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Video Games as Art?

by June 22, 2007


The eye of the beholder indeed. Rockstar Games recent non-release Manhunt 2 is being touted as "art" by Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. Chairman Strauss Zelnick according to an article by Reuters. Manhunt 2 is apparently so violent and bloody that it has been banned in both Britain and Ireland. But is that why it was really banned? Let's look at the history:

The original Manhunt was released to a storm of controversy over the level of violence, the brutality of the killings, and the lack of a real "hero". The game was pulled from stands by a number of vender's shelves after the linking (by the media mind you, not the police) of the game to the murder of 14 year old Stefan Pakeerah by his friend Warren Leblanc, 17 (read more here). The victim's mother claimed the perpetrator was "obsessed" with the game. So, what happened after they pulled the game? Increased demand. Even before this incident the game was banned in New Zealand. So now we have a new version coming out and England and Ireland are already banning it (before release). Retribution? Preemptive banning?

So we really have two issues here, don't we? To ban or not to ban and is a game art. Obviously the second is a way of getting around the first but lets deal with the banning issue first. If I were Rockstar Games, I'd pray for bans. Instant press. Of course getting banned by a government is a bit more detrimental than getting banned by a vender (where people can still get the game). Regardless, the amount of press (including this article) that will be devoted to the game would cost millions if not BILLIONS in advertising dollars. The number of people that hear the name of your game will increase exponentially. And there are plenty of people out there that hear the words "bloody" "violent" and "ban" and will immediately buy/rent your game.

This reminds me of the "Bully" game that came out recently. Tons of press all because you played a "bully"… but guess what? You really didn't. The character can defend others from bullies as well as be a bully himself and picking on girls or smaller children was a no-no in the game. Of course, all the "controversy" came before anyone actually saw the game. Fortunately, Bully was actually a pretty good game but I can guarantee that it would have sold well anyhow. All the talk and gnashing of teeth is the type of stuff that gamers live for.

And therein lies the rub. If you "ban" or make a big deal about a game that you don't like, you practically guarantee the success of that game. Does that mean that no game, not matter how graphic, violent, or vile should ever be banned? Yes. That's what I'm saying. Let them come out. Give them a XXX rating. Make sure that parents (like Dina over at AVRant who diligently monitors her kids game ratings) don't just buy a game called "Bloody, Sticky, Naked Death" and have the excuse, "What, that was rated Mature?!? How was I supposed to know that?" Personal responsibility is one thing, and if you don't have it, it is your loss. But it is literally a kid's job to push the boundaries. If you can't be bothered to look at the rating on the video game that YOU are buying, then don't cry to me that your delinquent was "corrupted" by the mean ol' video game.

The argument of "games as art" is quite a hard pill for many to swallow. Are there artistic elements in games? Sure. I don't see how you can debate that. Plenty of opportunities for good writing good art and good music. Beyond that, one could argue that the skill that it takes to program some of these games requires an "artistic" touch. We all have expertise in "non-artistic" realms and have seen something that was so well done you just wish you could frame it. Maybe it was a well constructed email or a mathematical formula or the skillful way someone diffused a volatile situation… all these things and more take skill that can be perfected and elevated to the level of "art" by those familiar with the skill set.

But video games as art isn't really what is at the heart of this matter is it? No, the whole "art" subject got brought up simply because Manhunt 2 doesn't want to get banned in two large markets. One can't ban art without stirring up the ire of all sorts people. Even a whole government can come under fire for banning art. But nobody cares if you ban a game. You're looking out for the kids if you ban a game.

No one that I know of outside of the ratings boards has seen Manhunt 2. To say that any game is "art" may be a stretch for some but I think we can all agree that a game that no one has ever played surely can't be considered art. Take-Two Interactive has said that they'll stand by the game and bring it to market no matter what. I think what is more concerning to them than the ban is the AO (Adults Only) rating. The AO rating means that a) the game should only be sold to people 17 years old and up and b) retailers like Best Buy, Target, and Wal-Mart won't stock the game. Sure, in theory people can go to specialty stores and pick up a copy but with so many people buying at the big box stores, sales are sure to be affected. But they'll be much less affected now that gamers know that there is a ban in place. Anything violent enough to be kicked out of England (have you SEEN the footage of some of their soccer matches?) MUST be worth a look. Oh, and don't forget that Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft all forbid licensed third-party games with AO ratings according to Gamespot. Can you say dead in the water? I can.

