The “Manhunt” problem

By Mike Antonucci
Monday, August 27th, 2007 at 2:57 pm in Dean and Nooch on Gaming, Mike Antonucci, Art & Animation, Xbox, General.

California state Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) sent out a press release today that reflected the over-the-top anti-video game tone that undermines even his reasonable positions.

Still, he managed to make a point I sympathize with: The reported change by the Entertainment Software Rating Board in re-rating “Manhunt 2′’ as “Mature” instead of “Adults Only” — after changes made to the game — needs a detailed explanation from the ESRB to be credible.

I’ve been tough on Yee (and his supporters) about the silly and unconstitutional law he wanted to enact to block the sale of some video games to minors. But when it comes to his demand for more transparency by the ESRB, it’s a different issue. Still, I may end up wishing a pox on all their houses, including the ESRB.

I e-mailed the ESRB spokesman twice today for comment. Haven’t heard back. Could be any number of understandable reasons for that. But, assuming there’s no big miunderstanding or inaccuracy in what’s being reported about “Manhunt 2′’ and the M rating, the ESRB needs to get more proactive fast.

Here’s the Yee press release (I’d urge you not to focus on little things, like the ESRB being identified as the Ratings Board (with the s) rather than Rating Board. The extreme nature of its tone is more than fair game, and I’m adding some other background info as well from the Campaign for a Commericial Free Childhood (which has a relatively moderate tone).

The Yee press release:
Most Violent Game Ever Released to be Sold to Children
Senator Yee calls on industry to disclose how Manhunt 2 was re-rated from Adults Only<

SACRAMENTO – Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo), the author of California’s recently struck down law to prohibit the sale of extremely violent video games to minors, today called on the video game ratings board and a video game maker to fully disclose how a soon-to-be-released ultra-violent video game received a downgraded rating of Mature (M) from Adults Only (AO).

Earlier this year, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) gave Manhunt 2 – the most violent game ever released – a rating of AO, which was only the second time a game had been given such a rating based on violent content. However, on Friday it was announced that the game had been re-rated M after Rockstar Games, the game’s maker, submitted a modified version.

According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), reviews of the game describe players “sawing their enemies’ skulls in half; mutilating them with an axe; castrating them with a pair of pliers; or killing them by bashing their head into an electrical box.”

When asked by the CCFC, the ESRB refused to make public the rationale for changing Manhunt 2’s rating.

“Parents can’t trust a rating system that doesn’t even disclose how they come to a particular rating,” said Yee. “The ESRB and Rockstar should end this game of secrecy by immediately unveiling what content has been changed to grant the new rating and what correspondence occurred between the ESRB and Rockstar to come to this conclusion. Unfortunately, history shows that we must be quite skeptical of these two entities.”

While the ESRB claims to be a non-biased ratings board that gives parents a valuable tool in deciding appropriateness of games for their children, they are funded by the makers of video games who have a financial interest in making sure their games are not rated AO. Most retailers will not carry games with an AO rating.

While M-rated games are also designed for adults, there is no prohibition to selling such games to children. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that 42 percent of unaccompanied children 13 to 16 years of age can successfully purchase M-rated games.

In June 2005, the ESRB and Rockstar were involved in a multi-million dollar scandal called “Hot Coffee,” in which Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a game originally rated M by the ESRB, was found to have hidden animations allowing players to watch graphic scenes featuring oral sex, nudity, and simulated intercourse.

“Clearly the ESRB has a conflict of interest in rating these games,” said Yee. “It is time to bring transparency to this rating system and for the industry to be held accountable. I join the CCFC in urging the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the process by which Manhunt 2’s rating was downgraded from AO to M.”

Not surprisingly, Manhunt 2 is set to be released on Halloween Day, October 31, 2007.

Three weeks ago, United States District Court Judge Ronald Whyte struck down a law authored by Yee which would have fined retailers who sell extremely violent video games to minors, similar to prohibitions on pornography, alcohol, and tobacco. California plans to appeal the district court’s decision.

