Rockstar has updated the previous version of the game that hit stores back in 2003 with a new storyline and characters. Except this time, "Manhunt 2" was initially deemed so gruesome that the Electronic Software Ratings Board or ESRB gave it an "AO" rating or Adults Only (18 and older). That means virtually every major retailer wouldn't stock it, and console makers may not support it. Rockstar made some changes, and now the ESRB has given it an "M" rating, which means 17 and older. (Personally, I understand the legal difference between age 17 and 18, but does one year really make that much difference with video games? Shouldn't "Adults Only" really be 21 and older? The point is now moot, a whole other argument, and I digress.) In any case, we all know kids end up at a friend's place and pop in the game collection from the older brother and therefore the ratings don't always work either.
Anyway, "Manhunt 2" will be available for Sony's PlayStation 2 and Nintendo's Wii. And while Sony (and Microsoft, for that matter) have long established themselves with gamers as willing to support such extreme games, Nintendo hasn't exactly jumped into the fray with such vigor. Nintendo is more known to the average parent as the fun-loving company behind "Super Mario Bros." or "Zelda." That said, Nintendo does have several M-rated games on the market, including "Resident Evil 4," which is pretty bloody though not nearly as graphic as "Manhunt 2."
But the nature of "Manhunt 2," which involves escaping from an insane asylum, requires players to, well, essentially murder people on your way out. There's no question it's violent. There's no question (at least I hope not much) that young children shouldn't play it. The reason Nintendo is getting more attention than Sony is the Wii controller. You can hold it like a knife and stab with it, or slash, etc. There are those in the blogging community who -- perhaps jokingly -- call it a "murder simulator." That may be taking it a little bit too far, but the comments certainly raise some questions about how people (and kids) interact with games, and what that physical involvement does to the brain.
I've talked to Nintendo and they say they aren't responsible for the design of the game. Fair enough. Nintendo did agree to have it on their system, and it will help their "street cred" with the hardcore gamers looking for more action on the Wii. However, parents can use controls to limit which games are allowed to be played on the Wii console. Though again, it's hard to know everything that your kids are doing when they leave the house.
All of the game reviewers I've talked to today agree it's beyond the level of violence in nearly every other game. I've covered the video game industry for more than 12 years, and the violence-kids-games argument hasn't diminished one bit. It's a massive subject, studied by the likes of psychologists, techies, games companies, executives, players, analysts, bloggers, journalists and parents everywhere. There are no simple answers. And it can be hard for news organizations to really dig into these issues that can include free speech, manipulating children through advertising, and how visual stimulus affects aggression versus violent behavior (if at all), etc. But that doesn't mean we should avoid them. If I have anything to say about it, stay tuned for more in the near future.
P.S. A quick side note -- I have not played the game myself, and the reviewers I spoke to were not allowed to keep the game after playing it for only a short time. It's all part of Rockstar's strategy to shape the release of "Manhunt 2" as best it can. I also tried unsuccessfully to get a copy from Rockstar. Not surprising, but felt it was worth mentioning.