It's fun for me to think about a room full of Target executives sitting around and making a decision about whether a video game is too violent for it to sell.
According to ABCNews.com, the giant retailer has decided not to carry the recent Rockstar Games gorefest, Manhunt 2, almost certainly because it has been at the center of the latest kerfuffle over the content of one of the publisher's titles.
"All video games and computer software sold at Target currently carry ratings by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board--from early childhood through mature audiences," ABC quoted a statement from Target as saying. "While Manhunt 2 was given a 'Mature' rating by the ESRB, we received additional information that players can potentially view previously filtered content by altering the game code. As a result, we have decided not the carry the game."
Now, this is not a new dynamic for Rockstar. You may well remember that in 2005, the company got into a disastrous scandal over vaguely explicit sexual content that was easily unlocked in the "M"-rated game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
And after that episode, Rockstar agreed that it would never, ever again hide objectionable material in the code of its games.
So here we are, two years later, and according to ABC, Rockstar decided to blur out some of the most violent parts of Manhunt 2 in search of an "M" rating, much as it locked away the explicit content in GTA: SA. But this time, the ESRB said it was satisfied that things were OK.
ABC reported that ESRB president Patricia Vance had no problem with its rating, stating that it was "still valid, and we stand behind it."
Yet, likely because of hype and controversy, Target decided that the game was too violent. Never mind that the retailer also sells such not-quite-pacifist fare as Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, Gears of War, and Ace Combat 6--which by the way features, on its cover, an exploding airplane and the implication of an instantly killed pilot.
No, Manhunt 2 is too violent. Now, I've never seen the game, and so I certainly cannot comment on how much more violent it is than the titles I just mentioned. But I do know that, for example, Wired writer Clive Thompson has been using Halo 3 as his own personal experiment in exploring the psychology of suicide bombers, and that Call of Duty 4, like most big-name war video games, is pretty much wall-to-wall carnage.
So my question is: When the Target executives were sitting in that room, trying to decide whether Manhunt 2 was too violent, what criteria did they use? It certainly couldn't be the inclusion of blood and guts. Nor of the concept of players or characters getting killed. Because all of that is readily available in the games it is happy to sell.
Rather, it is pointing to the fact that players can unlock the blurred-out elements of the game that Rockstar locked down in order to get an "M" rating instead of "Adults Only," the rating kiss of death when it comes to big-box retailers.
Well, fair enough, I suppose. I think it's short-sighted and random, but I guess Target gets to do whatever it wants. Even when the ratings board itself says it is satisfied that the game is suitable for 17-year-olds.
To my mind, the retailer is running scared from controversy. I know that a lot of parents are unhappy with violent video games because they think the games lead to real-world violence. And that may or may not be true. But I think the retailers either need to pull the plug on all these blood-filled gunfests or carry them all. Singling one out the way they did with Manhunt 2 seems to me to be a sign that these executives are rolling more with the tide of parental outrage than any particularly coherent or sincere policy. And that's a shame.