Censorship in Games – Producers Roundtable (Part 1/2)

Censorship in games is a difficult topic. In some countries, the governments ban games. In some countries red blood must be changed to green or the game won’t be accepted to the markets. The freedom of speech, freedom for artistic expression and the need to take responsibility are to be discussed. Manhunt 2 got an “Adults Only” rating and was recently banned in some countries (although the rating was lowered after the developers made changes to the game).

Who is there to blame? Should studios be more responsible for what kind of games they do? Is it right for government ban games? What about freedom of expression? If governments can ban games, shouldn’t they also ban some movies? Are “Adults Only” ratings enough? Shouldn’t parents watch what their kids play?

Who should take responsibility in this matter?

The following producers give answers to these questions:

Harvard Bonin, Producer at Sony
Peter O’Brien, Bizarre Creations
Ben Gunstone, Production Director at Stainless Games
Frank Rogan, Producer at Gas Powered Games

This particular topic is very timely…and also very, very complicated. As the publishing producer of a notable fighting game that was cancelled years ago I believe I have unique insight. Unlike the recent Manhunt saga it was a business and ethical decision – not a governmental censorship issue.

Even with my personal experience I still can’t make up my mind on this issue. Don’t expect an answer below. I hope, however, I’ve outlined some general issues others can respond to.

Video games are typically viewed as a “kids” hobby. In reality the average age of today’s consumer hovers around 30. While once a teenager pastime it has grown into a much more mainstream activity. Years ago Mortal Kombat went through similar scrutiny but was never banned in the United States. At that time there was no ESRB that rated games and the demand was such that Mortal Kombat made it from the arcade to retail stores with substantial hype. The sales were extremely large. Mortal Kombat also brought congressional investigations from Senator Joseph Lieberman and was likely the first time the US government took notice of the content in games.

So should the government be in the business of regulating games? On the one hand the government regulates many things. Hell, the tax code is based on collecting revenue and incentivizing certain types of behavior…like encouraging people to buy a house. We are regulated everywhere we go through laws – and in many ways we welcome this intrusion to ensure our country is stable and peaceful. Would you like it if the FDA didn’t have food standards or building codes were not enforced? We trust our government to have expertise in the areas noted to create a fair, equitable and safe republic. Many video game advocates point to the always useful “free speech” argument. Specifically to the United States per Wikipedia:

First Amendment – Freedom of religion, speech, press, and peaceable assembly as well as the right to petition the government. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

As Wikipedia also explains:

Freedom of speech is the concept of being able to speak freely without censorship. It is often regarded as an integral concept in modern liberal democracies. The right to freedom of speech is guaranteed under international law through numerous human rights instruments, notably under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, although implementation remains lacking in many countries. The synonymous term freedom of expression is sometimes preferred, since the right is not confined to verbal speech but is understood to protect any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used.

There have been many, many first amendment court cases and often they revolve around the definition of obscenity. The Supreme Court has never been extremely specific on this definition.

However, there is a key difference in most of the regulatory efforts of our government. The majority of the things the US government regulates simply can’t be done by a reasonable person. I could not evaluate if my hamburger was up to health standards. I could not tell you how to earthquake proof the structure of my house. I depend on the government to do these things. I CAN however, judge if media content is suitable for someone under 18. Any reasonably informed, responsible adult can.

In reality the government isn’t the actual entity that “banned” Manhunt 2. The ESRB, in accordance with its definition simply reviewed Manhunt 2 and gave it an “AO” or adults only rating. Effectively, this removes distribution channels like Best Buy, Wal Mart, etc. Thus, there is no reasonable distribution available to justify release. While the ESRB ratings board was originally created as a response to head off governmental regulatory pressure, the government didn’t direct the ESRB to give Manhunt 2 the rating it received.
In this case it is a victim of “the times”. The media sensationalizes school shootings, child predators and MySpace. I’ve heard many doctors even refer to video games as an addiction. Last time I checked addiction was defined as:

A compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly : persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.