No, the only way to really do something about games you don't like isn't to ban them, to lament the decline of western civilization, or to boycott them; it is to let them come out quietly. Let them hit the shelves with only the advertising that they paid for. Let them display proudly the AO rating in the specialty shops as Mature and lower rated titles get scooped up by the dozen at the big box stores. Do you really think that Rockstar or Take-Two would have delayed the launch of the game if it were only facing bans? No way. It's the rating that's stopped them dead in their tracks. Now they've got to figure out if they are going to contest the ruling, modify the game or just throw it out. There really aren't any other options at this point for them. Personally, I think it is complete BS that the consoles won't allow licensed AO games but that is fodder for a different editorial.

Of course, no one wants to see kids affected by games or act them out like Warren Leblanc may have done. It is a huge step from pressing a button on a controller and luring someone out in the woods to be murdered. If games are so influential, I probably need to worry about Gene pistol-whipping me to death like he did 15 times last night on Halo 2. People who kill people are going to kill people. If it wasn't a game that they aped, it'd be something else. If you really want to hurt these games, do it through the ratings and not bans. All bans do is draw attention. And as anyone that has ever spent 2 hours doing 25 mph on the highway in rush hour just because people slowed down to look at an accident knows, people love to look.


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As Associate Editor at Audioholics, Tom promises to the best of his ability to give each review the same amount of attention, consideration, and thoughtfulness as possible and keep his writings free from undue bias and preconceptions. Any indication, either internally or from another, that bias has entered into his review will be immediately investigated. Substantiation of mistakes or bias will be immediately corrected regardless of personal stake, feelings, or ego.

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Recent Forum Posts:

Reorx posts on June 24, 2007 04:26
This mess is stirring up alot of emotion for people.
For the most part I agree with what's been said.

I see it like this. There are plenty of gore / gruesome movies out there…that get rated ‘R’. Saw 1-3, Hostel, a couple of the hannabil, and Seven, to name a few. There is also plenty of violence and torture, implied, and actual on TV, movies, books, cartoons, music….AND in real life.

So, my question is:
What is the true reason the ESRB is making this game AO?

Is it because they are still pissed at rockstar for manhunt 1, and GTA San Andrea's?

It kinda seems like since most parents don't actually parent their kids when it comes to video games, the ESRB is trying to.

I hope Rockstar releases both versions of their game…so I can by the uncensored one…hmm…maybe I'll let my 3yr old sit in my lap and watch while I play it.
avaserfi posts on June 24, 2007 01:12
davo, post: 278354
It's a sticky subject, to be sure. Where does community responsibility stop and infringement of personal rights begin? Every person on the planet has differing views on the subject.

But if Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft don't want AO rated games on THEIR console's, they have THEIR right to that.

When you make your own console, you can have whatever games you want for it. It's that simple.

Maybe Rockstar should look into it?

No mainstream console will have A/O games its a rule that has been put forth and fortified by the fact that almost no retailer will sell games.

Rockstar should not make consoles. Software companies should steer clear of designing and making complex hardware, yes I am talking about Microsoft and the 360.
davo posts on June 23, 2007 22:06
It's a sticky subject, to be sure. Where does community responsibility stop and infringement of personal rights begin? Every person on the planet has differing views on the subject.

But if Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft don't want AO rated games on THEIR console's, they have THEIR right to that.

When you make your own console, you can have whatever games you want for it. It's that simple.

Maybe Rockstar should look into it?
terror_beast posts on June 23, 2007 21:40
The problem here is most definitely the perception that videogames are for “kids” and that “kids” are the target audience for ALL videogames. This was probably quite true - back in 1985 - but everyone who was playing back then is now at least 25; and that's assuming there were 3 year olds playing back then! Point being, there are a LOT of gamers well over the age of 18 now - in fact, we're the bulk of the market!

As was already pointed out, when it comes to other forms of entertainment, there's a clear understanding that not all content is suitable for all ages. Movies & television in particular - so why not games?

What disturbs me the most is that governments and the console makers: Nintendo, Sony & Microsoft are effectively saying that they have no faith in the ratings system.

We have an AO rating, but using it is the same as a ban because the console makers won't allow it to be released with that rating! So I ask, what's the point of the rating in the first place?!

I actually agree with there being an AO rating. To me it makes perfect sense. In movies, we have R, NC-17 and X and XXX - all of them indicate that the movie is NOT meant for children, but there are differences between them - which is why they all exist!

The same is true of the M rating in videogames versus the AO rating.

