Manhunt 2 Meltdown Shows Game-Killing Power of Adults-Only Rating

Gamers will never get to play Manhunt 2.

Yes, sometime this year you might be putting a disc labeled Manhunt 2 into your Wii or PlayStation 2, and stepping into the shoes of Daniel Lamb, a mental patient who has to escape an insane asylum by killing the guards in the most gruesome manner possible. But it won't be the game the creators originally intended.

The developer, Rockstar Games, had the code polished and ready for a July ship date, but was forced to slam on the brakes when the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, or ESRB, gave Manhunt 2 a rating of Adults Only, or AO, the game industry's equivalent of an NC-17 movie rating.

Neither Sony nor Nintendo allow AO-rated titles to be released on their hardware, and most major retailers refuse to stock the games. As a result, creators whose games get an adult rating usually trim back the content or decline to release the product.

Manhunt's ratings woes, which Rockstar announced to the public, is the first visible sign of a shift in the way video games are rated that's unfolding largely behind the scenes. In the wake of increased attacks on the industry by politicians, the industry-run ESRB and overseas groups have been awarding de facto NC-17 ratings to content that would warrant an R or a PG-13 if it were found in a movie instead of a game.

The ESRB reports about a dozen cases in the past five years in which it issued the AO for violence; nobody has heard of them, because each game was held back and quietly watered down to win a lower rating. In countries like Britain, the problem is even clearer. There, the board that rates video games and films is under the auspices of Parliament, and Manhunt 2 has been de jure banned: Selling it to anyone is illegal.

Game designers are feeling the chill. Developers at Sega, working on the upcoming Condemned: Bloodshot, say the Manhunt controversy caused them to remove some content from their game. And Al Lowe, creator of the Leisure Suit Larry franchise, says that one of his naughtier classic games was left out of a recent collector's edition package because of concerns that the ESRB would give it an AO rating. It was rated M in 1996.

At a conference in Germany this week, Factor 5 developer Julian Eggebrecht -- the director of Lair for PlayStation 3 -- gave voice to a concern simmering in the creative trenches of the industry. The review process is a "charade," he said, according to Eurogamer. "If you cannot have satire about these things, (it) is approaching the realm of McCarthyism."

While acknowledging an uptick in AO ratings, the ESRB insists its standards haven't changed, and argues that game developers are inviting the rebukes. "As the capabilities of the systems become more complex and the types of content in games becomes much more varied, you're going to find the creators of these games pushing the envelope in a variety of different ways," says Patricia Vance, the ESRB's president.

Vance also emphasizes that the ESRB never requires gamemakers to change their products. Whether a game makes it onto shelves is "out of our control," says Vance. "These are business decisions that are being made by retailers and console manufacturers.... We assign ratings and then the market determines what's acceptable."

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