Video games are not addictions any more than excessive reading of books is. At any rate this view that video games disable a person’s cognitive abilities to make reasonable personal welfare choices is simply incorrect. Regardless, the media continues to push video games as a vice and the general uneducated public has bought in. Manhunt 2, while certainly a nasty gore-fest, should be comparably compared to a movie like Hostel…which never received this sort of reaction.

People also point to video games being an active rather than passive activity. The user is killing the person, not the character on screen. I also don’t buy this as all games have characters – often as developed as books or movies.

Finally, the ever present “parents should know what their kids are doing” is really the end all argument against censorship. Parents MUST be familiar with what kids are playing, drinking, smoking, speaking, etc. After all, the parents are legally responsible for their kids breaking the law or committing malicious acts. Unfortunately, many parents are not responsible and do not regulate their children’s activities. Many can’t even self regulate. So should the government step in? If a child is endangered by their family environment the government has the ability to take the child away. So what constitutes a dangerous environment? Smoking? Drinking? Games? It seems to be the whim of the generation as to what constitutes an environment not suitable for children.

There is simply no clear answer to this. The simple legal answer is to classify video games as an “art form” – thus protected by freedom of speech. The general public and media does not seem to classify them under these terms and it will likely be a long time before they do so. Rockstar knew the gamble they were taking with Manhunt 2 and the hot coffee incident probably didn’t help their image. Thus, they did not get the benefit of the doubt when Manhunt 2 came along.

And after all this, I still don’t know what I think.

Peter O’Brien:

I’m likely going to have to keep adding to this so in the endeavour that I am still contributing here are some bite size thoughts:

Who there is to blame? Should studios be more responsible for what kind of games they do?

What we are really talking about here is how sex and violence is portrayed in videogames. You could add religion to that depending on what’s going on in the world at any given time – see Resistance: Fall of Man issue.

Censorship is commonly a product of the times. Look at what was banned yesterday compared to what is considered acceptable today.

I’m no expert on the subject but violence is possibly one of the most common themes in modern entertainment.

Is it right for government ban games? What about freedom of expression? If governments can ban games, shouldn’t they also ban some movies? Are “Adults Only” ratings enough? Shouldn’t parents watch what their kids play? Who should take responsibility in this matter?

Only at the moment self regulatory bodies such as BBFC, ESRB, ELSPA fail to act on the content they review should the governments of the world act. I don’t believe there have been enough serious regulatory malpractices for the government to step in and create an act which unjustly targets our industry.

If the government must act, it must act against the media who sensationalize such issues to the point they create a ‘must have’ vacuum amongst consumers.

Game companies must recognize that they hold ‘a level’ of social responsibility. We are in an age of media war and everyone has the tools to influence the tide.

Censorship is very subjective; this is best demonstrated by cross referencing a set of family values vs. that of social values; what is acceptable can vary greatly.

Parents should be responsible. Parents and guardians should use the systems around them to instil values which support regulation if those regulations are deemed to be for the common good. I’m not whiter than white; when I was a kid I was exposed to media beyond my age but it was more common for me to be exposed to media ‘right for me’. This produced a balanced outlook.

The question of responsibility used to be simpler. However, in an age of media where messages come to us via txt, email, blog, hyperlink, web, radio, phone, TV and targeted branding there is a greater reliance on the systems around a parent, guardian or employer. The problem is, the governments seek to devolve these systems regularly, thus making the challenge increasingly difficult. In an age where a government body deems it inappropriate for teachers to mark in red, because red is a ‘violent’ colour; where do parents and employers turn to for guidance? What messages can we trust?


Who there is to blame? Should studios be more responsible for what kind of games they do? Is it right for government ban games? What about freedom of expression? If governments can ban games, shouldn’t they also ban some movies? Are “Adults Only” ratings enough? Shouldn’t parents watch what their kids play? Who should take responsibility in this matter?

It’s all relative. I was a tester on the original Carmageddon game and that was the last game to get banned by the BBFC. If Carmageddon were released now I think it really would be unlikely to banned.

