Australia’s Classification Board Has Been Forced To Release Files On Manhunt’s 2003 Ban, And Now We Have Everything

Australia’s Classification Board Has Been Forced To Release Files On Manhunt’s 2003 Ban, And Now We Have Everything

A Right To Know user has successfully filed a Freedom of Information request to see files related to the Australian Classification Board’s decision to ban Manhunt on the PlayStation 2 back in 2004.

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

It’s a fascinating trip back in time and will stir a rush of memories for gamers that were around for it. In 2003, the game had been waved through for sale in Australia but was later banned in 2004 when then-Attorney General Phillip Ruddock asked for the game’s classification to be reviewed. Because Australia had no R18+ rating for games, Manhunt exceeded the bounds of what was considered allowable under an MA15+ rating, which meant it must be refused classification. The ban stood, and copies from around Australia were recalled. In the brief window, it was available, Manhunt sold 18,000 copies in Australia.

Manhunt’s ban pre-empted a tectonic shift in how video games were perceived in the Australian media landscape. Still considered children’s toys and little more, the game’s ban led to a groundswell of support for extending the R18+ rating used for film and television to games. Again, games were already using the same system — but it went no higher than MA15+.

It would take a further nine years for the R18+ rating to be applied to games in Australia. Wild to think about now, isn’t it? We’ve only had an R18+ rating for games in Australia in place since 2012.

Manhunt, a game by Rockstar, was a thriller about a death row inmate forced to perform in a series of snuff films. It also wasn’t a terribly good game, but that wasn’t the point. Australian gamers weren’t allowed to have it and because of that, we wanted it badly.

There are so many nuggets of information in these files. So many tidbits that tell us about the procedure at the time for rating games like Manhunt. The game’s synopsis in the Board’s report makes it seem quite tame: “An inmate on death row awakes to find himself within a game. Following mysterious instructions, he must fight his way out of gang-infested environments.

In the Board’s view this game warrants an MA classification as, in accordance with Part 4 of the Films Table of the National Classification Code, it is unsuitable for viewing by persons under 15,” reads the ruling.

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

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


After meeting on 20 September 2004, the Review Board made a decision last night (via teleconference) to refuse classification to Manhunt.

If you have any queries, please let me know.

Thank you to all who assisted with the review.

But there’s more! Documents show publisher Take-Two Interactive submitted an appeal to the OFLC for classification with a lengthy explainer of the game and footage on a VHS tape in December of 2003. “While it may not be clear from the initial levels,” reads Take-Two’s submission, “Manhunt is at heart a traditional tale of good versus evil, of well-intentioned individuals prevailing against a corrupt and controlling system and ultimately, some kind of redemption.”

Take-Two appears to acknowledge that part of the media hysteria around the game’s content at the time was an accident partly of its own creation. By keeping the game under wraps, but marketing it as a sadomasochistic thriller the like of which had never been seen in games before, Take-Two had inadvertently left people theory-crafting wildly about its contents. Those rumours, mostly invented by internet edgelords, were prompting greater media scrutiny. Take-Two attempts 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 posted on message boards, most of it based entirely on rumours and completely lacking in any factual basis whatsoever.”

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

The notes cover a wide range of topics, like violence (“Baseball bat with spikes – close range – blood flies/sprays”), cursing (“fuck, shit, bastards”), or both (“head blown apart — ‘dammit’”). Some are merely to remind the writer of certain details or probable future conclusions — ’12 levels’, ‘MA’, and ‘medium-level violence’. Notes are made throughout about certain instances of violence to determine whether they fall under medium or high-level violence.

The game is assessed by at least three individuals, all with different handwriting, all of whom draw the same conclusion: MA15+. The final sheet among the documents is the game’s original consumer advice: “MA15+, High-Level Animated Violence, Medium Level Coarse Language.”

Anyway, a fascinating insight into what was happening behind closed doors during a moment that would create massive change in the Australian media landscape. You can read the files in full right here.

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