Simulating Murder in Manhunt

David Leeson (bio)


Manhunt is one of the most controversial video games in recent memory. Describing itself as “a brutal blood sport,” it was released by Rockstar Games in November 2003 and lived up to its own billing. Though favorably reviewed by critics, Manhunt quickly became notorious for its graphic and horrific violence. It was rated M for Mature by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board—suitable for players aged 17 years or older, with warnings for ‘Intense Violence,’ ‘Strong Language,’ and ‘Blood and Gore’—and became the first video game ever banned outright by the New Zealand Office of Literature and Film Classification. It was also the first video game ever to be rated ‘R’ by the Canadian province of Ontario’s Film Classification Board.

In the summer of 2004, Manhunt became the focus of renewed controversy in the United Kingdom, when 14 year-old Stefan Pakeerah was beaten and stabbed to death by an older boy armed with a claw hammer and a knife. Though the police concluded that the motive was robbery, Pakeerah’s parents publicly blamed the game for their son’s death arguing that his killer was imitating scenes from the game. The tabloid press dubbed the case “Murder by PlayStation,” and in response, the game was removed from the shelves of Britain’s largest electronics retailer, Dixons. Commenting on the case, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that while responsible adults had the right to play the game if they wished, Manhunt was “wholly unsuitable for children.” Not long afterward, Australia became the second country to ban the game almost a year after its release.

The moral panic surrounding the Pakeerah case and the bans imposed by the governments of New Zealand and Australia have made sure that discussions of Manhunt have revolved around the ways the game affects (or does not affect) the players’ behaviors in the real world. In the process, however, both Manhunt’s critics and its defenders have overlooked another perhaps more interesting question: Why would anyone play Manhunt in the first place? As its name implies, Manhunt is a game about hunting men for sport. The player’s character is a death-row convict, James Earl Cash. After a mock execution by lethal injection, Cash revives to find himself the ‘star’ of an illegal underground “reality show.” Abandoned inner-city districts have been blocked off to provide sets. Closed-circuit TV cameras are everywhere, recording what happens. Armed gangs of ‘hunters’ are looking for Cash, and the show’s Director has promised them a reward if they can find Cash and kill him; Cash will have to kill them to survive.

During the course of the game, the tables are turned, the hunters become the hunted, and Cash kills them in a remarkable number of nasty ways. Hunters are decapitated and suffocated; their necks are broken, their heads are smashed, and their guts are spilled; the points of crowbars and the blades of hatchets are buried in their skulls. These ‘executions’ are captured by the Director’s cameras, and are so gory that blood frequently splatters across the lens. Several different psychological factors make these virtual murders enjoyable and encourage Manhunt players to kill for fun. Out of these many factors, the demands of authority, physical distance, and emotional distance are probably the most important. Significantly, these are the very same factors that enable soldiers to kill in war. While it seems unlikely that playing Manhunt could encourage players to kill in the real world, the game does a remarkable job of simulating the psychological factors that enable real-world violence, along with its physical consequences.

The Game and Its Mechanics

Manhunt was designed by the people at Rockstar North, the studio responsible for the very popular and controversial Grand Theft Auto (GTA) franchise. In fact, Manhunt uses the Grand Theft Auto game engine, while some of Manhunt’s mechanics were included in the latest GTA game, San Andreas, released in November 2004. In addition, Manhunt shares the same fictional world as GTA. The game takes place in Carcer City, near Liberty City, the setting for Grand Theft Auto III.

Manhunt’s plotline will be familiar to readers of Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” though most of its players will probably think of movies like The Running Man and Hard Target instead. After three years on death row, James Earl Cash has finally been put to death—or so the world thinks. Not long after his apparent execution by lethal injection, Cash’s body lies on a bed in a darkened room. A man’s voice is heard, “Hey, tough guy. Wake up.” Cash sits up, looking groggy. “You’re not dead,” the voice assures him. “Well, not yet, anyway. You’re getting a second chance—another throw of the dice.”

