Shockstar Games

Stevie questions the ethos of a certain game publisher...

Public perception generally equates the life of a true (stereotypical) rock star as being something akin to a roller coaster ride of fame and fortune, an envied existence largely consisting of negative press and focused criticism, all of it surrounding an incessant stream of profit-lined controversy that often exists separately from any marketable product said 'star' happens to create. Moreover, the tired cliches of music industry profiling decree that copious amounts of Class-A drugs, meaningless sex, foul-mouthed conduct, wanton property destruction, and the occasional death and/or suicide in suspicious circumstances, is an all-but guaranteed blueprint for blazing glory and eventual self-destruction. Scant few music industry rock stars are able to survive and prosper amid such an abusive professional and personal lifestyle (read: Keith Richards), with most buckling pathetically beneath the resultant pressures of their own attention-seeking actions. Yet, those capable of shouldering the burden of relentless media attention, and the wide-ranging critical scrutiny that comes with it, are also able to cleverly align themselves with the overhanging shadow of controversy so that, oddly, it only ever adds to their success and rarely leaves a permanent blemish on their often-sordid history. Meet Rockstar Games.

The Rockstar Games label, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc., was founded in 1998 with a view to creating "the most innovative and progressive interactive entertainment" in videogames. Whether that boldly ambitious mission statement (which can be found in variation on all videogame studio Websites) has been achieved is a matter for fervent discussion. Somewhat bizarrely, however, that discussion, be it between two game-loving friends, or an anti-gaming activist and a videogames rating panel, rarely focuses on the actual merits of Rockstar Games' expanding softography where 'innovation' and 'progression' are concerned. While few would argue that Rockstar's amassed portfolio has birthed hugely successful releases in terms of critical acclaim and consumer sales, there are those who see the studio's active pursuit of a potentially dangerous association with controversy as an unseemly blight on the entire videogames industry.

The history of Rockstar Games has thus-far been defined by the long-standing Grand Theft Auto series, itself a controversial gaming catalogue that has attracted high-profile condemnation from certain quarters since its late '90s emergence as a rather simplistic - and morally questionable - 2D top-down adventure on the PC and PlayStation. More specifically, when the steal-any-vehicle mission-based gameplay of GTA shifted into full 3D immersion with 2001's Grand Theft Auto III, the sound of outraged knife sharpening was almost as prevalent as the ringing checkouts and deserved critical praise. The power of GTA III's free-roaming 3D presentation and engrossingly acted storyline brought with it a significantly more visceral level of environmental and situational authenticity, and the resulting blood-spattered gun clashes with pursuing police units - not to mention a violent disregard for innocent bystanders - meant that it wasn't long before Rockstar Games and Grand Theft Auto became synonymously linked with reprehensible in-game behaviour and morally misleading encouragement toward its audience.

As mature and sensible game players, it's down to individual choice and sound judgment as to whether we acknowledge or dismiss Rockstar's (and Take-Two's) label as being responsible for creating and releasing a "murder simulator" unto the masses - as one Miami-based lawyer and videogame activist has oft chimed with regard to Grand Theft Auto. Yet, therein lies the problem, and perhaps reveals Rockstar for being primarily concerned with blindly stirring the bubbling pot of controversy in order to reap the media-fuelled profits that will surely follow. Ultimately, younger gamers - by default - are not always mature and sensible, and their choices are not always built on sound judgment, but rather the 'must have' knee jerk mentality that possesses them when advised, cautioned, or instructed against anything labeled beyond their age range. We've all been there as minors; under-aged kids not allowed into the restricted scary film, not allowed to order alcohol in a bar, and not allowed to purchase the 'M for Mature' videogame...and we've all done whatever was necessary to sneak into the movie theatre, fool the bar staff, and secure that latest all-important blood soaked gaming title.

Despite venomous accusations and several (failed) lawsuits, can Grand Theft Auto, a mere videogame, be held accountable for contributing to real-life atrocities, such as the 2003 murder of two Alabama police officers and a civilian dispatcher by the then 18-year-old GTA fan Devin Moore? Moore, who was being booked at an Alabama police station on suspicion of carjacking (the core motivational appeal of GTA), shot and killed his three victims before fleeing the murder scene in a squad car. The Associated Press reported that, after being recaptured, Moore simply offered that, "Life is a videogame. Everybody's got to die sometime." The teenage cop killer was subsequently found guilty on three counts of murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection, while Rockstar and Take-Two dodged the bullet of responsibility when the jury rejected the defendant's plea that he was not guilty due to mental defects brought on by excessive GTA play and an abusive childhood.

