IFCO bans Manhunt II

IFCO logo, via the IFCO siteFollowing on from my recent posts (here and here) about the role of the Irish Film Censor’s Office (IFCO), last week brought news that the Censor, John Kelleher, had exercised his powers for the first time to ban a computer game on grounds of violence. The Video Recordings Acts, 1989 and 1992 extend the powers in the Censorship of Films Acts, 1923-1992 to cover videos (all of the relevant legislation is collected here). In particular, the Video Recordings Act, 1989 (also here) gives the Censor the power to certify and/or ban “video recordings”. Marie McGonagle discusses the system here (pdf; see pp 23-30; hat tip: TJ McIntyre). Although the definition of “video recording” in section 1 of the 1989 Act is sufficiently wide to cover games, they are (by another definition in the same section) exempted from that definition unless they are “unfit for viewing” (as defined in section 3); and if they are so unfit, then the Censor may ban them under Section 7(1)(b) of the Act, which provides:

If the Official Censor, having examined a video recording containing a video work … is of opinion that the work is unfit for viewing because …

(b) it depicts acts of gross violence or cruelty (including mutilation and torture) towards humans or animals,

he may make an order … prohibiting the supply of video recordings containing the work.

Last week (hat tip: TJ McIntyre, with interesting links), this power was exercised for the first time: ‘Gratuitously violent’ video game is first to be banned (Irish Times; sub req’d); Censor bans video game for first time (RTÉ.ie); Manhunt II first game to be banned in Ireland (Silicon Republic); Ireland bans video game ‘Manhunt 2’ citing ‘gross, unrelenting and gratuitous violence’ (Findlaw; hat tip: Media Law Prof Blog). The game in question is Manhunt II (Take2 Interactive | Rockstar Games | wikipedia). The official notice of this action has now been gazetted in Iris Oifigiúil (the official, twice-weekly, Irish State gazette):

Video Recordings Act, 1989

PROHIBITION ORDER No. 5/2007

I, John Kelleher, Official Censor of Films, have, in accordance with Section 7 of the Video Recordings Act, 1989, examined a video game containing the video work described in the Schedule hereto and am of opinion that the said work is unfit for viewing because—

it depicts acts of gross violence or cruelty (including mutilation and torture) towards humans or animals,

And in the exercise of the powers conferred on me by the said Section 7 hereby prohibit the supply of video game containing the said video work.

SCHEDULE

Title of Video Work: MANHUNT 2
Running Time: Mins Secs N/A

Production Company: TAKE 2 INTERACTIVE SOFTWARE LTD.

Signature: John Kelleher
Official Censor of Films

Date: 18th day of June, 2007.

(2007) 50 Iris Oifigiúil 636 (22 June 2007) (pdf)

BBFC RThe BBFC‘s recently-published Video Games Report (pdf), sought to understand what players enjoy about video games, and to explain their preferences for particular games; and it paid particular attention to the game’s predecessor, the controversial Manhunt (wikipedia). But whilst that wasn’t banned in the UK or Ireland (though it was in Australia), the press release on ’s site explains that, while “in certain films, DVDs and video games, strong graphic violence may be a justifiable element within the overall context of the work”, nevertheless, “in the case of Manhunt 2, believes that there is no such context, and the level of gross, unrelenting and gratuitous violence is unacceptable”. On radio last week, John Kelleher agreed with the interviewer that the game was “violence for the sake of violence”. Nor is IFCO the only such office to ban the game. The UK’s equivalent, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), has effectively done so too (here and here; see OUT-Law and The Register). There are similar moves in Italy. Moreover, The Register reports that is has been rated AO [Adults Only] in the US by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). As a consequence, it also reports that

Both Sony and Nintendo have confirmed that they will not authorise the release of controversial video game Manhunt 2 on their games consoles – the PS2, PSP and the Wii – in the US.

On the other hand, the BBC has reported that the game’s makers have defended it – rather predictably – as a “fine piece of art” which “brings a unique, formerly unheard of cinematic quality to interactive entertainment”. And many gamer/bloggers agree; eg: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here (the inevitable title: Won’t somebody please think of the children?), and here; the last one begins:

Censorship In The Digital Age: Ireland Proves It’s Useless

The bad news? The Nanny State is still on the march. The good news? The marchers have adorable Irish accents! …

I have mixed feelings about all of this. On the one hand, I don’t like censorship. On the other hand, John Kelleher presents a very strong argument about the unrelenting violence of the game. On the third hand, this type of ban smacks of the worst kinds of paternalism, and the kinds of reasons he advances are the kind about which people should be able to make up their own minds. On the fourth hand, unrelenting violence seems indefensible; and if we regulate or ban movies for this reason, why should we not do the same with games? On fifth hand, what if it’s art? it’s certainly expression. On the sixth hand, if it is expression, it’s very low value speech. On the seventh hand, even if it seems to be of low value, it may well have a political message about the violence of modern society. On the eighth hand, … Aargh. It seems I’m well on my way to becoming an octopus, and my head hurts. The issues are complex, but my head might hurt a little less if the statutory regime were less opaque. I suppose, in the end, if and for so long as there is a statutory regime regulating – and, in extreme cases, banning – games, then actual bans such as this one (even if few and far between) are inevitable, and the best that we can hope for is that the decision is taken in good faith, for compelling reasons, as this one was.

Update (23 July 2007): There was an interesting special report on the UK’s ban by Bulent Yusuf in the Digital Culture section of The Observer on 8 July, which I couldn’t on that paper’s website at the time, but which I have since found on the author’s wesbite: Axed: Manhunt 2. It’s well worth a read; here’s a flavour:

There’s no refuting that MANHUNT 2 is brutal and bloody in the extreme. … But viewed objectively, the game clearly belongs to the tradition of Grand Guignol. It is aimed squarely at an adult audience who appreciates this kind of horror, and within those terms it does not merit condemnation. … The whole incident sets a dangerous precedent in the regulation of videogames, leading down a road that can only end in censorship. And the biggest loser here is you, the humble gamer.

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