The last time I visited my cousins — three boys between the ages of eight and 13 — they were playing a new video game that their mother had bought for them. The eight-year-old had hooked the computer up to an overhead projector and was cruising city streets in an enormous tank, pausing occasionally to point a flame-thrower in the direction of passing pedestrians, policemen and prostitutes and burning them to death. The game was Grand Theft Auto 2, the creation of a company called Rockstar, and it is at the centre of a $246 million lawsuit in the US, accused of provoking teenagers to real-life violence. Making sure that their mother was nowhere near, my cousins showed me that if you knew which buttons to press, you could use virtual cash to have virtual sex with the virtual hookers.
Grand Theft Auto is rated an 18, but it’s the prized possession of 14-year-olds up and down Britain. And they come far worse than Grand Theft Auto. In Manhunt, another Rockstar triumph, your character is condemned to be hunted to death and must defend itself with whatever comes to hand. Or, as the blurb has it: ‘In Carcer City, nothing matters anymore and all that’s left is cheap thrills. The ultimate rush is the power to grant life and take it away, for sport. This time James Earl Cash, you are the sport. They gave you your life back. Now, they are going to hunt you down.’ Reviewed by CVG (computerandvideogames.com) as ‘the game we’re all too scared to play’, Manhunt features innocent household objects as weapons of slow, bloody death.
If Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto don’t give your child nightmares, they’re not doing their job, but the question of the week has been, do they incite real aggression? Mr and Mrs Pakeerah certainly believe so. When their son Stefan was murdered by one of his friends, Warren Leblanc, Mr Pakeerah was struck by the similarity of the games’ content to the actual killing. Mrs Pakeerah claimed she thought she heard someone say Leblanc was ‘obsessed’ with Manhunt, and so both parents called for the game to be removed from shelves. You probably saw these headlines in the Daily Mail last week: ‘Murder by PlayStation’, followed by ‘Ban These Evil Games!’ Inside the paper, a reporter wept over the unnecessary fate of ‘a pleasant, harmless 14-year-old born into an age when computer games celebrate violence....’ Could it be, they asked, ‘that Warren Leblanc was so brainwashed by this game that he did not actually know that his friend would suffer from the attack?’
The temptation, as a parent, is to shout ‘Yes! Hooray for the Mail!’ and campaign for a ban. But however much you want to protect your child — and I think it is a good idea to censor the games which younger kids play — remember, there is no better way to promote something to a teenager than to ban it. Think back to your youth. Remember ‘Anarchy in the UK’? As soon as it was barred by Radio 1 it became a number one hit single. A Clockwork Orange is still a cult film, just as the outlawed video Driller Killer became a must-see for the under-18 Eighties boy, even though we all agreed it was rubbish.
And what was true of films and pop songs is doubly true of video games. I have been checking on the progress of Manhunt sales since the Mail demanded a ban, and over the last week they have gone through the roof. ‘Never seen anything like it,’ says a London-based assistant store manager of a popular chain, who wishes to remain anonymous. ‘I thought we’d been done. Sales were slow at first and so when people started talking about a ban I thought we’d be stuck with ’em [copies of Manhunt]. Now it’s hot cakes, innit? Blokes asking in whispers, like it was porn. I don’t think [Manhunt] is all that good but ...ain’t no such thing as bad publicity.’
The fact is that, by the standard of Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt was a sales failure until the Mail blamed it for Stefan Pakeerah’s death and demanded its removal. But for the intervention of Associated Newspapers, Manhunt would have died a natural death from lack of interest by Christmas. Now it’s a hit.
So a ban is by far the best way to sucker moody anti-establishment teenagers into buying a game; but, in addition, bans on video games are also absolutely unenforceable. You can be relatively sure that your ten-year-old will have trouble getting hold of alcohol and cigarettes on his own, but if you outlaw or restrict a computer game, children will just buy copies online. EBay, the online auction house, entered a furious trade in Manhunt from the moment the Daily Mail headlines appeared. In the days that followed, copies that would have been bought for between £19 and £40 in shops started to go for £60 and upwards. One Internet salesman with 30 copies was advertising his product very effectively: ‘Manhunt is BANNED!’ read his pitch. ‘The game everybody is talking about: Dixons, PC World and Currys have all banned this game. Look at the newspaper hysteria surrounding this title!’ he wrote, before supplying links to the websites of the Sun and the Daily Mail. It’s all a little odd, when you come to think about it.
So what do we do? Just give up and let small children hump hookers and then set fire to them? The only answer, in the end, is that parents should take responsibility for their children’s gaming habits, just as they should keep an eye on whether and at what age their kids smoke or drink. Only the difference between a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a copy of Manhunt is that with the game, parents know less than their children. So the best bet for parents is probably to bite the pixillated bullet and play a few of the games on their own. They should at least make an effort to educate themselves. There is, after all, a huge adult market for these games, and the chances are that you’ll find many of them surprisingly sophisticated, shockingly difficult and good harmless fun. If that’s too much, the most basic Internet surfing skills will give you websites that contain reviews of every computer game. Videoandcomputergames.com provides a plot synopsis, still pictures (known as ‘screenshots’) and videos showing game play. If you know your Manhunt from Mario Bros, your kids will listen to you with more respect, and pay more attention if you tell them that certain games are off limits.
Of course, it’s not failsafe. You can’t control what your teenager gets up to at other people’s houses, nor, really, what he does on his own at his computer at night.
But before you panic, remember that you’re better off trusting your child than the Daily Mail. Over the last few days I have been checking the Mail’s website discussion board to see what sort of response they have been getting to their call for a ban. At first, scores of anti-censorship postings appeared, many of them pointing out a fact that the Mail had omitted to mention in either of its two front-page stories: the murderous game, Manhunt, wasn’t in fact owned by the killer Leblanc but by his victim. Another popular complaint was that the Mail had entirely ignored a statement by the police which said that Leblanc’s motive for the so-called ‘Manhunt murder’ was certainly robbery. The kid had debts, it seems, was into drugs and killed to pay for his habit. The police went on to assert that they had never made any connection between the crime and the video game. The Mail’s response to these letters was to delete them while leaving the comments from concerned mothers who won’t let their children watch Spiderman for fear that they’ll think they can climb down walls.
The Daily Mail must have been aware that it was Pakeerah who owned the game, but i t still described him as ‘a pleasant, harmless 14-year-old born into an age when computer games celebrate violence...’. It must also have known that the police report exonerated Manhunt, but its chief aim is to sell papers, just as Rockstar’s aim is to sell games. I don’t think any of the web postings I saw actually accused the Mail of exploiting parental anxiety to flog a bunch of papers which will inevitably provide free advertising for the games they claim to hate — but I think we can make up our own minds about that.