A hostage of fortune? While a provincial film board takes a second look at violence in games, the industry soldiers on

by Bruce Rolston

It seemed at first glance that John Mullins had met his match.

Mullins' exploits as a killer-for-hire were immortalized earlier this year with the release of Soldier of Fortune, an ultra-realistic first-person action shooter by Raven Software and Activision. The game's hit location engine, known as GHOUL, allowed ultrarealistic maiming and death throes by the victims of the gamer-qua-Mullins as he confronted New York street punks and ruthless Arab dictators. Cheered by reviewers for its "buzz-saw intensity," and "torrents of blood," Raven's new shooter racked up acceptable sales totals... except in the Canadian province of British Columbia, that is, where a career civil servant named Mary-Louise McCausland had decided that if the virtual Mullins was ever to make an appearance in her jurisdiction again, it would be in a brown paper wrapper.

McCausland is head of the film classification board for Canada's third-largest province. She's been rating films for that province since Caligula... the 1979 Bob Guccione Caligula, anyway. She's weathered the Last Temptation of Christ controversies, and everything else Hollywood's thrown her way over the last 23 years, but she'd never paid much attention to computer and video games. But last July, responding to an unidentified citizen's complaint, she took it upon herself to watch a computer game with the same careful eye. And that marked the end of Soldier of Fortune in British Columbia stores for a while.

In her official ruling, a clearly shocked McCausland states, “The participant can enact gory violence that results in the horror of evisceration, decapitation, dismemberment and victims burning to death.” The bad guys, she writes, “can experience prolonged or painful deaths. For example, Soldier of Fortune depicts the agony and suffering of victims burning to death as the result of the protagonist’s use of a flame-thrower. The expressions of this agony are manifested in cries of pain, screaming and physical responses to the injuries including recoiling, flailing, grimacing, and grasping at the wound site.”

The decision’s immediate threat to fans of the genre at first seemed more symbolic than real. Christopher "Daravon" Jang, who helps put out the planetsoldieroffortune.com gaming site, says he was unimpressed, but unaffected by the government's decision. "I thought that the government making this game an equal to a porno movie, was a little bit of overkill. But I already have the game."

The decision makes the product essentially unsellable in the jurisdiction, as no game distributor or retailer is likely to get a porn shop license just to sell a few copies of one title. At first many firms blithely ignored the ruling... until inspection officers started visiting, and the provincial attorney-general personally called for them to respect it pending an appeal. Now, there's not a copy to be found (although the recent issue of a SoF Gold edition seems to have some retailers confused about whether the ruling applies to this product, as well.)

The case may be the first in Canada of a government censor extending the long arm of the law over games, but it’s less unusual than you think: practically the entire English speaking world outside the States has film review boards of some kind. Unlike the United States, where movie ratings are largely produced by the industry itself, most Canadian viewers rely on ratings produced by one of the country’s four major provincial film review boards (British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia): the other smaller provinces generally borrow the major boards’ ratings. Each board reviews each film prior to release and issues its own rating; while the systems are similar, and the age ratings of each comparable to the American MPAA system’s, the results have been known to vary widely.

In Britain and Australia, similar boards have already stepped in to rate computer titles, as well. The British Board of Film Classification began rating games in April. So far nine titles, including Perfect Dark and Tenchu II have been rated purchaseable only by 18 year-olds or older. A number of other titles, including Messiah, Dino Crisis 2, and Resident Evil: Codename Veronica (check-ed) have been limited in Britain to being purchaseable by 15 year-olds.

That's nothing compared to Australia, though. Their Office of Film and Literature Classification has rated over 3,200 game titles in the last six years, and banned 42 of them outright, including the much-loathed shooting-of-innocents game Postal, back in 1997. (It's unlikely readers will remember many of the other 41 titles Australians have been saved from seeing, which include such memorable gaming moments as Immoral Cumbat and Digital Dancing: The Erotic Challenge. One almost envies them.)

