Dean West

This article was conceived a few weeks ago and we intended to publish last week but, in light of the YouTube incident, we held back publishing as we did not wish to benefit from the tragedies of others. We would like to give all due respect to the victims of that event and our condolences to their families and friends.

I remember back in 2003, picking up Manhunt in my local GameStation (long before GameUK gobbled them all up) and playing it for the first time when I got home. Videogames had ESRB ratings back then too but these were always ignored. I was 15 at the time and my PlayStation 2 library was packed with 18+ rated games. It was the norm back then as it is today; parents don’t read the age ratings. They don’t care – videogames are just that: games.

manhunt-ps2-box-art-Credit-DenofGeek

The thing that made Manhunt different from the other games I owned was that it felt like I wasn’t supposed to be playing it. I could tell from the box art with in-game character, Mr Nasty, staring menacingly at you. The back of the box featured protagonist, James Earl Cash, holding a sawn-off shotgun in one frame, and holding a knife to a doll-masked man in another. To say Manhunt is dark is an understatement.

James Earl Cash, or “Mr Happy,’ if you like.

I also remember becoming darkly obsessed with the world of Manhunt; its narrative vague and Cash had barely any back story. He doesn’t need it, though. All you need to know is he’s a dangerous man and that’s evident. Not by his words, mind – he speaks only once in the game – but by his actions. In some scenes, he’ll suffocate a man using a plastic bag before snapping his neck. Give him a machete and he’ll decapitate one of his hunters by hacking brutally at their neck. There are no swift, clean kills here; just zero remorse. People talk about power-fantasies in gaming but playing as Cash was exactly that; ruthlessly taking-out the deranged and sadistic with the efficiency of a professional killer. Was Manhunt too mature a game for a boy of my age at the time? Absolutely, but I can’t say it affected me.

Moving forward to 2004, news surfaced that a 14 year-old boy named Stefan Pakeerah was murdered by a 17 year-old boy named Warren LeBlanc, with a claw-hammer. Stefan’s parents blamed Warren’s fandom of Manhunt, with Mrs Pakeerah telling the BBC, “When one looks at what Wareen did to Stephen and looks at the brutality and viciousness of the game, one can see links.” Stefan’s father was more precise with his criticism when speaking with Reuters: “Stefan’s murder compares to how the game is set out, using weapons like hammers and knives. If games like this influence kids, they should be taken off the shelves.” RockStar Games defended their IP in a statement to MCV Magazine, stating:

“We are aware that in direct contradiction to all available evidence, certain individuals continue to link the original Manhunt title to the Warren Leblanc case in 2004. The transcript of the court case makes it quite clear what really happened. At sentencing the Judge, defence, prosecution and Leicester police all emphasised that Manhunt played no part in the case.”

Indeed, police did deny that Manhunt had any link to the motive for Stefen Pakeerah’s murder and said that the game was found in Stefan’s room, not in the possession of Warren LeBlanc. Stefan’s mother, however, insists her son only had the game because Warren gave it to him.

“Warren LeBlanc gave Stefan the game just two days before he killed him,” she said. “LeBlanc is responsible for what Leblanc did and what he did was horrible.” Police instead claim that LeBlanc’s was under the influence of a gang whom he owed money too.

Now, videogames have been used as a punching bag by the media when trying to assess the motives of violent teenagers. This isn’t an article about that, per-se, but we’ll touch upon it. Rather, this gives context to recent events in America. Namely, Donald Trump’s response to those events. President Trump, in his quest to provide answers to questions he doesn’t really understand, is another person in a long line of senior figures to link violent videogames and mass-shootings. Following events that took place in Florida in February 2018, President Trump held a roundtable meeting with cabinet members and executives from the videogame industry to discuss the level of violence in videogames. The following video was presented at the meeting:

Manhunt didn’t make the cut. Perhaps this was due to its age and not being as well-known as the other games in the video. But it’s worth noting that the games in that video are not even remotely as violent as Manhunt. This prompts the question: would game like Manhunt survive today’s market?

