What’s a Little Castration with Pliers Among Friends?
Friday, June 22, 2007
Video Game maker Rockstar’s newest gorefest, Manhunt 2 , got the axe this week by the British Board of Film Classification. The ban prohibits the game’s sale in the U.K. America’s Entertainment Software Rating Board followed suit, classifying the game Adults Only - a rating big boxes like Best Buy, Walmart, and Target refuse to stock. While Rockstar is no stranger to controversy (the Grand Theft Auto oeuvre is a perennial cause célèbre for parent and religious groups), they certainly weren’t expecting this level of backlash, and they’re racing to save what was sure to be a blockbuster. Is the content of this game really so much worse than past offerings?
For certain, excessive violence and disturbing subject matter are par for the course in shoot’em up video games and slasher flicks. So why is Manhunt 2 taking it in the pants, while 28 Weeks Later , a film in which a Rage-infected husband forces his thumbs into the eyes of his fully-restrained wife, gets critical acclaim at the box office? If psychologist-enhanced splatter films like Saw and Hostel are okay, why ban Manhunt? The gruesome acts the game encourages players to commit: sawing people’s skulls to pieces, decapitating and dismembering innocents with various found tools and makeshift weapons, castrating with pliers, and my favorite, removing a spine with an angle grinder , are nothing new. The real devil in the details is that players using the Wii console can carry out these acts in ways never before possible on past gaming systems.
For the uninitiated, the Wii uses innovative controllers that sense and translate player movement into gameplay. So, for instance, in a tennis game, the player would grip the controller and swing it like a tennis racket . This movement is mirrored on screen: soft swings as lobs or drop shots, hard swings as powerful topspin shots. Super-cool for tennis, right? But what happens when the gamer must smash in someone’s skull with a brick, or slice through a carotid artery with a rusty straight razor? The chilling effect: the player physically acts out the brutal murders and molestations in their living rooms. They feel the rush of adrenaline as they furiously stab a hypodermic into their victim’s chest, or, with a sawing motion, slice through vertebrae during a gruesome decapitation. Will Freeman at Pro-G admits in his review of the game that this first person carnage is “worryingly satisfying.”
Now let’s assume that, despite the obvious failings of R or NC-17 film ratings, the Adults Only game rating will successfully block youth markets from the game. Is there a “suitable” age for Manhunt 2? Do we want millions of American twenty-somethings using their Wiis to disembowel people as a harmless release after a long day’s work?
I confess, my jury’s still out on this one. Rockstar calls the game art, and as an English teacher, my censorship reflex is acute. If dipping a crucifix in urine is art , why not this game? But something just isn’t sitting well for me. A friend of mine theorizes that the uptick in gore in popular culture is a result of America’s attempt to identify the new limits of shock and horror after the Trade Center attacks. Are these games and films a visceral recalibration, or a dark reflection of something much more troubling? In the novel American Psycho , Ellis’ protagonist turns to serial murder as a rejection of (and escape from) the numbing effect of 80s materialism. Does the popularity of these games and films indicate our culture’s need to feel something, if only nausea and terror – the cinematic equivalent to teen cutting? Is the ritualized sadism in these games an easy way for us to feel powerful in a world that frequently strips us of our humanity? I don’t believe these games and films cause psychopathy, but just as the Internet gives pedophiles an easier way to indulge (and embolden) their perversion, might also these offerings encourage an already sick population within the gaming community?
If you ask me, the BBFC and ESRB may have gotten this one right.