To date, another 275 titles have been rated by Australian censors as unpurchaseable by people under the age of 15 (what they call an "MA" rating). Games on this list include both Quake and Unreal, Diablo 2 and Duke Nukem, Deus Ex and Half-Life, Command & Conquer and Shogun: Total War, and, of course, Soldier of Fortune.

Of course, that's three years younger than the age cut-off in British Columbia. There, McCausland had the choice of rating Soldier of Fortune as an "R" title (unpurchaseable by people under 18), or "Adult" (available only in porn stores). The difference in the ratings, according to the classification system, is "R" titles "have some artistic, historical, political, educational or scientific merit." -- a test which McCausland's own viewing of the computer game convinced her was not the case here.

“The plot of the 26 scenes serves to provide a backdrop for the participant to engage in as much killing and mayhem as desired,” reads her decision. “The story line is a shell that provides a context for the violent actions of the protagonist. The ability to continually mutilate a victim’s body does not enhance the objectives of the game or move the plot forward; its purpose is to satisfy the vicious inclinations of some participants. Contributing to this effect, the game tracks statistics for the number of shots to the ‘throat, nether region, head and gibs,’ which reduces the product to a competition in brutality.”

“If [this decision] inconveniences distributors, I believe that the inconvenience is necessary to protect the interests of the public.”

Since the early days of film, most English-speaking nations have had censorship boards to regulate the cinemas. All four major Canadian boards, along with those in Britain and Australia, were created around the time of World War One to stop what then was seen as a potential cause of moral degeneracy: the silent film.

Only in America were film-makers successful in staving off the demands of governments, convincing everyone they could do the job themselves instead, through vigorous self-censorship. The Motion Picture Association of America was created to supervise a national system of self-regulation. By the middle of this century, the "Hays Office," as the MPAA raters were named after its then-president, were arguably more effective in keeping the moral tenor of films high than a government board could ever be.

In the 1960s, though, filmmakers began pushing the envelope, and the MPAA, now under president Jack Valenti, struggled to keep up. In 1968, faced with rising public anger and a Supreme Court decision that seemed to open the door for a return to state regulation, the MPAA and the National Association of Theatre Owners created a new universal ratings system, a version of which is still in use today. When game manufacturers looked at how their own still-novel industry would be regulated in the early 1990s, the MPAA approach seemed the way to go.

When the lobby group for the game industry, the Interactive Digital Software Association, created their system of self-regulation, it was very much like that for movies. The Entertainment Software Review Board (ESRB), established in September of 1994, rates games in six categories, the raciest games belonging to the Mature (M) category ("suitable for persons ages 17 and over") and Adults Only (AO) ("not intended to be sold or rented to persons under the age of 18"). Of the 5,000-plus games rated thus far by the ESRB, 375 have been rated Mature (including all the usual suspects), and 11 AO (only two of which, Rianna Rouge and Thrill Kill, most people will ever have heard of).

The recent American Federal Trade Commission report on the marketing of violent entertainment showed that the ESRB system is still less well known and respected than its older, more entrenched movie counterpart, but also that this seems to be changing, slowly. Even critics of the industry in the States, such as Sen. Joe Lieberman, generally stop short of calling for a return to censorship. So one could argue the ESRB is beginning to work.

The problem comes in extending the ESRB to a country without that tradition of industry self-regulation. In Canada, Britain, or Australia, governments are used to playing a role in enforcing community standards, rather than devolving it. But Canadian distributors and game producers have generally backed the ESRB since its beginnings, and for some time it looked like North America might have a unified game rating system... step in Mary-Louise McCausland.

McCausland's boss, provincial Attorney General Andrew Petter, is in an interesting situation now. British Columbia is in many ways the California of Canada: politically at least, it’s granola-and-Birkenstocks country. The left-of-centre top prosecutor came to his job on a family-values (as opposed to law-and-order) platform... many of Petter's major initiatives since gaining the office have had less to do with major crime than they did with other social problems such as spousal abuse and violence in schools. He was already under increasing pressure himself from several municipal councils, pushing his office to do something about games through resolutions and petitions. Petter had been planning an announcement on taking action against violent games for some time, say office spokespeople: McCausland's action just made it more timely.

