When the Hunter Becomes the Hunted

Gamers seem pretty divided on the topic of Manhunt 2‘s Adults Only rating from the ESRB—not to mention the outright ban in other countries, including Ireland, the UK, Australia, Italy, and probably Germany soon enough. The banning won’t be necessary if the publisher doesn’t adjust the game so it can earn an M rating: Nintendo and Sony have already announced that they will not license AO-rated games for their systems, and even if they were to allow Manhunt 2 on their consoles, most game retail chains don’t carry AO-rated games anyway (including Wal Mart, which accounts for 25% of game sales alone). In other words, assigning a game an AO rating is basically the kiss of death.

Why even bother using the rating, then? Well, for one thing, it’s a way for the game industry to draw the line somewhere that most developers aren’t likely to cross. This is basically modeled after what the film industry did when it moved away from a list of forbidden content (the Hays Code, which reads a lot like the Comics Code) to the system you see today, delineating between the industry-approved stuff and pornography (see Hollywood vs. Hardcore). That’s not to say the AO rating never gets used, however: As ESRB President Patricia Vance explains, most games that get the rating get modified to an M-rating before release without anyone ever hearing about it. The ESRB also has an appeals process for publishers who think they received a bad rating—all of which, as far as I know, goes on in private.

This raises another interesting question I haven’t seen anybody talking about: Why did Take2 announce the AO rating rather than just reworking the game and keeping the temporary rating under its hat? It’s entirely possible, of course, that the publisher decided that the offensive material was so ingrained into the game’s design that there was no way around the rating, and so the publisher felt some statement was necessary to explain an unusually long delay or imminent cancellation. The first Manhunt game only got a Mature rating, but it’s possible that the big difference in the new game has something to do with the control scheme, as Patricia Vance explains that the more lifelike control style of the Wii may also be considered in the ratings process (which I mused on here and here, and which is now being discussed by the Boston Globe). I don’t see how the controls should affect the Playstation 3 rating, however.

Is this controversy exactly what Take2 wants? My initial response to this possibility was that Take2 wouldn’t do anything that would slam their stock so hard; after all, as one analyst speculates, this will probably cost them millions of dollars in delays and damaged sales. Then again, as Kotaku’s Luke Plunkett points out in that same link:

The first part? About a reworking? Probably right on the money. The second, though, about it hurting sales? No dice. It’s hurt the game’s image amongst people who tut and frown at the thought of violent videogames. Amongst those who would consider purchasing Manhunt 2, though, it’s probably done wonders.

My guess is that Luke is right, especially considering how many people in comment threads seem to be saying they can’t wait for the game to come out now, even if they didn’t care about it before. For now, however, Manhunt 2 (which originally was to have a July release) is “temporarily suspended.”

Updates: Journalists at the New York Times and Newsweek get some hands-on time with Manhunt 2.

One thought on “When the Hunter Becomes the Hunted

  1. I’m assuming that as a public traded company they would be obligated to announce reason for any delays in the game, that said I think Take2 is developing a very specific image in terms of the adult oriented nature of the games they create and that this is exactly the kind of free press they want. If you recall with the game bully (also by Take2) they released promotional materials (that some would say very much misrepresented the nature of the game) which ganrered a good deal of controversy and an attempt to have the game blocked by Jack Thompson before anyone had even played the title. Personally I think some of their antics are real discredit to the industry, but I think as a company they are very much about defining themselves as outside of the mainstream and over the top.

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