An upcoming video game from the maker of the "Grand Theft Auto" series came under fire Tuesday in United States and Britain, where the government's ratings board banned sales for what it called an "unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone."
Rockstar Games' "Manhunt 2" was scheduled for a July 10 release on Nintendo Co.'s Wii and Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 2 consoles.
Players of "Manhunt 2" assume the role of an escaped mental institution patient who goes on a killing spree as he fights his way to freedom. It includes special death moves players can perform by moving the Wii's wireless, motion-sensitive controller at just the right moment.
"Manhunt 2" is the first game to be banned by the British Board of Film Classification since 1997, when it barred the sale of "Carmageddon," in which players rack up points by driving vehicles over pedestrians.
In a statement, BBFC director David Cooke said the board was unable to approve the game because it was "distinguishable from recent high-end video games by its unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing."
Rockstar spokesman Rodney Walker said "Manhunt 2" was meant to be a horror game, something akin to gory films like "Saw."
He called the BBFC's decision a form of censorship because the public would never get to decide for itself.
"People think of video games as a kids' medium but the fans are so diverse and the games are diverse," he said. "When you ban a game, you're putting a limit on what sort of creative choices people can make."
But Cooke insisted that the game would "involve a range of unjustifiable harm risks to both adults and minors." The BBFC said it had given Rockstar and parent company Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. six weeks to appeal the board's decision.
In the U.S., meanwhile, a national coalition of educators and child advocacy groups sent a letter to the video game industry's self-governed ratings board on Tuesday hoping to slap "Manhunt 2" with the strictest rating possible.
Though nobody at the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has seen or played the game, it wrote in a letter to Patricia Vance, president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, that "Manhunt 2" should be given an "Adults Only" rating instead of a more lenient "Mature" rating.
"If ever there was a time for the ESRB's strongest and most unambiguous rating, it is now," wrote Dr. Susan Linn, co-founder of the CCFC. "An adults-only rating is the only way to limit children's exposure to this unique combination of horrific violence and interactivity."
The "AO" rating means the game is suitable only for players 18 years old and older, while the far more common "M" rating is meant for players 17 and older.
The group said the Wii version was particularly troublesome because players would be able to act out the violence with the console's controller.
"It is reasonable to expect that being able to go through the motions of violence while playing Manhunt 2 will exacerbate its negative effects," the letter said. "Given what is already known about the impact of violent games played on standard game controllers, it is irresponsible to make this game available to children and teens on a potentially more dangerous platform."
"Manhunt 2" maker Rockstar and Take-Two have long been at the center of the debate over video game violence and children.
Rockstar was embroiled in another ratings controversy two years ago, after a hacker uncovered a hidden sex scene in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." Another of the company's hits, last year's "Bully," was about a slingshot-wielding 15-year-old at Bullworth Academy boarding school, whose motto is "Canis Canem Edit," Latin for "dog eat dog."