In a press conference a week after the Soldier of Fortune decision, Petter promised B.C. would soon be getting a "made in B.C." classification system for games. A month later, he got his counterparts in Canada's other provinces to consider a national Canadian system. Just last week, he and provincial premier Ujjal Dosanjh announced the province was committed to series of programs he's calling "Turn Off Violence." "The strategy will include a classification system that is being developed for videos and video games sold or rented in the province," Petter said at a press conference. "We know that violence in media has harmful effects on our children, and we are determined to help parents control the level of violence to which their children are exposed."

That doesn't mean Petter's ruled out embracing the ESRB, though, caution aides who are working on the actual specifics of rating games in B.C. The same week Petter was promising action, officials from his office were meeting with ESRB head Arthur Pober (check-ed), who flew up to explain the system, and why the FTC considered it in many ways superior to the American system for film ratings.

Barry Salmon is handling the game classification file for Petter’s office. “He [Petter] has no desire to reinvent the wheel, if the system’s working,” he says. He acknowledged industry representatives are lobbying hard, but were making headway. “People [at the meetings with Pober] seemed genuinely impressed with the ESRB system.” One approach being considered would be amending the law to encourage compliance by retailers with the ESRB’s age guidelines, Salmon said, although he acknowledged B.C. may still have to reserve the right to overrule an ESRB rating for a particular game if the community complains.

Canadian industry representatives continue to lobby hard. Salmon and his colleagues have met with representatives of Nintendo and Electronic Arts, as well as the Canadian Interactive Digital Software Association (CIDSA). Like its American equivalent, the Canadian computer game lobby group strongly backs the ESRB (It is because of the CIDSA’s involvement that Canadians play a supporting role in the ratings organization, with representation on the ESRB board, and with some games being rated in Canada.) Also on side is the Canadian Video Software Dealers Association, representing rental stores.

Canadian game distributor Stan Samole acknowledges the stakes are high for game sellers. “Ours is a release-date business. I can’t imagine them [B.C.] wanting to reinvent the wheel, but if individual legislative bodies were to vet individual titles between release and delivery to stores, that’s the end of the Canadian video game market through authorized distribution. It could be a disaster, not only for the industry, but for consumers.”

CVSA director Mark Halliday agrees. The Soldier of Fortune decision, which centred on a computer game, doesn’t have the same direct effect on the video game rental market, but Halliday says his members are still concerned at the possible expense of any new ratings system. “Our position, is the less government, the less regulation, the better,” he says. “The ESRB way is effective. Changing it will mean reidentifying, and restickering all the product on our shelves.”

Samole, president of SGS Canada, acknowledges the Canadian industry needs to do more to educate store staff and the public about ESRB ratings, and hopes CIDSA will be doing more in the way of point-of-purchase displays to increase public awareness. “The system needs to do more to educate retailers, so parents can make informed choices.”

While all this goes on, there's still the matter of Soldier of Fortune. Activision announced it would appeal the decision to the province’s quasi-judicial Motion Picture Appeal Board. Established in 1996 to give McCausland's office some more accountability, the office has reined in McCausland before. Most recently this summer, it downgraded the adult-only rating she gave the comedy Scary Movie, saying the film had to be judged on its content, not on the number of complaints McCausland had received. "[McCausland] has referred to 'public feedback' and 'community standards' in reaching her decision," wrote chair Candace Parker. "The panel does not agree that such concerns are part of the classification scheme."

Were the appeal board to do the same with Soldier of Fortune, keeping it 18-and-up, but allowing its sale outside of porn shops, it would be essentially in line with the ESRB's rating, and essentially end the issue, some have observed.

