Short Cuts

John Lanchester

‘Manhunt 2’ has just become the first video game to be banned in the UK in a decade. The decision by the British Board of Film Classification singled out the game’s ‘unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone’, and made it illegal to sell the game; along with a comparable ruling in the USA, this effectively kills Manhunt 2. An appropriate fate, one could argue, since Manhunt 2 is a horror game full of killing; it exhibits, according to the BBFC, ‘a sustained and cumulative casual sadism in the way in which these killings are committed, and encouraged’.

The decision by the BBFC probably headed off a moral panic. The first Manhunt game was denounced by the parents of Stefan Pakeerah, a 14-year-old who was murdered in Leicester in 2004, as a factor that contributed to his death. The police disagreed: they said that the game had not played any part in the murder, which had been a robbery motivated by the need for drug money, and pointed out that it was the victim, not the killer, who owned a copy of Manhunt. Not to worry: questions were anyway asked in Parliament by the local MP, Keith Vaz. When Seung-Hui Cho committed his murders at Virginia Tech, there was an immediate fuss about the contributing part that might have been played by video games. (MSNBC headline: ‘Were video games to blame for massacre?’) It turned out that Cho didn’t own any video games, and according to his roommate never played them (nor did he own a TV), which must have put him in a tiny minority of 23-year-old American men.

The outrage that brews up whenever one of these stories hits the press can give the impression that all video games are violent in a depraved, Clockwork Orange-ish way. But there are thousands of video games, of which most aren’t violent. It’s just that nothing makes a game hit the headlines quite like a good scandal; and several of the most recent moral panics have all been generated by the same company. Step forward that proud flower of modern Britain, the maker of Manhunt 2, Rockstar Games.

Even people who don’t know anything about video games have heard of Rockstar’s most famous product, the Grand Theft Auto series. These games involve a protagonist who drives around a fictional 2001 New York (in Grand Theft Auto III) or mid-1980s Miami (Grand Theft Auto: Vice City) or early 1990s California (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas). The games can be played in a linear way, by following predetermined missions, or can simply be explored, at leisure and at random. In San Andreas, the game world includes versions of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, as well as the landscapes in between. These are known as ‘sandbox games’ from the free-form nature of the play. The player can drive cars (a zillion different types), fly planes or helicopters, run or swim or parachute, and can get in fights using any weapon from bare fists (he can go to a dojo to learn martial arts) to wrenches to pistols, machine-guns and rocket launchers. The missions include tasks such as breaking up union meetings, murdering a pizza delivery guy by running him over, buying clothes appropriate for Miami Vice-era Florida, and arranging drug buys. The soundtrack to this is provided by the radio stations available in the player’s car, which play the relevant music with an often hilarious commentary.

A couple of years ago I spent some time playing Vice City, in the slightly expurgated version then available; the game had caused a fuss because an earlier edition had awarded points for a rampage in which the protagonist ran over members of a Haitian gang. (The version I played is known by gamers for being ‘Haitian-friendly’.) Rockstar North, who made the Grand Theft games and the first Manhunt, are based in Edinburgh, and there seemed to me something very British about the sensibility of the game, specifically its outsider’s cartoon version of America, all cars and gangsters and mad radio stations. Vice City was made for a very specific audience, one with the Tarantino-type sensibility to be amused by the game as well as the time and fine motor skills to master its demands. A ‘DualShock’ controller of the type used in the Playstation 2 has 16 buttons and levers, and the game uses all of them, many simultaneously. The old, slow or time-poor need not bother.

Vice City, which came out in 2002, left me convinced that gaming has the potential to be an artistic medium comparable to film or television. The sheer size of the imagined world in the game, the level of detail and the open-endedness were all highly impressive. But the obstacle to video games’ becoming a real art form lies in the young male demographic which has dominated the industry’s ambitions. (Nintendo is challenging this emphasis, with its child-and-oldster friendly consoles – most recently the Wii, pronounced ‘we’ – but that’s another story.) The industry loves this market. The boys in question have enough money for video games and enough time to play them, they are susceptible to advertising, loyal to brands, addicted to sequels, and don’t at all mind outraging the squares. Moral panics strike this crowd as nothing more than favourable publicity; rappers know that, and so do game makers, as the subsequent escapades of Rockstar made clear.

The company’s next Grand Theft Auto game, San Andreas, was a huge critical and commercial hit; until it turned out that the PC version of the game had hidden in it an unlockable sequence in which characters had sex. This news broke at a time when video games were under attack from politicians in America, among them Hillary Clinton, whose rightward triangulations at that point involved proposing a law to ‘make sure that parents have a line of defence against violent and graphic video games’. The game had to be withdrawn and reclassified. Rockstar’s next high-profile launch was a sandbox game called Bully, set in an American boarding school. Cue another moral panic; it was eventually released in the UK under a different name, Canis Canem Edit (‘dog eat dog’). One has to say that in this case the moral panic was based on something real, since there’s nothing funny or clever about the idea of bullying as the basis of a video game, though there is something a tiny bit entertaining about the fact that the architecture of the school was based on that of our former prime minister’s alma mater, Fettes.

None of this is helping video games grow up as a medium. The banning of Manhunt 2 will prove to be a good thing if it helps companies like Rockstar to realise that the industry’s ambition should be the opposite of everyone else’s: to get off the front page and into the arts section. And what is it about Edinburgh that it should be the home for the creators of Harry Potter, Inspector Rebus and Grand Theft Auto? What would John Knox have thought?