Cash lurches up off the bed, staggers over to the door, and tries to break it down. The voice tells him to get a grip and calm down. There’s an earpiece on Cash’s bedside table. “Pick up the earpiece,” says the voice. “Put it on. Go on!” Cash picks it up and puts it on. The voice becomes louder and clearer. “That’s better,” it says. “Now only you can hear me, and that’s the way you’re going to want it, because I’m you’re only way out of here.” A door opens. “You’ve had an unexpected reprieve. Do exactly as I say and I promise this will be over before the night is out.”

Cash exits the room. The scene switches to city streets at night. “These streets are being patrolled by gangs,” says the voice. A brutish-looking thug with a nylon stocking over his head appears onscreen. “They’re scum, just like you, and they’re here to hunt you down and cut you up. I’ll try to direct you the best I can, but other than that, you’re on your own. Okay, are you ready? Camera. Action!”

At this point, the player takes control of Cash, and the manhunt begins. The rest of the story is told in a series of episodes or ‘scenes’, in which Cash is pitted against a gang of hunters. Most of the scenes end either when the hunters are dead or after Cash accomplishes a special task. Every few scenes, Cash is captured by black-uniformed mercenaries working for a private military company, Cerberus. These private contractors take him to new parts of the city where new gangs are waiting to hunt him down.

At the beginning of Scene Six, for example, the Cerberus men drop Cash off outside the city zoo. Fittingly, the scene is entitled “Grounds for Assault.” The Director introduces Cash’s new co-stars, “These pricks call themselves the Wardogs,” he says. “Real dickless, gung-ho losers.” The would-be soldiers of fortune are dressed in camouflage outfits and carry machetes and tranquilizer dart guns. Cash must kill most of these men, but he must also find a crowbar to break the locks on the zoo’s gates.

Once the hunters are dead and the locks broken, Cash moves on to Scene Seven, “Strapped for Cash.” The Director informs him that his family has been taken hostage. “Hold up, Cash,” he says. "You and your family weren’t exactly close, am I right? It’s just that I thought it would be nice to have a surprise reunion. But these Wardogs didn’t see it my way, and they’ve taken matters into their own hands. They’re using them as bait, Cash, bait! I know, I know! I can hardly believe it myself. Each time they spot you, these Wardogs are going to execute one of your beloved family." In addition to killing the hunters, Cash must free some or all of his family members to complete the scene. Once he releases them, they run off and disappear.

After Scene Seven, Cash escapes from the zoo, but is recaptured by Cerberus, and hauled back downtown for Scene Eight, “View of Innocence.” This time, the set is an abandoned shopping centre, soon to be demolished. Lurking within are the Innocentz, an assortment of devil worshippers and lunatics armed with revolvers and sawed-off shotguns. The Director tells Cash to search the building for a videocassette and a camera.

After first arming himself with a revolver, Cash fights a running gun battle with his hunters on the shopping centre’s three levels. Once most of the Innocentz are dead, Cash locates both tape and camera—but the camera doesn’t work. After some additional searching and shooting, Cash finds a television set. When he plays the tape, he discovers that his family members have been recaptured and murdered. The Director explains,"You must understand, Cash, I could never have let them go. Where was your family when you were facing your final moments in the chamber anyway? You’ve left your old life, your old self behind. I’m all the family you need now."

Enraged, Cash smashes the TV. Before, he was fighting to survive; now, he has another motive, revenge. Eventually, Cash slips his leash, discovers his tormentor’s name and location, and starts a manhunt of his own. The story’s final scene takes place at the Director’s mansion, up in its filthy, dilapidated attic, where Cash plays a desperate game of hide-and-kill with another snuff-movie star, the chainsaw-wielding Piggsy. Once this filthy, pig-faced hunter has died a spectacular death, Cash uses Piggsy’s chainsaw to kill the Director’s few remaining mercenaries, and finally, the Director himself. As the credits roll, Cash’s own fate remains a mystery.