These days, as a society, we are paradoxically oversensitive to violence while being over saturated in it. As such, it’s hard to gauge how we would truly react. Though with the political climate towards gun control shifting in America, it is likely that Manhunt 3 would be a likely scapegoat for the next big tragedy. Manhunt 2 was lucky in that it both enjoyed a relatively quiet release and its launch did not coincide with any mass-tragedies – we’re all lucky for that, mind. Though with how things are right now, it’s hard not to see lawmakers and Second Amendment enthusiasts leap on the opportunity to use a hypothetical Manhunt 3 as an effigy for why guns aren’t the problem, ‘it’s those dang video-games.’

Manhunt-2
Credit: http://www.rhinogames.com

It’s natural. If you love something you want to defend it. In the case of American society and cultural norms, people love their guns. The vast majority of American people believe whole-heartedly in their right to own a firearm and the constitutional reasoning behind it. For the families of victims, sometimes its easy to make connections that don’t exist, such as the killers enjoyment of a videogame and a relative’s murder. For lawmakers, placing blame on an industry its a convenient way to not become accountable.

For the videogame industry, it’s a stigma that they would desperately like to overcome. It is difficult, though, as games – like any form of entertainment – exist to satisfy a myriad of tastes and sensibilities. Game publishers, however, exist as corporate entities and are rightly concerned about their reputation. Manhunt 3 wouldn’t be timely in 2018 and, sadly, I don’t know when it would be.

We live in strange times, after all. Cultural perceptions of people who play videogames have come a long way since the 90s and 00s. We are no longer seen as the neck-beards and acne-riddled men who exist solely in Games Workshop stores and talk in nasally tones. The fastest growing demographic is – and has been for some time – women. 27% of gamers are aged between 45 and 74. For context, gamers between 8 and 15, and 16 to 24, make up 16% and 22% of the UK gaming market, respectively. These two age groups are, stereotypically, the biggest demographics. But the largest is actually 25 to 44, at 35%. (Stats from 2017 and courtesy of Ukie.org) Gaming is bigger than it has ever been, outpacing even the film industry.

Yet for all the events like E3, GamesCon and PAX that see thousands of attendees each year, and ten-fold those numbers for people reading and viewing coverage of these events online, gaming is still a special interest hobby. Despite the fact that Call of Duty – a game with guns – and GTA – a ‘bad’ game with guns – are household names, videogames are still not mainstream. That is the problem. Cinema, for example, gets a pass for gore and violence because its been around for a longer time and its industry has a more ‘establishment’ presence. We look at violence in films and say that is okay because the violence is not real so how can it inspire real violence? ‘It’s all just an act.’

This rationalisation isn’t allowed to apply when videogames are concerned. The traditional argument is that, yes, the videogame is an interactive, fictional product, but it is that level of interactivity that distinguishes the violence in a videogame from the passiveness of a film or book. I guess that’s the price videogames have to pay for offering unparalleled levels of interactivity; the burden of blame when other people act up. Anecdotally, I can say that videogames do not influence bad behaviour but, statistically, it is still up for debate. While there are so many different factors that go into assessing the link between videogames and violence, some studies say it does cause aggression in children and young adults and some do not. It is unfortunate, then, that only certain studies are cited in the wake of certain events.

In fact, I know that gaming can be a positive influence, both for individuals and for society as a whole. Just recently, Pokémon Go have announced several global events to coincide with Earth Day to incentivise players to pick up litter. Playing videogames is also potentially beneficial for mental dexterity and, as anyone who has been part of an online community like WoW can testify, they are a great way to build relationships with people you otherwise wouldn’t.

The hurdles that videogames still face make it difficult for the positive aspects to make it to the forefront of the collective consciousness. It’s a shame too. While games such as Manhunt should be allowed to exist without scrutiny or mislaid blame, this will not be the case until the conversation about videogames is equally about how beneficial they can be to individuals as opposed to entirely about the potential or supposed harm they could cause.

Don’t misunderstand this article, it’s not specifically to advocate for a Manhunt 3. I use Manhunt as an example and case study of how blame can be apportioned where is does not belong, in order shift the focus from one issue to another. We don’t need tighter gun-laws, we need to tighten restrictions on videogames and what they can show us. Those are not my words, but that of the collective-chatter in 2018. Just like it was in the early nineties with the Mortal Kombat controversy and an age-rating system – the ESRB – was subsequently put in place. Despite this,  The argument hasn’t changed but it should. A little riff on that old cliché: Games don’t kill people – people kill people.

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