Rob Lyons says the banning of a new computer game exposes the censors’ patronising view of the public, who they deem incapable of understanding the difference between fantasy and reality.
Manhunt 2 – a new video game for the Sony PlayStation 2 and Nintendo Wii consoles in which players have to escape from various scenarios, killing people as they go – was banned from sale last week by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). This is the first time in 10 years that a video game has been banned in Britain (1); it followed hot on the heels of a similar decision by Irish film censors, who described Manhunt 2 as ‘gross, unrelenting and gratuitous’ (2).
The bans seem to be driven by the media furore surrounding the murder of teenager Stefan Pakeerah in the English city of Leicester in 2004. Pakeerah’s parents and local MP Keith Vaz, amongst others, said the first Manhunt game had influenced his murderer, Warren LeBlanc (3). However, the police found no connection between the game and the crime (4).
As has been demonstrated on spiked and elsewhere (5), the supposed connection between computer games and violence is highly tendentious. And yet it is used to justify blanket censorships such as the banning of Manhunt 2. These games may produce cognitive changes – players can feel elated, frightened or a range of other emotions – but there is no evidence to suggest they produce behavioural changes. That is primarily because our actions occur in a social context that is absent in the narrow confines of the game environment. Or, to put it another way, if video games such as Manhunt 2 lead to violence, how do we explain the fact that the vast majority of players do not go out and murder people after playing for a couple of hours? Real life forces us to weigh our actions against our own morals, our empathy for other people and even the possibility of getting caught. These are all consequences that we do not face when playing a game – and the vast majority of people are well aware of that.
So what is behind the ban? The BBFC is clearly afraid of negative headlines; being accused of allowing an allegedly murderous game into the hands of the public is not good publicity for the classification board. Yet when it comes down to it, it seems that the real driver of the ban is the BBFC’s deep distrust of the British public. While the censors themselves can apparently play through the game uncorrupted, the rest of us can’t cope with its ‘sadistic, brutal and bleak’ nature. The BBFC seems to view the public as a bunch of automatons who will blindly copy the actions they have learned while playing the game. And if there is no evidence that people spontaneously become sadists, no evidence to back up ‘effects theory’ claims about violent games causing real violence, so what? The prejudices of the BBFC trump the facts.
Discussing the game on BBC TV’s Breakfast programme, Michele Elliott of the child protection charity Kidscape told viewers she supported the ban. ‘What I’ve seen of the game’, she said, ‘includes the fact that if you want to murder somebody, you’re actually doing it [emphasis added]. Your hands are strangling the person, your hands are sawing through their heads, your hands are stabbing them with this Wii control which a lot of people have got. While I’m generally against banning anything, why on earth would we need something that gives that level of violence?’
No wonder Elliott believes people will be adversely affected by the game. After all, if she herself finds it so difficult to tell the difference between the virtual and the real, why would she expect the dysfunctional masses to be able to do so? Yet those who play computer games are perfectly capable of separating what they see on screen from what goes on in the street. Just because someone finds it amusing to saw off a character’s head in Manhunt 2, that doesn’t mean they’ll want to try it for real any more than pretending you’re David Beckham in a football game will convince you that you can bend in free kicks from 30 yards (or, for that matter, that you’ve got an unnaturally skinny wife and you’re mates with Tom Cruise).
Critics of violent video games often argue that even if most people can handle them, there are a few vulnerable individuals who can’t; they point to the fact that, even if you and I can play Manhunt 2 quite harmlessly, some mentally unstable individual might get hold of the game and then go out on a killing spree as a result. But even if someone who has played a violent video game later commits a murder, it is surely the psychosis, not the video game, that is to blame. A disturbed individual may pick up on anything as a basis for irrational and dangerous behaviour. If you followed this logic through, all sorts of things would need to be prohibited and censored because they might become the focus of some kind of dangerous obsession. When Mark Chapman shot John Lennon, was this grounds to ban Imagine – just in case it might set someone else off?
There is no justification for banning games like Manhunt 2. Nor is there any justification for having a body that has the power to do so. Indeed, the fact that this is only the second time that such a ban has been implemented by the BBFC in relation to a game is indicative of the BBFC’s own sense of disorientation. Once upon a time, censors would have felt that there was a ‘moral majority’ on their side whenever it came to banning anything deemed excessively sexual or violent (or politically edgy, for that matter). In more relativistic times like today, where one man’s grossly offensive video game is another man’s multimedia entertainment extravaganza, just sticking a description of the contents on the box should surely be enough information to let people make their own minds up. This latest decision smacks of a body trying to justify its existence.
In that respect, the discussion about the ban illustrates another trend: increasingly unable to justify media bans as a means of controlling or protecting adults, organisations like the BBFC tell us that it is all about safeguarding children. The suggestion is that feckless parents who do not control their kids will allow them to play violent video games, and the result will be the warping of tender young minds. Such an argument is pure manipulation. Children will get equally engaged, and terrified, by regular television programmes like Doctor Who, yet it would be regarded as bizarre to ban such TV fare. As it happens, even quite young children are capable of understanding the difference between reality and fantasy. Under the guise of ‘protecting the children’, censors are hectoring adults.
The belief that we are all morons who need to be protected from ourselves has spread well beyond the traditional censors. Last week, a ban was also implemented on a series of TV adverts for eggs, originally transmitted in the 1950s. Starring British comedian Tony Hancock, the ads and their accompanying slogan, ‘Go to work on an egg’, are widely regarded as landmarks in advertising history (and they’re pretty funny, too). But they were pulled because the broadcast regulator felt that they suggested we should eat eggs every day – and that wouldn’t be good for us. Like looking after the children, protecting health has also become a catch-all excuse to stop us from doing things deemed dangerous or immoral.
The issue of censorship – whether it targets video games or adverts for eggs – ultimately comes down to this question: who should control our lives? Instead of letting a bunch of unelected regulators determine what we can see, hear, play or eat, we should start to trust ourselves on such matters.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
(1) Sadistic, brutal and bleak: censors ban Manhunt 2 game, Guardian, 19 June 2007
(2) IFCO ruling on Manhunt 2, 18 June 2007
(3) Game blamed for Hammer murder, BBC News, 29 July 2004
(4) Police reject game link to murder, BBC News, 5 August 2004
(5) Do video games train for violence? by Stuart Derbyshire
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