Here's how it SHOULD work in my opinion:

The M rating should be very much like an R rating for a movie. It indicates that the game is intended for adults - that it is not suitable for children, but if a parent decides to buy the game for their child, there is no restriction on that. This is just like how if a parent wants to take their child to an R rated movie, that is ok. The M or R is a warning and anyone under age cannot buy the game or movie ticket for themself, but a parent is allowed to buy it for them.

The AO rating should be much like a NC-17 or even a XXX movie rating. The difference here is that a parent cannot buy this material for their child. Just like how a parent cannot bring a child into the theater for a NC-17 or XXX movie. No one under age is allowed - even if a parent says they think it's ok.

Since games are not viewed in a theater, the AO rating makes more sense if it is applied like the XXX rating when it comes to retail. What I mean specifically is that a retailer is obliged to refuse the sale of XXX content if they think it is being purchased for someone else. With an AO rated game, the retailer should be obliged to refuse the sale if they suspect it is a parent buying the game for their child - and with games, it's usually pretty easy to tell!

I say, the AO rating exists - so why not use it?! Why make it one-in-the-same as a ban? This effectively says the rating is pointless!

The fault here lies with Nintendo, Sony & Microsoft, not with the AO rating itself or the ESRB. I personally believe there is nothing wrong at all with having an AO rating - in fact, I think it makes perfect sense! I also have no problem at all with the ESRB issuing such a rating. Again it makes perfect sense, just like rating movies XXX.

I can play a XXX rated DVD on my Playstation or Xbox. So why then can I NOT play a AO rated game?!

The policies of Nintendo, Sony & Microsoft in this matter are the real issue here. The AO rating makes perfect sense to me - in fact I like the idea! I also have no issue with giving Manhunt 2 an AO rating - it very likely deserves it - and I've no problem with that! What I think is WRONG is that I cannot play it!

This is a slippery slope because of where it can lead. The term “art” is being used, but what is really at stake here is “freedom of expression” and that is NOT to be taken lightly! If we can effectively ban a game with an AO rating, then what about XXX movies? Are they going to be next? There are certainly some politicians and groups out there that would like to see them banned as well!

Are XXX movies “art”? That's basically the same question. What they are is a type of expression - and so are videogames.

Retailers? I think it's totally up to them. If they don't want to carry a certain product, they certainly don't have to. Best Buy doesn't sell XXX movies - they don't have to sell AO rated games - that makes perfect sense to me!

But imagine if Sony decided that their DVD players won't play XXX movies, or movies rated NC-17!

So again, the problem here is Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. They control the hardware that plays the content and THEY are saying the AO rating becomes a “ban”, rather than a choice and a warning. All recent videogame systems have a parental lockout feature that can block content based on rating. This works for games and for DVDs too for the systems that can play them.

Respect the AO rating. Retailers are free to decide for themselves. Those that do chose to sell AO rated content should be under the same obligations as those that sell alcohol, cigarettes or XXX movies - AO rated games should be “controlled” content. An AO rated game should have to be kept behind the counter and not be displayed along side M and lower rated content - just like XXX movies. Sales of AO games should obviously be limited to legal adults, but should go the step further and sales should be refused if it is suspected that the game is being purchased for someone else - again, just like alcohol, cigarettes or XXX movies.

Games can absolutely be “only for adults” and they are most certainly a form of expression. The ratings system is in place. The AO rating exists. Retailers can chose not to stock an AO rated item. And any retailer who does should be restricted in their sales, just like any other “adults only” content.

But what MUST NOT be restricted, is my right as an adult to play it! This is freedom of expression. This is first amendment rights!

The fault here is with Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. Shame on them for instituting censorship and limiting freedom of choice!

abboudc posts on June 23, 2007 18:37
Video games are art. Roger Ebert doesn't think so, but anyone that's ever played a game like Ico cannot say games are not art. Like art, there's good and bad and different tastes. Heck, people have this same argument about *actual* art arguing whether it's art or not.

I don't think that's actually the point here though. Rockstar is arguing it's art to invoke first amendment protection from censorship. While i don't think it should be censored, it's a careless attitude that will have the government clamp down on games and grandstanding politicians trying to “save” your children.

The real problem is the perception that “games” means “kids”. There are all types of movies – movies for adults, movies for kids, movies for everyone. Why can't there be the same for games? Why must all games be squeaky clean family-friendly fare? Why are different standards being applied to different mediums of entertainment? As the gamer generation takes the reigns of government, i think the perception of games being “kiddy” will change. The average gamer is already over 30, and that number is increasing. I don't want a politician that's never played a game telling me what i can and can't play. Of course that won't stop people like Jack Thompson from trying.
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