Late last year, publisher Rockstar released a PS2 (and latterly Xbox) title by the name of Manhunt. Developed by the Scottish studio responsible for Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar North, the title was cheerfully promoted as being the most gory and morally challenging game ever. It rewarded players for killing enemies in the most sadistic ways possible, and provided a host of different (and increasingly unpleasant) ways to dispatch opponents for the in-game camera. It was, in short, calculated to shock.
Three months later, in a deserted park in the British city of Leicester, a seventeen-year-old boy repeatedly battered a 14-year-old friend with a claw hammer and then stabbed him with a knife. The vicious and brutal assault left the other boy dead; his assailant faces life in prison. The killer, say the victim's parents, was "obsessed" with Manhunt, a copy of which was found in his bedroom.
It's an open and shut case, according to the British tabloid press. "Death by PlayStation" howled the front page of the extremist right-wing tabloid the Daily Mail on Thursday, followed by "Ban These Evil Games" on Friday, and the story has made its way to TV news shows and many other newspapers, fuelled not least by the lack of any real news to report since Parliament is in summer recess at the moment - a time of year traditionally known as "silly season" for the daft reporting which it encourages.
British publisher trade body ELSPA, unsurprisingly, rejects the allegation that the game played a role in causing the murder. For a start, it points out, the game was rated 18 by the British Board of Film Classification, and shouldn't have been in the hands of a minor in the first place; and besides, no evidence actually exists to link playing games with violent behaviour.
The experts have all been rolled out - be they genuine or self-styled. ELSPA's Roger Bennett has done an excellent job of defending the industry's stance on national radio and TV, while American ambulance-chaser Jack Thompson was, as ever, on hand to tell the press how the evil of games is turning children into killers "almost on a daily basis." Plenty of eminent psychologists and researchers have been drafted in to explain that yes, their studies found no links between violent games and violent behaviour except among children under eight. More research is needed, of course, but for now, games seem to be innocent until proven guilty.
Certainly, away from the shrill pronouncements of the tabloids, there seems to be little evidence to support the claim that this murder had anything to do with games. The killer, according to the prosecution, planned to mug his younger friend in order to repay a drugs-related debt - although obviously it's less fun for the tabloid media to accuse drugs of being the cause of the murder, since they're already banned.
However, while the games industry certainly has grounds to defend itself in this particular instance, there's a much wider question to be answered about the morality of games such as Manhunt. The tragic curtailment of Stefan Pakeerah's life may not have been anything to do with Rockstar's sick little shocker of a game, but in a wider context, it needs to be asked if it's healthy for anyone - be they under 18 or otherwise - to play this type of game.
Grand Theft Auto is the gaming equivalent of a crime movie; it's violent and explicit, but that violence exists in the context of genuinely good storytelling and gameplay. Manhunt, however, is more like a snuff movie. It's a title which delights in its own violence, which encourages players to commit more and more unpleasant murders, and which focuses its entire gameplay on causing pain and killing in-game characters - and in a gritty, realistic setting no less.
As understandable as the grief and anger of the Pakeerah family is, their son would not be alive today if Manhunt had been banned. But Rockstar do not emerge from this affair smelling of roses, and the games industry needs to mature past the knee-jerk reaction of defending all of its titles. The oft-repeated spectacle of the industry being hauled over the coals for the alleged influence of its products on impressionable minds isn't going to go away any time soon; but game makers could help the case a lot by trying to push the boundaries in terms of gameplay, rather than gore.
Rob Fahey is GamesIndustry.biz' editor, and can be reached at [email@example.com].
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