————

Here’s what the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has on its Web site:
CFC Statement on ESRB Decision to Downgrade

Manhunt 2’s Rating from Adults Only to Mature

In June, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board gave Manhunt 2 an Adults Only rating. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood had urged the ESRB to give the game an AO rating because of concerns that harmful effects of ultra-violent video games on children would be magnified by playing them on the interactive Nintendo Wii system.

CCFC’s concerns about Manhunt 2 were based, in part, on reviews of the game which described players sawing their enemies’ skulls in half; mutilating them with an axe; castrating them with a pair of pliers; or killing them by bashing their head “into an electrical box, where raw power surges through it and eventually blows his head apart.” CCFC noted that on Wii, players will not merely punch buttons or wield a joy stick, but will actually act out this violence. A reviewer for the gaming website IGN described using a saw blade to “cut upward into a foe’s groin and buttocks, motioning forward and backward with the Wii remote as you go.”

Today, Rockstar Games announced that Manhunt 2 had received a revised rating of Mature after they submitted a modified version of the game. On a phone call with CCFC’s Dr. Susan Linn, ESRB President Patricia Vance refused to comment on what changes Rockstar made or whether any of the content described above was still in the game.

Below is the statement of CCFC Director Dr. Susan Linn on the ESRB’s decision to reverse their earlier ruling:

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is extremely concerned that the ESRB has downgraded its rating for Manhunt 2 from Adults Only (AO) to Mature (M). Despite industry claims to the contrary, M-rated games continue to be marketed and sold to children under seventeen. The ESRB’s reversal of its earlier decision dramatically increases the likelihood that Manhunt 2 – the most violent game to date produced for the interactive Nintendo Wii platform – will be marketed and sold to children.

Just three months ago, the ESRB felt that Manhunt 2 was so violent that it took the extraordinary step of giving a game an AO rating for violent content for only the second time in its history. We urge the ESRB to make public their rationale for changing Manhunt 2’s rating, including detailing any content that was removed from the game.

We call upon Rockstar Games to allow the content of Manhunt 2 to be reviewed by an independent review board with no ties to the video game industry.

We ask the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the process by which Manhunt 2’s rating was downgraded from AO to M.

CCFC’s initial press release and letter to the ESRB are available at http://www.commercialfreechildhood.org/pressreleases/manhunt2.htm.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is a national coalition of health care professionals, educators, advocacy groups and concerned parents who counter the harmful effects of marketing to children through action, advocacy, education, research, and collaboration among organizations and individuals who care about children. CCFC supports the rights of children to grow up – and the rights of parents to raise them – without being undermined by rampant commercialism. For more information, please visit: http://www.commercialfreechildhood.org.

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12 Responses to “The “Manhunt” problem”

  1. me Says:

    we need LESS censorship across the board. im tired of people who dont enjoy or even participate in the subject of their censoring. politicians go solve our world traded deficit and a million other worthwhile and reasonable things that would make life better and leave my entertainment alone (unless i am actually hurting some one for real!)to sum it all up quit wasting my tax dollars trying to take away my freedom.

  2. Distressed American Says:

    The last time I heard, the company which produces content for commercial sale has the right to not disclose the content until and unless it desires. Game developers have to sign serious NDAs (Non Disclosure Agreements) with serious legal repercussions if broken.

    Demanding that a 3rd party ratings committee violate a legal contract for the sake of someones political career with zealous parents is hopelessly and utterly ridiculous.

    Because you don’t like someone else’s freedom of expression doesn’t give any freedom-loving person the right to use political pull to forcefully take away another’s freedom. Having that pull doesn’t give you the right to legally coerce mandatory 3rd party rating boards to break the law (possibly ending careers).

    Think.

  3. Mike Antonucci Says:

    To “Me” –
    I think your response is thoughtful. Also reflects some of my feelings. But I think it’s implied — you tell me if I’ve misinterpreted — that there’s no difference between the actions of a ratings board in this context (when something is going to be AO unless changed) and censorship. Problem is, I don’t think the industry can thrive without a ratings board.