The appeal, which should be heard shortly, is expected to center not so much on freedom of expression as about jurisdiction. Activision’s lawyers are expected to argue that McCausland exceeded her mandate, that the current law gives her no authority over the rating of games. It is certainly a stretch to extend the language of the B.C. Motion Picture Act to cover computer games: the question is whether her calling the game an “action movie” (a term Activision itself used in the marketing of the game) is going to fly with the appellate board.

Protest against the decision hasn't exactly been voluminous, although some of it has certainly been sincere. The staff of User Friendly Media, which produces a daily cartoon strip popular among Linux users, staged a petition signing at the Vancouver Art Gallery in July, protesting the encroachment on freedom of speech. "We are not defending the game, we are defending our basic right of choice," said one organizer.

Local fans of the genre were upset, but not excessively so. Said gamer Stan "Creole Ned" James: "I didn't find Soldier of Fortune to be a particularly compelling title, so there was no passion for defending it. The principle behind the decision did make me simmer for a good while, though."

The simmering had less to do with the particular game than it did with the government’s apparent view of James’ favourite pastime, he explains. "Is SoF really comparable to hardcore pornography?" asked James. "Yes, it's violent, but the B.C. government allows children to watch incredibly violent movies in theatres, often without needing an adult to accompany them. Kids in B.C. can buy CDs with explicit lyrics, again without restriction. But somehow video games are worse?"

(The producers and distributors of the game are also keeping silent on a decision that effectively equates them with porn purveyors, pending the appeal. Members of Raven Software, the makers of Soldier of Fortune, declined to be interviewed for this article…as did the American and Canadian distributors, Activision and Beamscope.)

Many other British Columbians, by contrast, are applauding McCausland's action. Burnaby city councillor Dan Johnston started has been voting in favour of motions urging the province to act for six years: he says it's about time. "When you look at the content of some of these games, they shouldn't be accessible to children."

"I don't think members of our society who enjoy that kind of 'entertainment' should be deprived of it. But now, you see a lot of situations where parents go into a Goodwill, say, buy a game for their kids, and are totally shocked. I don't think we want to be a police state, but the government has a role to ensure the citizenry has some protection from things society sees as detrimental."

Johnston says he'd be unsatisfied at any made-in-BC game rating system that didn't require the physical segregation in stores of some of the more violent titles, putting them behind the counter or in a back room, for instance. "It's important that there's some segregation, and some enforcement, so this doesn't turn into another cigarette issue, with sellers ignoring the law."

It's expectations like these that Petter has to navigate around –and that supporters of a common North American standard for game ratings may have to start to appreciate. The fact is Canadians, just like many other countries, have a long tradition of McCausland-like characters intervening in matters of cultural import, and citizens complaining to the politicians about movies they don't like, often successfully. They’re generally not enamoured of cultural decisions that appear to leave Americans holding the reins over what entertainment they can watch, either. All that's not going to go away just because the ESRB makes economic sense, or is proven to help parents. (The flip side, of course, is that any decision that British Columbia is unlikely to have any immediate cross-border ripples... the cultural views on censorship are just too different.)

The sensible solution for British Columbia, or any jurisdiction, would appear to be entrenching a respect for the ESRB ratings in video or game store licensing bylaws… the same kind of bylaws which are regularly invoked to sanction film theatres that sell to underage clients. Whether that will ever happen widely, though, is still open to question. Many store owners and purchasers in Canada and the States still seem to consider “voluntary self regulation” to mean “I’ll follow it if I want.”

Americans shouldn’t consider themselves immune, however. Only quick work and keeping a united front allowed Jack Valenti and the American film industry to stave off the most recent challenge to their authority, in 1968. Were the ESRB not seen to have the support of retailers or game makers, or not be publicized and lodged in the public consciousness quickly enough, an interest in government involvement in game rating could return to the States someday, as well. If that were to happen, John Mullins, Soldier of Fortune, might find himself sharing some spectacularly unsavoury store shelves, even for him.