Rockstar’s Manhunt was released on the Playstation 2 console format in November 2003. It was later passed for both Xbox and PC in 2004. It has been the focus of much controversial reporting in the National Press and other media since it was discussed and linked to a British murder case in 2004.
The game is TPP (third person prospective) and tracks a convicted man hunted by vicious street gangs and forced to go on a killing and fighting spree.
When evaluating the game, BBFC examiners took into account several factors, including that it has a very well defined mission structure: any attempt to stray off the mission results in the player’s likely death, and a frustrating return to the beginning of the level. This keeps the player constantly aware that they are acting within the confines of a game, and the stop-start effect helps to distance them from the intense action on the game console.
Another important feature is that no ‘innocents’ (ie. weaker, unarmed or blameless people, such as bystanders, children etc) can be killed in Manhunt. All the characters are enemies, and there are no gratuitous, illicit pleasures to be taken from mowing down pedestrians, sniping at police from rooftops, firing an Uzi in a crowded mall, or any of the many other features possible in other 18 rated games such as Grand Theft Auto.
The player’s primary aim is survival, by whatever means possible, although survival is dependant on acts of violence and the strength of this violence was noted. Players can employ a variety of weapons, including a plastic bag for suffocating victims, glass shard, baseball bat, nail gun, revolvers, shotguns, meat cleavers and chainsaws.
The defining feature of Manhunt is conducting stealth attacks, to sneak up on enemies and eliminate them resulting in some detail of blood and gore. Such violence and the sadistic focus of it was the key classification issue and took the game to 18 under BBFC Guidelines and policy.
In 2004 the game was mentioned as a potential factor in the murder of a 14 year-old in Leicestershire. The murderer was said to be ‘obsessed’ with the game in a series of speculations as to his motives. In the resultant media coverage some papers called for the game to be banned and Dixons and Game withdrew copies from their shelves. Other retailers such as HMV reported an increase in sales.
Rockstar issued a statement which extended sympathy to the murder victim’s family but rejected any suggestion or association between the crime and the sale of the game, adding: 'There is a clear certification structure in place and Manhunt was clearly classified as 18 by the British Board of Film Classification and should not be in the possession of a juvenile. Rockstar Games is a leading publisher of interactive entertainment geared towards mature audiences and markets its games responsibly, targeting advertising and marketing only to adult consumers ages 18 and older. Rockstar Games submits every game for certification to the British Board of Film Certification and clearly marks the game with the BBFC-approved rating'.
At the beginning of August 2004, the police reported that the murder was a robbery rather than being related to the game and confirmed that a copy of the game was found in the victim’s bedroom rather than in the murderer’s possession.
The game continued to be discussed however as Leicester MP Keith Vaz also linked it to the murder asking the current Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to investigate links between violent games and violence.
The Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers' Association (ELSPA), the industry body for the video game industry, wrote an open letter to Home Secretary David Blunkett about the media coverage of the case stating that despite many research projects into the effects of screen violence 'no link with violent behaviour has been found'.
ELSPA also pointed out that violent video games were not the dominant genre in the UK, stating: 'less that 1% of computer and video games published and distributed in UK attract an 18+ BBFC Rating and that in excess of 65% of all games are suitable for all ages'.
At the time, the BBFC had obligations to determine whether a film, video or video game passes the ‘harm’ test, imposed in the Video Recordings Act, which required examiners to pay special regard to the effects of works that may cause ‘harm to society through the behaviour of those who are exposed to them’.
Much research has been done worldwide into the effects of violent video games on behaviour and attitudes of players, but none has yet proved an incontrovertible link between aggression acted out within the context of a game, and harmful behaviour in real life.
The BBFC commissioned research with game players and players’ parents. It reached several conclusions, reinforcing the fact that players are easily able to distinguish between what is a game, and what is real life violence - and keep the two entirely separate.
Key findings included the fact that video game players usually concentrate more on their own survival than on inflicting damage, and many find that TV and film violence creates a more compelling, and upsetting illusion of violence than do video games.