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15 November 1998

Carmageddon II - Computer Game Panic II

Should a game in which pedestrians and animals are maimed or killed in an explosion of blood and limbs be banned? Dave Amis from Internet Freedom investigates

'Carmageddon II - Carpocalypse Now!' was launched to the UK public last week. The new souped up version of the 1997 'Carmageddon' has more 'types' of pedestrians, new cars, improved graphics and improved network capability. As with its predecessor, players score points by running over pedestrians.

The original version of Carmageddon was contentious enough. The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) initially denied the game a certificate. That decision was the first time a computer game had been denied certification under the 1984 Video Recordings Act. In a bid to get the game released, makers SCi devised an alternative version featuring 'zombies' with green gunge instead of people with red blood and sold 600,000 copies.

The red-blooded version only came out only after SCi successfully applied to the Video Appeals Committee (VAC). The company defended its game using the European Convention on Human Rights. The Convention states that any body proposing to ban a product has to prove that it will have a 'devastating' effect on society. The BBFC were unable to prove their case. A year later, society seems not to have been devastated by the game.

SCi did not intend to take any chances with Carmageddon II, anticipating the BBFC's continuing hang ups about the possible ill effects on game players of viewing red blood. So, SCi attempted to release two versions of the game. The zombie version is now available in the shops. While an upgrade to the red blooded version is readily available on the internet it is not available in the shops.

The BBFC has taken the unprecedented step of consulting child psychologists over the game's potential effect on children. In doing so the BBFC is turning a decision-making process best left to parents into a medical decision that must be made by experts. The concern over whether a game intended for adults is potentially harmful to children demonstrates a child-centred approach that turns regulatory bodies like the BBFC into Big Brother, and infantilises parents.

SCi insist Carmageddon ll is not a game for children, and does not even have qualms about it being awarded an '18' certificate. Fears persist that children may be able to obtain or gain access to Carmageddon II from unscrupulous retailers, via older siblings or on the internet. Retailers who supply an '18' rated computer game to a seventeen year-old risk being prosecuted and receiving six months' imprisonment, a 5,000 fine, or both.

There have been fears that the games industry's obsession with making games more exciting, realistic and violent is leading children to act out game scenarios in real life. After the school shootings in Jonesboro Arkansas back in April, state governor Mike Huckabee condemned violent computer games and voiced his wish that the levels of violence in computer games be monitored.

Kevin Browne, a psychologist advising the BBFC on Carmageddon II, believes both versions of the game should be illegal. Interviewed in the Sunday Times, he said: 'In those predisposed to joyriding, it will reinforce their anti-social behaviour. You then have to ask the question that if they are excited by running over people on their computer, will they have the same disregard when accelerating at great speed in a stolen car in real life.'

Road-safety campaigners are also condemning SCi for the nature of Carmageddon and the fact under-18s will be able to play a game that SCi admits is unsuitable for them.

Mathew Joint, a psychologist with the AA, claims the game could have a detrimental effect on newly qualified drivers: 'A 17-year-old is nine times more likely to die behind the wheel than his middle-aged counterpart and so this kind of computer game is not a benefit to a society that is trying to get novice drivers to take road-safety issues seriously. Our research shows one in three young males has a dangerous attitude to driving and so this sort of game is going to fall directly into that catchment area.'

Are these fears justified? The games industry takes the view that computer games are escapist and fun, and do not lead to copycat violence in real life. Even regulators like ELSPA acknowledge that there is little risk of imitation from playing computer games. Eric Wahlberg, producer of the ultra-gory 'Flesh Feast', says that games like his are not a cause of violence: 'If anything, these games let kids get out their aggressions in a safe way'.

Fears about computer games such as Carmageddon II are based on an assumption that people cannot distinguish between the fantasy of games and reality. In Carmageddon's case this takes the form of the absurd dispute about realism and the use of red or green colouring for the game. Rather than seeing games like Carmageddon as harmless (albeit mindless) fun, SCi are portrayed as contributing to acts of violence. Implicit in this view is the belief that gamers cannot be trusted with computer games that involve violence. As a consequence, the regulation industry has taken on the role of a parent, deciding what game players need to be protected from in order to avoid the possibilities of imitation in real life. As we have seen in other cases, this results in more regulation and censorship, with further erosion of the rights of adults to decide what computer games they want to play.

Internet Freedom's Web site can be found at www.netfreedom.org

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