Oct. 30, 2007 -- Your name is Daniel Lamb, and as you try to escape from the Dixmor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, you torture and kill various security officers and fellow inmates. You stab them in their eyes, set them on fire, strangle them with wire. You use hammers, chainsaws, guns. It is, as you yourself put it, hell.
So goes the premise of Rockstar Games' uber-violent videogame Manhunt 2, which -- before its Halloween released -- has reignited the debate over the impact of these games and their role in our broader, increasingly violent culture.
At a press conference in San Francisco, Calif., Tuesday, James Steyer, CEO of the children's advocacy group Common Sense Media, called Manhunt 2 "one of the most horrifically violent games that we've ever seen. It features a variety of different executions and is really a very, very violent almost unwatchable game."
Steyer said he "can not figure out how anybody would want to create that game and what went through their mind."
Rockstar Games and its parent company, Take-Two, issued a statement, saying "Manhunt 2 fits squarely within the horror genre and was created to be an entertainment experience specifically for those players mature enough to appreciate it." The company accused Common Sense of "misleading" parents by showing reporters scenes from the game that are "not in the M-rated version of the game we shipped this week. The content appears to be from an unreleased version of the game that was stolen from a partner in Europe."
Manhunt 2 had previously been rated "Adults Only," for players 18 and older, which would marginalize the game since many major retailers refused to sell games with that rating. Rockstar made some tweaks to the game -- removing a graphic scene of castration, for instance, and received a new rating of M -- for players 17 and up -- paving the way to the big-box stores like WalMart and Circuit City. Seth Schiesel, a culture writer for the New York Times, has played both games and suggests "99%" of the original version remains in the game.
The edits were insufficient for the British Board of Film Classification, which found that the game's "unremitting bleakness" and "casual sadism" remained. Manhunt 2 is, in fact, banned in the United Kingdom.
In an interview with MTV News last week, ironically, Rockstar game producer Jeronimo Barrera found himself defending himself against charges that the company had edited out too much.
"We feel we kept the original vision and the content and we didn't neuter the game as people say we have," Barrera said. "We want you to have that same sense of anxiety that you get when you're watching a [horror] movie, but you're part of it. We want to get the person to crouch down in their seat. But onscreen they're hiding in the hide box in the shadows, waiting for the hunter to go by so they can get to the next spot."
Some psychiatrists are quite concerned about what might happen should children get their hands on this game, which clearly happens more often than the voluntary ratings system might suggest. A Federal Trade Commission study from earlier this year found that 42% of children reported being able to buy an M-rated game if they wanted.
Psychiatrist Allan Hilfer of the Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., says these games are capable of "wrecking very vulnerable and fragile kids" and "giving them the impression that a certain degree of violence and damage to things and people is an acceptable way to handle stressful situations. Once they've played these games for extended periods of time they tend to get to get in a kind of highly energized level of functioning and sometimes it doesn't end when the game is over."
The interactivity of the games makes the more dangerous, Hilfer and other psychiatrists argue. All the more so with the Wii system, where the game consoles allow players to mimic playing baseball, hitting a golf ball -- or in the case of Manhunt 2, bludgeoning someone with a baseball bat.
Schiesel says that Rockstar "loves this controversy. They have gotten a lot of free publicity." With previous controversies involving games such as "Bully" and the "Grand Theft Auto" series under the company's belt, Rockstar has cultivated an image of "the bad boys of video games," Schiesel says. "And this plays into that."
Avery Miller and Richard Coolidge contributed to this report.