Manhunt’s mechanics are similar to those of other stealth-based games like Thief, Metal Gear Solid, Hitman, Splinter Cell, and their sequels. In its PlayStation 2 version, Manhunt’s controls are simple and intuitive. The console’s controller has two sticks and four groups of buttons. The player uses the left stick to move Cash around. Light pressure on the stick makes Cash creep along slowly, heavy pressure makes him walk; press a button at the same time and Cash will run, though his endurance is limited. Cash picks up weapons and lures (bricks, bottles, and cans) by moving over them. He can also flatten himself against walls, tap them to make noise, peek around corners, kick trash cans and garbage bags, and throw lures to distract hunters.

If Cash gets into a fight, he can throw both jabs and punches, depending on which button is pressed. Pressing a combination of buttons allows him to grapple with his opponents and fight dirty. Cash’s opponents will fall to the ground if badly hurt or try to run away. Cash can knock down fleeing hunters by hitting them from behind. Once his opponents are down on the ground, he can finish them off by kicking them. If Cash is armed with a weapon, he can use that instead, but even then, it’s risky to fight with hunters. Cash is a much weaker fighter than most video-game heroes. He can usually defeat a single hunter, but if they gang up on him, they will almost always kill him. When attacked by two or three hunters, his best course of action is to run off around a corner and find some shadows in which to hide. Once Cash is hidden, the player can wait for an opportunity to sneak up on a hunter, attack him from behind, and execute him.

Executions are Manhunt’s most distinctive and notorious feature. If Cash can get behind an unsuspecting hunter, he will raise his weapon, ready to strike. The player then presses a button and holds it down. Glowing white lights revolve slowly round the hunter’s head. If the player lets up on the button, Cash will perform a Hasty execution. If the player waits a few seconds, the lights will turn yellow, and Cash will perform a Violent execution. If the player can wait a few seconds longer, the lights will turn red, and Cash will perform a Gruesome execution. But if the player waits too long, the hunter may turn around, see Cash, and start fighting.

Each type of execution is more vicious than the last. New Zealand’s chief censor, Bill Hastings, described them as “mild, medium, and hot.” When Cash is armed with a plastic bag, for example, and the player performs a Hasty execution, our hero will simply pull the bag over his victim’s head and suffocate him. If the player waits a few seconds, and performs a Violent execution instead, Cash will pull the bag over the hunter’s head, and then punch him in the kidney. The hunter will fall to his knees, and Cash will kill him by kneeing him in the face three times. If the player waits long enough to perform a Gruesome execution, Cash will pull the bag over the hunter’s head, whip him around, punch him in the face four times and finally, break his neck.

As the game goes on, Cash will perform executions with shards of glass, loops of wire, blackjacks, police nightsticks, crowbars, machetes, hatchets, sickles, meat cleavers, claw hammers, baseball bats, and a chainsaw. Cash uses each weapon to kill hunters in a different way. For example, Cash uses machetes and meat cleavers to chop off his victims’ heads. Severed heads can be picked up and used as lures, like bottles or bricks.

In addition to hardware and sporting goods, Cash can use guns in the game’s later scenes, including revolvers, light and heavy pistols, double-barreled and pump-action shotguns, submachine guns and assault rifles, and sniper rifles with telescopic sights. When Cash is armed with a gun, the player will press one button to reload, another to take aim, and another to fire. Cash can pop up or whip out from behind cover, fire a shot, and then duck back, if desired. He can also kick open doors to surprise his enemies. If the target is close enough, and the player taps the right control stick, Cash will aim his gun at the target’s head. Most hunters can survive a few shots to the body, but a bullet in the head is always fatal. Cash cannot execute hunters with guns, but the results of a shotgun blast at close range are as gruesome as any execution.

In purely quantitative terms, Manhunt is not a particularly violent game. High-scoring players will kill about four hundred people by the time they complete all twenty scenes. The death toll is much higher in ‘shooters’ like Dead to Rights and Max Payne, or even in Rockstar North’s Grand Theft Auto games. The last time I played GTA: Vice City, for example, I ‘wasted’ over 2500 people. But in games like these, the player’s character does most of his killing at a distance with guns. In Manhunt’s few scenes like “View of Innocence” and “Kill the Rabbit,” where Cash can dispense with stealth and just shoot his enemies the way Max Payne does, the body count goes up significantly.

