For a long time, England was a backwater in this fight. The video game struggle raged primarily in state legislatures and federal courthouses around the United States. Oh, there was Keith Vaz, of course, a Labour Parliamentarian who made some noise about the original Manhunt in 2004 and would occasionally surface to criticize this game or that.
But in 2007 the video game issue simply exploded in the UK as one major game controversy after another made headlines. At the same time, game legislation tailed off in the US. While six states passed laws in 2005-2006, none have been passed so far this year. American politicians, seemingly, are getting the message that games are protected by the First Amendment. Not so in Britain, however.
Oddly enough, the year began on a high note for the UK game industry as SCi CEO Jane Cavanaugh was honored by the Queen with an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for "services to the game industry." Soon after, Minister for Creative Industries Shawn Woodward issued a public call for the creation of a national video game academy .
Things began to fall apart in March when lame duck Prime Minister Tony Blair – whose wife managed to score a launch PS3, by the way – failed to mention the video game sector while lauding Britain's creative industries. But the big news, of course, was the hammer blow that fell on June 19th when the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) announced that it was banning Rockstar's Manhunt 2 from UK shores. On the same day, the ESRB tagged Manhunt 2 with a sales-killing Adults Only rating in North America.
While Rockstar was able to sanitize Manhunt 2 enough to gain a more marketable M rating in the US, the BBFC has steadfastly refused to remove the UK ban, even from the edited version. The organization's bureaucrat-in-chief, David Cooke, cited the game's "bleakness and callousness of tone," whatever that means.
Actually, what it means is that as far as Manhunt is concerned, Rockstar is screwed. Ain't happening. The fix is in. Politicians there still recall how much publicity Fleet Street gave the 2004 murder of Stefan Pakerrah, a 14-year-old killed with a claw hammer by a teenage friend who may or may not have played the original Manhunt.
But beyond the Pakeerah case, Manhunt 2 also fell victim to the ill political wind currently blowing against video games in the UK. The flap between Sony and the Church of England over Manchester Cathedral's depiction in Resistance: Fall of Man is a prime example. While church officials were way out of line to suggest that Resistance had any connection to the real-life gun violence currently plaguing the city of Manchester, did you notice any politicians backing Sony? Of course not. From Tony Blair on down they lined up to side with the CoE. The reason is simple. While churchgoers can be rallied to the polls, gamers are not a recognized voting bloc. Not yet, anyway.
And the hits just keep on coming. Jack Straw, Lord Privy Seal (dontcha just love those Old School titles?) ripped the game industry for not showing sufficient social responsibility. A UK ad campaign for EA's Burnout: Dominator had to be pulled after officials ruled it was "irresponsible." Nintendo voluntarily recalled Mario Party 8 after someone complained that a character used the word "spastic." Conservative leader David Cameron criticized games and other forms of media after 11-year-old Rhys Jones was slain in a highly-publicized ride-by shooting. The new prime minister, Gordon Brown, a late arrival but not wishing to miss the game-bashing party entirely, announced that he supported the Manhunt 2 ban, called for tighter controls on video game content and launched a review of game violence to be led by TV shrink Tanya Byron, Great Britain's answer to Dr. Phil.
Tough days indeed for British gamers. And the situation is likely to get worse there before it gets better. A key element will be Tanya Byron's report, which is expected early in 2008.
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