1. Should studios be more responsible for what kind of games they do?

Every Studio should be responsible for outputting games they think can sell! Should studios feel more or less morally responsible than they do already…probably not. If you are trying to push the boundaries of what can and can’t be seen by games players of the world then you need to be prepared to take the back-lash when that happens

2. Should Governments have the right to ban games?

Basically yes…the banning is done publicly and we as the general public are allowed to publicly debate the issue – it’s not done in secret. Our Society is setup so that the government is responsible for drawing moral lines in the sand. Some of those lines are covered explicitly by the legal system and laid out firmly in law and others by more flexible means like the BBFC. If we as a democratic whole don’t like the decisions then we vote in a government that will change the laws appropriately. That is a bit naive I know but it’s not like this is really that important! It’s not like Rockstar are having their game banned because it criticises the government or tells us any great secret the government don’t want us to hear. It’s banned because it pushes the current boundary of moral and acceptable standards in games today. (Like Carmageddon did 10 years ago and Like Lady Chatterley’s Lover did 47 years ago)

3. What about freedom of expression?

LOL – what about it! I doubt very much indeed that Rockstar are pushing the boundaries on freedom of expression on an intellectual level – they wanted to push the boundaries, create hype and ultimate sell more games. Again I refer back to Carmageddon – yes it was a great game but would it have been so successful if it hadn’t been banned in the first place? Remember Rockstar are past masters at this with Manhunt 1 and the GTA series all pushing the same envelope

4. If governments can ban games, shouldn’t they also ban some movies?

I believe they do? They also advise movie makers what scenes to chop out of films to make them hit certain age ratings (something that is a lot easier to do in a film than a game). As far as I can tell chopping the game wasn’t even an option for Rockstar as the BBFC said one of its key reasons for banning it was:
“Unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing”
And the BBFC could not find single incidents within the game to remove that could alleviate that central issue

5. Are “Adults Only” ratings enough?

They certainly work to a certain extent but again sometimes it’s just not enough. Where does it stop? If its ok to play the part of a sadistic murderer could he also be a rapist? Neither of these things are legal to do in person but under an AO only ratings system both would be ok to sell. It’s all about drawing lines in the sand and defining currently what acceptable standards are.

6. Shouldn’t parents watch what their kids play?

Of course they should!! But do all parent know what games their kids are playing – of course not. What is acceptable standards of parenting vary wildly from family to family – what is normal to your family could be seen as very wrong by another. If you let your 10 year old watch 18 rated violent films you’re not going to worry about the games they play.

The age ratings are there to provide a system by which parents can control the types of games their kids can play. I know as a parent that I take this very firmly on board and work out what I let my kids play. I have no problems letting my 6 year old son play a 12 rated star wars game on his DS as I can’t really see any things in it that he doesn’t come across in either normal kids TV on Jetix or in the school playground. But he wont play a 15 rated game never mind an 18 rated game.

7. Who should take responsibility in this matter?

We all should…and are doing so. A line has been drawn in the sand and now we debate to see if it is acceptable or not. To be really honest I hope that the society we live in today doesn’t find the imagery and gameplay in Manhunt 2 to be acceptable. There is enough blood and violence out there in the real world without actually inviting it into our living room

On an aside I’m not sure if this end of the ratings scale is what’s important. It needs to be kept real and relevant unlike maybe the recent ESRB rating we received for Centipede and Millipede on XBLA where it got an “Animated blood” tag. Yeah it sort of animates but heck its yellow and purple and its from bugs!!! You see this everyday on your windshield! Surely this sort of adherence to rules to the point of stupidity (or maybe point of pointlessness!!) just diminishes the value of the rating system as a whole?

End of part 1
Proceed to read Part 2/2.

The opinions expressed by these producers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, plans or positions of the companies where they work at.

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. I thought that the point about games being a form of freedom of speech was interesting. I had never really thought it like that but it makes sense. I also liked the point about how any reasonable person can evaluate whether or not the content of a game or movie is suitable for someone under 18. I am a big believer in the idea that parents should be responsible for what their children are doing. I don’t see how making sure your kid doesn’t see an R-rated movie is any different than making sure they don’t buy a mature video game. I think that the ESRB does a fine job of informing parents what type of content is found in a video game to let them make an informed decision about whether or not they want to purchase it for their child. One final thing I would like to say is that I think video games should get the same treatment as movies. There are tons of movies made that contain very inappropriate content but are never as scrutinized as video games.

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