Given the notoriety of Rockstar's other, more infamous franchises, it was no surprise that the videogame Bully should have aroused public unease in the period before its publication in 2008.
Initially a PlayStation 2 title, the game's reputed content did nothing to assuage the unease generated by the inflammatory title. Whereas the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) franchise featured 'over the top' style characters and was, essentially, a hyper-real version of cops and robbers, this new game was reputed to give the player the chance to play as a schoolboy and bully other students. At a time where anti-social behaviour in schools had become a hot topic, the game was therefore controversial. Some commentators complained - without apparently seeing the game - that it was a "bullying simulator" and would lead students to copy its aberrant hero.
Using a similar engine to the GTA and Manhunt games, the player takes the part of Jimmy Hopkins, a student at the fictional Bullworth Academy. The unruly fifteen year old has been expelled from one school after another and so, fed up, his parents decide to dump him in the toughest school of them all. The school motto is 'canis canem edit' - 'dog eat dog' in English - and pretty soon Jimmy realises that's the way things are at Bullworth, with bullies ruling the school hallways and predatory teachers in the classrooms.
The game was classified by a team of two examiners, although given its nature it was seen by several other members of staff at the Board, including the Director. It was immediately apparent that the content was nowhere near as strong as in the GTA series or Manhunt (all passed at 18) and that the concerns that had been aired in the press were misplaced. Whilst it was fair to say that the game's values were somewhat confused, and while it was possible to partake in anti-social, destructive behaviour, it was not a celebration of bullying at all - indeed, Jimmy fights against the bullies.
But it wasn't completely straightforward: whilst Jimmy does stick up for some of the persecuted kids in the school, he also uses violence to deal with his problems. Just like GTA, the frequency of the violence is dependant on how the player chooses to play the game. If they want to be violent, the opportunity is there to do that.
For example, immediately after the opening scene, Jimmy is taunted by school bullies; he can retaliate by getting involved in a fight or he can ignore them and go to the Principal's office. However, being violent also has its consequences: if the player starts a fight, a meter builds up in the corner of the screen and, if it builds up too far, the school prefects immediately appear to take Jimmy away. Whilst they can sometimes be dodged and escaped from, it is extremely difficult to do - this mechanic serves as a strong in-game deterrent against being too violent because it makes progress through the game much harder.
It is worth noting that there is never any blood visible during any of the fights - the actual process detail is milder than that in GTA or Manhunt where the player can use weapons on non-player characters and can elicit large splashes of blood. Weapons here are limited to the kind of implements that one might expect in a St Trinians film: catapults, stink bombs, potato guns, etc.
Concern was expressed about the use of certain of the weapons, notably a firework gun, firecrackers and cans of spray paint. After consideration, it was felt that neither the idea of throwing fireworks at somebody, nor the idea of spraying a person in the face with an aerosol, were particularly novel or likely to be unknown to persons of 15-17 years of age. Throwing firecrackers is hardly an original idea (people far below 15 often hear about this - and worse - on the news) and the Board was not convinced that this would be damaging to 15-17 year old gamers.
The BBFC acknowledged the concern about such portrayals of violence engendering anti-social attitudes, particularly towards children and their teachers, and its obligations under the ‘harm’ test imposed by the Video Recordings Act whereby it must pay special regard to the effects of works that may cause ‘harm to society through the behaviour of those who are exposed to them’.
The BBFC did not feel that the depictions of violence in this game would have a significant effect on attitudes in the real world. After debate, it was felt that the game would look out of place with some of the violent and bloody titles that had recently been passed at 18, and so it was passed at 15. BBFCinsight was added which warned prospective purchasers that the game included 'strong violence and imitable behaviour'.
The game's title was changed from Bully to Canis Canem Edit in the United Kingdom, although an update - Bully: Scholarship Edition - was subsequently released.