Game’s violence stirs debate!

The makers of violent video game Manhunt 2 remain mum on both what specifically earned it an Adults Only rating and the game’s future. But that hasn’t stopped speculation and discussion about the situation and its impact on the industry.

“Manhunt 2 is very significant,” says Dennis McCauley of “In the U.S, the industry’s own game content rating board is sending a very clear signal as to where the line is on violence.”

SCREENSHOTS: A look at ‘Manhunt 2’

Manhunt 2 had been scheduled for release July 10 for Sony’s PS2 and PSP systems and Nintendo’s Wii. After the game was banned in the U.K. last week, it received the rare Adults Only (AO) rating (ages 18 and up) from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB).

Neither Sony, Nintendo nor Microsoft approves AO titles for their systems, and most large retailers won’t stock them. Publisher Take-Two Interactive suspended distribution and is reviewing options.

“We believe in freedom of creative expression as well as responsible marketing, both of which are essential to our business,” the company said in a statement.

Manhunt 2’s story line involves an escapee from an insane asylum who is forced into violently killing adversaries.

The first Manhunt also was controversial, rated Mature (17 and up). Many expected the same for this release. But McCauley says the AO “does not really surprise me, given some of the ways in which violence is rendered, such as pulling out testicles with a pair of pliers and sawing into someone’s groin.”

Game site’s Matt Casamassina says, “The ratings board seems to have taken issue with Manhunt 2’s presentation of murder in that the game offers no moral consequences for killing the hunters that frequent its virtual world.” The developer “may have to make significant changes to satisfy” the rating board.

In a preview last month, Casamassina wrote, “No game we have ever played or seen is as over-the-top violent or downright gross.” Among other killing strokes: decapitations and electrocutions.

Rating board president Patricia Vance would not go into specifics but said two versions were submitted, one for Wii and another for Sony systems. “There was a combination of factors that played into the rating assignment. Raters consider not only the content depictions themselves, as well as the context in which they are presented, but also the degree of player control, the reward system and the frequency and intensity of content.”

Her comments about player control suggest the game’s incorporation of the Wii’s motion-activated remote may have been a factor. But Newsweek’s N’Gai Croal says the determiner “might have been the concept, that sort of spare, unsettling style. …Manhunt had a certain level of ‘disturb-ness.’ I compare it to French films like I Stand Alone or Irreversible.”

Two years ago, another game from Manhunt 2 developer Rockstar Games and publisher Take-Two, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, was found to have a hidden game with a simulated sexual encounter. Take-Two was forced to re-label the game AO and reissue a Mature version with the content removed. The only other title for game systems to get an AO rating since the ratings board was established in 1994 was Thrill Kill, originally planned for the PlayStation but canceled in 1998.

The GTA: San Andreas incident “put the ESRB through the wringer, and here comes Take-Two with a game featuring mutilation,” McCauley says. “I think the ESRB realized it needed to draw a line in the sand. … Publishing a game with this level of up-close-and-personal violence surely does hurt the image of the industry. You can see political support for the industry eroding here and in Europe.”

Some analysts say the publicity will contribute to Manhunt 2’s eventual success. But “I tend to believe it hurts,” says Michael Pachter of Wedbush Morgan Securities. Reworking the game will cost about $1 million, he says; the delay could cut into the estimated $40 million in sales.