So, by and large, the American courts say 'no' regarding videogame accountability, but in the US, where it's still not illegal for retailers to sell an 'M for Mature' title to a minor, the mighty Bill of Rights' First Amendment of free speech protects videogame releases from banning, and the Second Amendment protects the country's rampant gun culture in its "right to bear arms", perhaps Rockstar could better serve the industry and its consumers by not repeatedly peddling game content that surely must, in one way or another, filter some semblance of influence down to pockets of its audience. For example, outside the apparent advocating of carjacking, premeditated murder, cop killing, drug trafficking, assault and burglary, it's hard to conceive that certain young (male) videogame players trawling through Grand Theft Auto would not subsequently feel a lack of respect for the opposite sex after opting to engage in car-bound intercourse with an in-game prostitute before then choosing to beat her to death with a baseball bat in favour of actually paying for the sordid transaction. The inclusion of the act itself into the gameplay is arguably disgraceful enough, but finalising the deal with murder goes well beyond what should be deemed acceptable in our videogames.

And, although Grand Theft Auto is famous as Rockstar's most prized asset, and is looked upon as a veritable license to print money whenever its latest hugely popular incarnation hits retail shelves, its criticisms continue to gather pace. Of those, the most notable remains the lawsuit(s) brought before Rockstar for its 'Hot Coffee' mod-accessed sexual mini-game, which appeared in 2005's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on the PC. Beyond GTA, the company has also suffered negative exposure and activist campaigning against 2006's schoolyard-based Bully (cannily renamed as Canis Canem Edit) and, more specifically, the recent homosexual boy-on-boy content that emerged from its gameplay. Bully - for all the pre-release furore regarding its childhood influence - was a mildly violent title in comparison to GTA, and even saw some laying claim to its values in portraying a message of anti-violence. Yet there's still little doubt that Rockstar actively channels the monumental discourse that its games inspire and benefits hugely as a result.

And, although the main focus of Rockstar's mounting criticism remains firmly embedded in its GTA franchise, and is more than likely to spark anew when Grand Theft Auto IV is released on next-generation formats later this year, it's actually the company's recent unveiling of Manhunt 2 that particularly rankles where the accusations of shameless controversy courting are concerned. For those unfamiliar with the original Manhunt, it was released to the PlayStation 2 in late 2003 and was swiftly met with widespread condemnation due to its extremely violent content; though, that said, the condemnation thrust upon Manhunt - as always - hailed from outside the videogames industry. In terms of critical reception, review publications such as renowned taskmasters Edge magazine and the Official PS2 Magazine graced the game with an 8/10 and a 9/10 respectively.

The game's storyline and central gameplay revolved around James Earl Cash, a man on death row for committing a heinous crime, which is never revealed. When Cash's sentence is duly carried out by lethal injection, rather than fall towards the blessed release of death, he awakes to find the attending doctors have administered a sedative after being bribed by a wealthy filmmaker named Lionel Starkweather. The Director, as Starkweather refers to himself, operates a seedy community in the dishevelled and impoverished Carcer City, where he makes...wait for it...brutal underground snuff films through his moronically titled Valiant Video Enterprises production company. Naturally, as the game's unwitting anti-hero, Cash is set up as The Director's latest star attraction and (a la Stephen King's novel The Running Man) is forced to embark on a filmed 'kill or be killed' spree of graphic violence against Carcer City's gangland populace.

The resultant outrage sparked by the arrival of Manhunt arose from the game's extraordinarily brutal content, which saw players endeavouring to silently approach enemies until within touching distance before gorily executing them with a variety of blood-curdling acts and gruesome weaponry. The stealthy close quarter utilisation of baseball bats, hammers, crow bars, sickles, machetes, nail guns, pistols, shotguns, and more, meant that the closer the kill, the more blood flowed, the more the watching security cameras caught on tape, the higher the viewer rating The Director's creation received through Cash's despicable actions. In short, Manhunt's sole motivational thread and only course of gameplay interaction was kill, kill, and kill again.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the game was slapped with a complete ban in New Zealand on December 11, 2003, where possession of Manhunt is subsequently considered illegal ($2,000 personal fine, $50,000 retailer fine). In February of 2004 the Canadian province of Ontario exercised an unprecedented move by proclaiming Manhunt to be a film, thusly burdening it with an extremely restrictive Adult Only classification - this decision is said to have followed New Zealand's Chief Censor, Mr. Bill Hastings, meeting with the Ontario Ministry of Consumer and Business Services in December of 2003 regarding the game. Later, in September of 2004, Australia's Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) revoked Manhunt's 'MA15+' classification, outwardly banning it - although possession is not illegal - and issued a direct warning outlining that, "any existing stocks of this game held by retailers must be removed from the shelves immediately." Germany soon followed suit. However, in the UK, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) issued Manhunt with a strict '18' certificate (making it illegal for retailers to supply the game to anyone below that age), and here's where the real controversy of Manhunt sprang into play.