  4. Founding Fathers Says:

    MPAA -vs- ESRB, WHY the double standard???

  5. Tim S Says:

    While I agree with you that the process of why a game is rated a certain way should be open, I am curious why this outrage is not applied to the MPAA, which is the single most secretive ratings organization on the planet.

    What is good for the goose is good for the gander, as they say, so if California is going to raise a big old stink about the ratings methodology of the ESRB they should do the same for the MPAA.

  6. Lard Says:

    What Tim S says is exactly right.

    “Parents can’t trust a rating system that doesn’t even disclose how they come to a particular rating,”

    You can’t hold one group accountable and another not. (In this case, the two groups being the ESRB and the MPAA)

    All Yee is doing is political grandstanding to make himself look like he’s being tough on an issue, rather than taking a stand on a substantial issue like health care, the environment or something of the like.

  7. Mike Antonucci Says:

    The point about the MPAA is dead on, especially since it also relates to the flaws of legislation that singled out games and not DVDs (and CDs, etc).
    Regardless, my primary interest is in the future of the games.

  8. Niekon Says:

    Mike, I am having trouble wrapping my head around the demands that Senator Yee, Jack Thompson, and the CCFC are making of the ESRB to explain the rational for the re-rating from AO to M.
    Are any of these people or groups out demanding the same from the MPAA when a movie is re-rated from NC-17 to R? Of course not. What happens there is behind closed doors of the director and the MPAA. Why not allow for the same discretion between the ESRB and the video game companies? Or are we only concerned about the latest “evil that is destroying the children and youth of today”?

    When I walk down my street I hear young kids blasting their stereo’s of gangsta rap talking about blastin’ this and cappin’ that… about smackin’ hoes and whatever else it is they rap about. Yet, I don’t see the government enforcing “No Sale” laws on these under-age individuals for albums whose lyrics are even too much for me.

    The more Yee spouts his rhetoric, the more he becomes a joke of a politician whom I will gladly vote against in the next election.

  9. Mike Antonucci Says:

    To Nikeon:

    OK, I guess I can’t shorthand any of this, even though so many of the issues are long in the tooth and I’ve been on record about them for what seems like forever.
    Here, more or less in full, is what I’m saying:
    I don’t think anybody should try to wrap their head around anything being spouted by Yee, Thompson and others in that camp. They are indeed completely inconsistent as far as I can tell, and the inconsistency has legal implications, too (based on the court documents I’ve read from various cases in which video-game sales restrictions have been struck down). There are other reasons to dismiss them as well.
    But regardless of what should happen in an ideal world (with reference to other ratings sustems, for instance), my focus is on the video-game industry. And when it comes to the game industry, I’d like it to lead, not wait for some consensus. Indeed, it generally characterizes itself as a leader on ratings issues.
    Right now, I think the ESRB is becoming less useful. What you describe as discretion also raises issues of trust, manipulation and accuracy. I respect the notion that any ratings system is intimidation and censorship in some people’s eyes. I don’t feel that way, and if the ESRB isn’t more useful — more transparent about ratings details in these kinds of situations — I think the game industry will suffer needlessly. Yee’s criticism of the ESRB happens to intersect a bit with my thinking. His views seem far more extreme, but I do think he’s poking at an issue of importance.

  10. antispamdinista Says:

    This reminds me of those days when the Comics Code of America was created after Wertham’s book [i]Seduction of the Innocent[/i] was released back in the 50’s. It was pretty much a reactionary situation, but the truth is this: parents, not game manufacturers, are responsible for what their kids do or don’t do. If an adult wants to buy an ultra-violent game for a sense of catharsis, that’s fine. But why are these kids let loose in a mall with a parent’s credit card or even a wad of cash?

