Each week Dennis McCauley contributes The Political Game, a column on the collision of politics and video games:


Perception is reality, except when it isn't. And in the case of Manhunt 2, it's not as easy as you may think to pick out the winners and losers from this week's craziness.

Start with the Adults Only rating that the ESRB slapped on Manhunt 2. That may seem like a bad thing, but it's not. Just as new NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently cracked down on thug players for the good of the sport, the ESRB needed to prove to parents and politicians that the video game industry could police itself. By assigning an AO to Manhunt 2 ESRB president Patricia Vance certainly did just that. Surely new ESA top dog Mike Gallagher was in on the final decision as well.

In any case, Gallagher and Vance did what needed to be done. The bottom line is that the industry comes out smelling like a rose. And -- bonus cliché -- the proverbial line in the sand has now been drawn. While some content creators will understandably chafe at any sort of limits, the fact is that video games are not only big business but a form of entertainment which people invite into their homes. There needs to be a certain amount of public trust. Designers who can't deal with the realities of the market are welcome to go the Ryan Lambourn route.

manhunt 2And while Take Two will bear the financial brunt of the AO rating, it could have been a lot worse for the publisher whose most probable avenue of escape involves editing the game down to an M rating. Beyond that, new chairman Strauss Zelnick and his team are absolved of blame to a large extent by the fact that Manhunt 2 was never their project. The game was green-lighted during the troubled reign of bumbling former CEO Paul Eibeler. Zelnick and his band of merry men inherited Manhunt 2 when they seized control of the Take Two board in March. By that time the interactive gore-fest was pretty much in the can.

Ironically, watchdog group the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood didn't fare well during this week's remarkable turn of events. Mostly this was due to incredibly bad timing. As dawn broke on Tuesday morning it seemed like the CCFC's unexpected demand that the ESRB assign an AO to Manhunt 2 would be a huge story. But the news cycle can be a harsh and unpredictable master. As it turned out, the watchdog group's power play was crushed between a pair of gaming thunderclaps.

The timeline went something like this: while banging out my Tuesday morning GamePolitics story about the CCFC's AO demand, an e-mail arrived with news that Manhunt 2 was banned completely in the U.K.

OMG!

Later in the day, word leaked out that the ESRB had already tagged manhunt 2Rockstar's controversial game with an AO, completely taking the wind out of CCFC's sails. The group, which reveled in its censorship of M-rated game ads on public transit in Boston a few months back, was reduced to urging its followers to "keep the pressure up" on the ESRB. Still, the CCFC is more organized and effective than any of the other video game watchdogs. The game industry surely hasn't heard the last of Dr. Susan Linn and her group.

Looking slightly two-faced are Sony and Nintendo, both of whom desperately wanted Manhunt 2 on their systems, right up until the blood spatter hit the fan. Suddenly, gamers were serenaded with a duet of "Sorry, no AO titles," as if the system makers had no clue until Tuesday as to what Manhunt 2 was all about. But that's just another reminder that video games can be, in more ways than one, a cutthroat business.


Dennis McCauley is the Political Editor for the Entertainment Consumers Association (www.theeca.com), tracks the political side of video games at GamePolitics.com and writes about games for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Opinions expressed in The Political Game are his own. Reach him at

This article was originally published on Joystiq.

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