On February 27 of 2004, 14-year-old Stefan Pakeerah from Leicester was lured to nearby Stoke Woods Park by his friend Warren Leblanc, under the pretence of meeting up with two girls. However, upon arrival he was brutally murdered by 17-year-old Leblanc, who beat Pakeerah with a claw hammer and stabbed him repeatedly. Leblanc, who confessed to the killing, pled guilty to the charge of murder at Leicester Crown Court, after which, the deceased's mother, Giselle Pakeerah, claimed that Leblanc had mimicked the events of Manhunt, in which players score points for evermore violent killings. Mrs Pakeerah was quoted as saying, "I heard some of Warren's friends say that he was obsessed by this game," before she issued a call for all violent videogames to be banned. Mr. Patrick Pakeerah, Stefan's father, also stated that the boys had been keen players of Manhunt and the murder reflected its structure. "The way Warren committed the murder is how the game is set out - killing people using weapons like hammers and knives... There is some connection between the game and what he has done," he claimed. The police commented that the fatal wounds sustained by Stefan included multiple fractures and deep gouging lacerations to the head, and multiple stab wounds that had caused major damage to the victim's liver and kidneys.

Despite the shocking nature of the murderous attack, and the claims put forth by the Pakeerahs regarding the seemingly eerie similarities between Manhunt's gameplay content and the actions of Leblanc, the UK's Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA), while voicing its sympathies, refuted any credible connection between the two, saying, "...we reject any suggestion or association between the tragic events and the sale of the video game Manhunt." Further to the ELSPA's disassociation, police investigating the murder subsequently rejected any proffered links to Manhunt, stating instead that Stefan Pakeerah's death was motivated by robbery, which was later linked to Leblanc's need to pay back a drug debt - a point also recently recalled in defense by Rockstar regarding criticism leveled at it following the announcement of Manhunt 2.

Again, unsurprisingly, following the spotlight of negative media attention surrounding the Pakeerah murder, leading UK retailers Dixons and GAME promptly removed Manhunt from their shelves, although leading entertainment chain HMV continued to stock the game, and even saw sales of Manhunt take a profitable upturn. Indeed, resulting demand for Manhunt became so high across the British Isles that sellers on were raking in prices upwards of 100 GBP.

Now, with the unveiling of Manhunt 2, which will arrive later in 2007 for the PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable, and (huh?) Nintendo Wii, the swelling tide of controversy is once again gathering about Rockstar's conveniently webbed feet. Moreover, the still grieving Pakeerah family has openly criticised Rockstar's move to develop Manhunt 2. Mr. Pakeerah, who's campaigned for more stringent restrictions to be applied to violent videogames since his son's murder, has said, "I'm very disappointed. This is rubbing salt into the wounds." Mrs Pakeerah further stated that, "These game moguls are making a lot of money out of games which are morally indecent," before Leicester East MP and videogame activist Keith Vaz exclaimed that Rockstar's announcement of such a sequel, "is contempt for those who are trying very hard to ensure something is done to control the violent nature of games." By way of defending its contentious decision, Rockstar merely referred to the official transcript of the Leblanc court case, offering that it makes "quite clear the Judge, defence, prosecution and Leicester police all emphasised that Manhunt played no part in the case," surrounding the murder of Stefan Pakeerah.

And that's all well and good, but it is the opinion of this court (of one?) that regardless of assigning responsibility, or lack thereof, concerning the effects of videogame violence on tragic real-world events, Rockstar's most prominent releases seem to be based solely on shock value and the questionable benefits reaped from controversial content. And it's not that Rockstar hasn't released other, more mainstream titles during the course of its existence, but then the likes of Red Dead Revolver, Rockstar Presents Table Tennis, and The Italian Job weren't nearly as successful as the controversy and violence-friendly Manhunt, Grand Theft Auto (series), The Warriors, and Max Payne - so it would appear that the emergence of GTA IV and Manhunt 2 is tantamount to Rockstar remaining closest to what it's best at.

In reference to Rockstar's bold ambitions to create "innovative" and "progressive" interactive entertainment, sadly, although the 3D transition of Grand Theft Auto into a free-roaming sandbox experience exists as a landmark moment in videogame history, there's little to suggest that anything the studio has released since 2001 qualifies as either innovative and/or progressive. Case in point, it's hard to claim there's any innovation to be found in running murderous errands for crime bosses, and there's no tangible evidence to illustrate progression in bludgeoning gang members to death for little other motivational reason than moving onto the next gory execution-style death. Whether Rockstar's content is in any way a factor in the actions of others, the question remains as to the accountability that ALL videogames developers and publishers should sensibly acknowledge throughout the creation of their products - which are, after all, appealing to youngsters. So, bearing that in mind, is Rockstar doing its bit to deliver exhilarating and challenging content while exercising a modicum of mature creative decision making? And, in turn, is it relying on something more richly defined than hidden sexual mini-games and the abhorrent abuse and murder of prostitutes (for example) to help better enamour it to the world.

But, as with any stereotypical rock star, the only reaction this request for developmental rehab will likely garner is a black-nailed finger and a venomously spat expletive - just like many of the following comments. It was worth a try though.

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