The video game The Punisher; was submitted to the BBFC in December 2004. The game had already caused some controversy in the USA, where the original version was given an A.O. rating by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). The A.O. (Adults Only) is a severe restriction on the marketing of games in the US as many major retailers refuse to stock A.O. rated games.

The game was then modified by the publisher and received a commercially viable M (Mature) rating from the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board). The modified version was then submitted to the BBFC.

The game is based on a Marvel comic anti-hero, Frank Castle. It is presented in third person perspective, with the player taking control of Castle as he avenges his family’s death by rooting out and killing members of New York’s underworld. A feature of the game is its interrogation sequences, in which Castle presses victims for information. The player is encouraged to threaten the victim with a weapon or by beating him long enough for him to talk. The player can then choose to kill the victim or let him go. Certain victims are available for ‘Special Interrogations’ in which implements such as drills, angle grinders and wood shredders can be used to both torture and kill the victims.

Following the ESRB modifications, the version submitted to the BBFC included a distancing of the camera during interrogations and a ‘solarising’ effect on the screen during the strong, post interrogation killings, which obscures some of the detail.

Examiners established at an early stage that the game went beyond BBFC Guidelines for works at 15, in that it did ‘dwell on the infliction of pain and injury’. The next question to be answered was whether the game required intervention at the adult category.

At 18, the BBFC’s published Guidelines state that ‘…concerns will not normally override the wish that adults should be free to choose their own entertainment, within the law’. Exceptions to this principle however, include ‘Where material appears to the Board to risk harm to individuals or through their behaviour to society – eg any detailed portrayal of violent or dangerous acts…’.

Examiners highlighted the interrogations as the principle area of concern; in the words of one ‘… is repeated exposure to this [the interrogations] likely to coarsen our attitude to this sort of act, or indeed, prime the aggressive pump to the point at which we want to go out an emulate these techniques?’. It was noted that this is a perennial problem for the BBFC and not a question that could be answered definitively.

The game was viewed by the BBFC’s Director and Presidents and consideration was given to rejecting the title on the grounds of potential harm. Comparisons were made with other similar video games such as Manhunt.

The BBFC then worked with the publishers to extend the solarisation effect that masked some of the detail in interrogation sequences. The modified game was passed 18 in early 2005.

Uniquely, the publisher was asked to include a warning at the outset of the game, reinforcing the 18 certificate and reminding players that the game is not suitable for those under that age.