Classification board forced to release files on Manhunt ban in 2003

A Right To Know user has successfully submitted a freedom of information request to view files related to the Australian Classification Board’s decision to ban Hunt on PlayStation 2 in 2004.

They got their wish. You can read all the files here.

It’s a fascinating journey back in time and will spark a flood of memories for players who enjoyed it. In 2003, the game had been approved for sale in Australia, but was later banned in 2004 when then Attorney General Phillip Ruddock called for the game’s classification to be reviewed. Because Australia was not rated R18+ for gaming, Hunt it exceeded the limits of what was considered permissible under an MA15+ rating, which meant that it had to be denied classification. The ban remained in place and copies were withdrawn from all over Australia. In the brief window, it was available, Hunt it sold 18,000 copies in Australia.

Manhunt’s ban anticipated a tectonic shift in how video games were perceived in the Australian media landscape. Still considered children’s toys and little else, the game’s ban sparked a groundswell of support for extending the R18+ rating used for movies and television to games. Again, the games already used the same system, but it didn’t get past MA15+.

It would take another nine years for the R18+ rating to apply to games in Australia. It’s wild to think about that now, isn’t it? We have only had an R18+ rating for gaming in Australia since 2012.

Hunt, a Rockstar game, was a thriller about a death row inmate forced to act in a series of snuff movies. It wasn’t a terribly good game either, but that wasn’t the point. Australian players weren’t allowed to have it and so we wanted it so much.

There are so many nuggets of information in these files. So many little things that tell us about the procedure at that time to rate games like Hunt. The synopsis of the game in the Board report makes it seem rather tame: “An inmate on death row wakes up to find himself inside a game. Following mysterious instructions, he must fight his way out of gang-ridden environments.

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In the opinion of the Board, this game deserves an MA rating as, according to Part 4 of the National Movies Chart. Classification Code, it is not suitable to be seen by people under 15 years of age, ”says the ruling.

Further on, it is possible to see where GG Ruddock’s office got involved. There is some back and forth, as the Board makes it clear that it has already rated the game and that there are procedures in place to bring it under review, should the Ruddock team wish to do so.

Finally, the writing is done. An email from an Assistant Policy Officer dated Wednesday, September 29, 2004 at 10:29 am:

Hello OFLC,

After meeting on September 20, 2004, the Review Board made the decision last night (by teleconference) to reject the classification to Hunt.

If you have any queries, please let me know.

Thanks to everyone who helped with the review.

But there is more! The documents show that publisher Take-Two Interactive filed an appeal to the OFLC for classification with an extensive explanation of the game and footage on a VHS tape in December 2003. “While it may not be clear from the initial levels,” it is reads in Take-Two Shipping, “Hunt It is at heart a traditional story of good versus evil, of well-meaning individuals prevailing against a corrupt and controlling system, and ultimately some kind of redemption.”

Take-Two seems to acknowledge that some of the media hysteria surrounding the game’s content at the time was an accident in part of its own making. By keeping the game a secret, but marketing it as a sadomasochistic thriller the likes of which gaming had never seen before, Take-Two had inadvertently left people wildly theorizing about its content. Those rumours, mostly fabricated by internet leaders, were drawing increased media scrutiny. Take-Two tries to explain: “The level of secrecy surrounding the development of the game and the lack of official information has led to a lot of speculation about this game being released on message boards, most based entirely on rumors and completely lacking. on whatever factual basis.”

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And finally, we have the notes. Pages and pages of handwritten notes by the person assigned to give Hunt a rating. They are brilliant.

The notes cover a wide range of topics, such as violence (“Spiked baseball bat, close range, blood flies/sprays”), curses (“fuck, shit, bastards”), or both (“head blown – ‘damn.’”) Some are simply to remind the writer of certain details or likely future conclusions: ’12 levels,’ ‘MA,’ and ‘mid-level violence.’ Notes are taken throughout certain instances of violence to determine if they fall into medium or high level violence.

The game is evaluated by at least three people, all with different letters, who reach the same conclusion: MA15+. The final sheet among the documents is the game’s original consumer advice: “MA15+, high-level animated violence, medium-level foul language.”

Regardless, a fascinating insight into what was going on behind closed doors for a moment that would create a massive shift in the Australian media landscape. You can read the files in their entirety here.

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