Curiously, I think I was more elated than disappointed when I heard of Manhunt 2's UK ban (and latterly it's as-good-as-banned AO rating in the US).
It was not a knee-jerk reaction to a recent news story. It was not because of real world environments within the game (see Sony's Resistance woes). The game was not guilty of offending ethnic minorities. The BBFC statement did not even mention a concern over copycat killings (although "unjustifiable harm risks" sounds disconcertingly ambiguous).
No, it seems like this videogame has been banned on its own merit, so-to-speak. Rockstar set out to make a provocative and unsettling psychological drama, and have succeeded in the eyes of the world's media and key regulatory boards.
An odd compliment? Not really. I think many of those who played and appreciated the original Manhunt might also have felt a little pang of excitement to see the disturbing power of its vision recognized. For me it is another sign of how far games have come. Though certainly gruesome, Manhunt was not a game of shock and bad taste for its own sake. The real impact of that game came from the "unremitting bleakness" of its snuff movie setting, and the way it questioned the gamer's pleasure and voyeurism in a game about "stalking and brutal slaying".
Those quotations actually come from the BBFC's Manhunt 2 statement, and indeed they themselves admit that the second game does not push the envelope too far beyond what we were playing 3 and a half years ago. Yet that in itself is a justification of the details that have been taken into account with this decision.
The key areas of contention seem to be regarding "the lack of alternative pleasures on offer" and "the different overall narrative context". The former sounds a little too much like a design criticism to me, but the latter shows evidence that the first game's satirical bent and non-interactive execution scenes were taken into account by the board, and that the sequel (which seems to have ditched these subtleties) has less contextual merit to bolster its snuff elements. It is this kind of thoughtful criticism that I think demonstrates a respect for the integrity of the medium, even if in this case it has worked against the game in question.
Interestingly, it is the Wii version that is likely to have proven most controversial, yet the classification boards have still made no allowances for the PS2 and PSP versions. Was this perhaps a political decision, to avoid controversy focusing solely on the motion-sensing element? Or is the core game genuinely deserving of such a hard line reaction in itself? (Check out the BBC video link here for a brief discussion of the Wii version.)
I should at this point state that on the evidence provided so far, I do not agree with the decision to ban the game. I have not yet played the game and as a fan of the original would very much like to.
But if censorship is to be enforced, let us take some solace in the fact that videogames are to be evaluated on their own terms. I think that to compare the Manhunt games to similarly extreme films, as many upset gamers are quick to do, is to do the medium a disservice, and to underestimate the role and the value of interactivity in such games. You wouldn't expect any film board to pass an unflinchingly accurate movie adaptation of the novel American Psycho, and I think that marking games out as a unique medium in the same way is sensible (although it may not always work in our favor as gamers).
I hope that the considered approach the regulatory boards have taken towards Manhunt 2 will live on in the minds of developers making similarly contentious games. Is that a vote for self-censorship? Well, I'm for anything that makes developers think more carefully about what they are putting into their games and why. But more likely, if platform-holders refuse to license AO-rated games and major retailers refuse to stock them, then this latest example (like the absurd 'Hot Coffee' fiasco) is only going to scare developers from entering controversial territory in the first place.
Still, if we consider that the last game the BBFC banned was the risible Carmageddon (10 years ago), I for one think Manhunt 2 shows that both the medium and the game censors have matured considerably. And even if the game is never to be released, perhaps through the reaction to it we can glimpse something of what Rockstar are trying to achieve with the series: thought-provoking and uncompromising gaming from creatives who will accept intellectual responsibility for their output.