. The majority of the things the U.S. government regulates simply can't be done by a reasonable person. I could not evaluate if my hamburger was up to health standards. I could not tell you how to earthquake-proof the structure of my house. I depend on the government to do these things. I CAN however, judge if media content is suitable for someone under 18. Any reasonably informed, responsible adult can."
"In reality the government isn't the actual entity that 'banned' Manhunt 2
," Bonin added. "The ESRB, in accordance with its definition simply reviewed Manhunt 2
and gave it an 'AO' -- or, 'adults only' -- rating. Effectively, this removes distribution channels like Best Buy, Wal Mart, etc. Thus, there is no reasonable distribution available to justify release. While the ESRB ratings board was originally created as a response to head off governmental regulatory pressure, the government didn't direct the ESRB to give Manhunt 2
the rating it received."
"In this case it is a victim of 'the times'," he concluded. "The media sensationalizes school shootings, child predators and MySpace."
Freedom Of Expression For Games?
Is it right for government to ban games? What about freedom of expression? If governments can ban games, shouldn't they also ban some movies? Are 'Adults Only' ratings enough? Shouldn't parents watch what their kids play? Who should take responsibility in this matter? When asked these questions, O'Brien replied, "I'm no expert on the subject, but violence is possibly one of the most common themes in modern entertainment."
Nonetheless, he opined: "Only at the moment self-regulatory bodies such as BBFC, ESRB, ELSPA fail to act on the content they review should the governments of the world act. I don't believe there have been enough serious regulatory malpractices for the government to step in and create an act which unjustly targets our industry."
"Essentially, we're living with a system created as a response to a threat, that has morphed into a situation where uptight buyers are afraid of an uptight audience."
He elaborated: "The threat was, if Hollywood didn't start rating itself, Congress would. And nobody wanted that. To Valenti and the MPAA, the threat that Congress or state/local governments might feel obliged to step in and attempt to regulate movies was the sword of Damocles perpetually hanging over everyone's head."
Likening the ESRB to the MPAA and noting that the games industry is under the same pressure as the film industry, Rogan concluded, "In other words, no one's stopping you from making the game you want to make. But the customers -- the retailers -- aren't always buying what you're selling. This isn't censorship. This is merely a commonly accepted business practice."
Moral Responsibility For Creators
Gunstone had a concurrent take: "Every studio should be responsible for outputting games they think can sell!" He emphasized. "Should studios feel more or less morally responsible than they do already? Probably not. If you are trying to push the boundaries of what can and can't be seen by games players of the world then you need to be prepared to take the backlash when that happens."
Rogan thought it was important to define some terms. "Censorship isn't always censorship, if you catch my drift. I think this is particularly important, because many Americans casually use the term 'censorship' to refer to any
restriction that limits, or even appears to limit, speech, whether federal, state or local laws, or commercial practices."
"'John Q. Public' levels the 'censorship' claim right and left, whether or not it's correct or even warranted," Rogan added. "Moreover, there's a perception among the creators of media -- filmmakers, musicians, game developers -- that if for any reason, you are unable to market your wares in the manner you desire, you are being 'censored' ...The result of such a diluted meaning is predictable -- misunderstandings and misplaced anger."
"Apart from a few common-sense restrictions (the common 'yelling fire in the movie theater' example, and various libel/slander laws), there is no censorship in the United States," he concluded. "I like that last part so much, I'll repeat it -- there is no censorship in the United States."
Conclusion - The Moral Minefield
In fact, it's former Thrill Kill
and current Sony producer Bonin's conclusion which resonates, particularly due to his first-hand experiences with censorship, as he notes: "Video games are not addictions any more than excessive reading of books is. At any rate this view that video games disable a person's cognitive abilities to make reasonable personal welfare choices is simply incorrect. Regardless, the media continues to push video games as a vice and the general uneducated public has bought in. Manhunt 2
, while certainly a nasty gore-fest, should be comparably compared to a movie like Hostel...which never received this sort of reaction."
Bonin continues: "People also point to video games being an active rather than passive activity. The user is killing the person, not the character on screen. I also don't buy this as all games have characters - often as developed as books or movies. Finally, the ever present "parents should know what their kids are doing" is really the end all argument against censorship. Parents must
be familiar with what kids are playing, drinking, smoking, speaking, etc. After all, the parents are legally responsible for their kids breaking the law or committing malicious acts."
However, the producer notes: "Unfortunately, many parents are not responsible and do not regulate their children's activities. Many can't even self regulate. So should the government step in? If a child is endangered by their family environment the government has the ability to take the child away. So what constitutes a dangerous environment? Smoking? Drinking? Games? It seems to be the whim of the generation as to what constitutes an environment not suitable for children."
Overall, the simple conclusion is that there is no simple conclusion: "There is simply no clear answer to this. The simple legal answer is to classify video games as an "art form" - thus protected by freedom of speech. The general public and media does not seem to classify them under these terms and it will likely be a long time before they do so. Rockstar knew the gamble they were taking with Manhunt 2
and the hot coffee incident probably didn't help their image. Thus, they did not get the benefit of the doubt when Manhunt 2
came along. And after all this, I still don't know what I think."
[The complete answers from the producers are now available in two parts at GameProducer.net, and further collaborations with the site will appear on Gamasutra in the near future.]