    As a parent, I know what my role is in my child’s media choices. I may not be loaded with cash, but I care what my kid does, sees and reads. I care about the other kids she hangs with, and I don’t just keep my eyes blinded and tell her, “good luck with that.” Any parent who doesn’t know (or even care) what their kids do should not be having kids in the first place.

    I thought that, as a parent, I needed to give my two cents (or, upgraded to today’s monetary value, five bucks).

  11. Jack Thompson, Attorney Says:

    John B. Thompson, Attorney at Law
    1172 S. Dixie Hwy., Suite 111
    Coral Gables, Florida 33146
    305-666-4366
    amendmentone@comcast.net

    August 29, 2007

    The Honorable Deborah Platt Majoras, Chairman
    Federal Trade Commission
    600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.,
    Washington, D.C. 20580 Via Fax and e-mails

    The Honorable Bill McCollum
    Attorney General, State of Florida
    The Capitol PL-01
    Tallahassee, Florida 32399 Via Fax to 850-410-1630

    Re: Take-Two’s Sale of Mature-Rated Manhunt 2 to Children Under 17 Years of Age

    Dear Chairman Majoras and Attorney General McCollum:

    Two months ago the video game rating board in the UK banned for sale even to adults Take-Two’s ultraviolent game, Manhunt 2, in which the player can rehearse using household items to remove testicles, etc. In the US, our rating board, the ESRB, slapped the game with an “Adults Only” rating, which led Sony and Nintendo to block its distribution for play on their Playstation and Wii game platforms by anyone regadless of age.

    Take-Two’s new Chairman, Strauss Zelnick, called Manhunt 2 “fine art.” Right. And Jeffrey Dahmer is his generation’s Rembrandt.

    Take-Two and Zelnick have now wrangled out of the ESRB, by some means, a re-rating of Manhunt 2 a “Mature” game.

    Two days ago I pointed out to Take-Two and others that Take-Two is presently making available to kids under the age of 17 Manhunt 2 at its www.rockstargames web site. Upon pointing this out, Take-Two threatened me with legal action, claiming in their threatending letter that minors could not order Manhunt 2 without verifying their ages as the purchasers.

    Well, guess what? My son’s credit card was used to order Manhunt 2 from Take-Two on-line. He’s 15. Asking a kid if he’s 17 is not “age verification.” There is available real age verification software that is used by companies that sell, on-line, firearms, tobacco, and alcohol. Take-Two refuses to use this technology because Take-Two wants to sell its “Mature” games to kids under 17. How do I know. See above.

    Not only does this put the lie to Take-Two’s alleged “age verification,” but it also underscores the thuggish, extortionate nature of Take-Two’s threats to proceed against me for speaking the truth, and to government no less. The last time I checked, the First Amendment guarantees “the right of the people to petition their government for a redress of grievances.” The Supreme Court of Alabama recently agreed unanimously with my argument that the First Amendment does not protect the sale of “Mature” games to kids.

    This is just the latest targeting of me by Take-Two for daring to speak out about this company’s activities, which have included the “Hot Coffee” scandal. Senator Clinton had her staff call me to prep her for her stunning press conference on that scandal because the Senator knows that I‘m the one person who has the goods on Take-Two, and Take-Two knows it to, which is why the threats never stop. These latest threats may constitute a criminal violation of federal laws that prohibit threats against those exercise their First Amendment rights.

    Attorney General McCollum, I am particularly appreciative of your very public warning to parents months ago that Manhunt 2 was on the way. Your courage in doing so may have prompted the ESRB to do the right thing, but now that the ESRB and Take-Two think “the coast is clear,” here comes Manhunt 2 readily available to minors (see above), with a re-rating that has the Harvard-based CCFC calling for a federal investigation of the game’s re-rating. Take-Two threatened me when I wrote you about that, which letter prompted your courageous action.

    See http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/2007/08/the_manhunt_problem.html.

    Maybe Take-Two can attempt to extort all Members of Congress as well.

    Regards, Jack Thompson

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