The Political Game: Manhunt 2, the gift that keeps on giving

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

There's the Jelly-of-the-Month club, and then there's Manhunt 2.

Like the el Cheapo holiday bonus which sparked Clark Griswold's comic spazzout in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Rockstar's blood-soaked game is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

Manhunt 2, of course, has provoked more than a few spazzouts of its own recently. And while the most frothy barking has originated in Miami, Jack Thompson isn't the only one riding the Manhunt 2 gravy train these days – far from it. The game has, of course, earned Thompson a few more of his precious TV appearances, even while the Florida Bar seeks to dispossess him of his license to practice law. But the media – both the video game press and mainstream variety – have had a field day with it as well.

By my unofficial count CBS, ABC, Fox and CNN have all weighed in on the game this week, along with an untold number of local news affiliates. Katie Couric and Dr. Phil were among the beautiful people who slummed it in gamer land this week in order to dish about Manhunt 2. Websites large and small followed the Halloween launch saga as it unfolded, and I'm certainly not blameless. 107% of the stories on GamePolitics.com this week had a Manhunt 2 theme.

Take Two and Rockstar, of course are laughing all the way to the bank. When was the last time that a mediocre game (USA Today's Marc Saltzman called it "a bloody average thriller") managed to dominate the media spotlight for months on end? Amazingly, the Manhunt 2 feeding frenzy has been going on since the spring when IGN's Matt Casamassina revealed that, among other atrocities, players could separate certain adversaries from their testicles with a pair of pliers.

Shortly thereafter the game was banned in Britain, where they value their manly bits and where the climate is distinctly chilly toward games of late. Moreover, they still remember Labour MP Keith Vaz's claims that the original Manhunt provoked a grisly teenage killing in 2004. On the same day that the Brits nixed Manhunt 2, the ESRB tagged the game with the infamous Adults Only rating for the U.S. market. And if you believe the timing of those two happenings was coincidental, I've got thirty million dollars in hidden Saddam Hussein gold that I want to share with you. Check your e-mail.

Manhunt 2 has also been a boon to watchdog groups which, after all, become demoralized when they have nothing about which to moralize. In fact the watchdogs have been tripping over one another this week to inveigh against the game. Common Sense Media grabbed the early lead, circulating a particularly nasty screenshot of Manhunt 2 protagonist Daniel Lamb decapitating a police officer with a shovel. Problem was, the pic was from an early Manhunt 2 build which was leaked by an SCEE employee in September. As Rockstar was quick to point out, the scene did not appear in the retail edition. Undeterred, Common Sense Media went ahead with a Manhunt 2-bashing press conference and CEO Jim Steyer even managed to get his face on Katie Couric's news broadcast.

The Parents Television Council and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood were right behind Common Sense Media in calling for parents to do their parental thing and keep underage players away from the game. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is unhappy that the violent game is set in an asylum. We haven't heard from Dr. David Walsh yet, but his National Institute on Media & Family will be issuing its Annual Video Game Report Card in a few weeks, and one can just sense that Manhunt 2 won't make the grade.

Aside from California State Senator Leland Yee, politicians haven't yet had much to say about Manhunt 2. That's about to change, of course, now that hackers have broken through to some of the banned content in the PSP version. Can the PS2 mod community be far behind? After all, it was they who revealed Hot Coffee a couple of years back. Expect video game legislation, which tailed off in 2007, to resume as a growth industry in '08. Hey, it's election year.

Nor have law enforcement groups been heard from so far. As we've seen before with 25 to Life, Reservoir Dogs and the Grand Theft Auto series, cops don't take kindly to being virtual targets in video games, and who can blame them? When law enforcement organizations tumble to the brutal police killings depicted in Manhunt 2 they will complain long and loud. And cop groups have a lot of juice with politicians.

The ESRB probably thought it was done with Manhunt 2, but that's about to change. The watchdogs were demanding to know how the game escaped the dreaded AO even before the PSP hacks were revealed. Now? Batten down the hatches and get ready for a rough ride. What could have been – should have been – a big win for the rating board seems likely instead become the subject of political attack and fodder for congressional committees for a long time to come.

Like I said, the gift that keeps on giving.


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.