Most of the violence in Manhunt is like the violence in other stealth-based games—but even then, the differences are significant. In Thief, for example, the player’s character is a professional thief named Garrett, who can attack his enemies from behind as Cash does, but instead of executing them, he simply knocks them unconscious with a blackjack. Sam Fisher, the high-tech super-spy star of Splinter Cell, dispenses with Garrett’s blackjack and knocks out his unsuspecting enemies with a martial-arts elbow strike. Fisher is more likely to simply kill his enemies than Garrett, but since he sometimes receives orders to complete his missions without killing anyone, his assault weapon can also be loaded with non-lethal munitions, including ring-airfoil baton rounds and high-voltage Sticky Shockers.

Manhunt more closely resembles the Hitman games in which the player’s character is a professional killer named Forty-Seven who can creep up behind people, strangle them with a wire garrote, or just execute them with a silenced pistol shot to the head. (In addition, by coincidence, both Cash and Forty-Seven are bald-headed.) But even still, in games like the recent Hitman: Contracts, players are discouraged from killing anyone but Forty-Seven’s designated victims. After each mission, the player’s performance is rated. When Forty-Seven avoids killing guards and bystanders, the player gets a positive rating. ‘Silent Assassin’ is the highest possible rating, which unlocks more powerful weapons for later missions. When Forty-Seven kills indiscriminately, the player gets negative ratings like ‘Postal,’ ‘Psychopath,’ and ‘Mass Murderer.’

But Manhunt lacks even Hitman’s moral fig leaf. Its violence and sadism are naked and shameless, like its character Piggsy who wears nothing but a pig’s-head mask. (As an aside, it’s worth noting that Manhunt may be the first mass-market video game to feature full-frontal male nudity.) A player’s performance is rated on a scale of one to five stars. One star is awarded if a time limit is met, and another is awarded simply for increasing the game’s level of difficulty from ‘Fetish’ to ‘Hardcore’. The remaining three stars are awarded only to players who perform Gruesome executions. The greater the number of Gruesome executions, the greater the number of stars. Players whose performance is consistently good—three stars or higher—will be rewarded with special bonus scenes. Players whose performance is consistently excellent—five stars—will be rewarded with special codes that change the parameters of the game once entered. In other words, while games like Hitman: Contracts discourage indiscriminate killing, Manhunt encourages players to kill as many hunters as quickly and viciously as they can.

How the Game Enables Killing

If any video game deserves to be called a ‘murder simulator,’ it’s Manhunt. Essentially, this game is an interactive slasher movie shot from the slasher’s perspective. But how could anybody find such a game enjoyable, and why would anybody play it? These questions were on my mind recently, when I was playing the game a second time. I like to think I’m a liberal and humane person, and it occurred to me that perhaps I shouldn’t enjoy playing Manhunt as much as I do. As I reflected on what I thought and felt as I played, I was reminded of my research into the causes of atrocities in war. My dissertation was a social history of British police in the Irish War of Independence, 1920-21. Nicknamed ‘Black and Tans’ for their mixed uniforms—part khaki, part bottle green—these police became notorious for their violence and lack of discipline. To this day, their name is associated with ‘reprisals’ against Irish communities—police riots, in which suspected guerrillas were beaten and shot, while the homes and shops of their supporters were smashed and burned.

As part of my research, I read the book On Killing by an American soldier and psychologist, Lieutenant-Colonel David Grossman. Building on the research of others in the field, like Israeli military psychologist Ben Shalit, Grossman (1995) has analyzed the reactions of soldiers and police who kill in combat and has identified five key factors that enable killing. These are: 1) the demands of authority; 2) group absolution; 3) the killer’s total distance from the victim; 4) the victim’s attractiveness as a target; and 5) the killer’s predisposition (p. 187-89). The more I reflected on what I thought and felt as I played Manhunt, the more it seemed to me that the game was using these same five factors to encourage its players to kill the hunters. In other words, Manhunt does more than simulate killing; it simulates the psychological pressures that enable killing as well.

The first elements in Grossman’s ‘anatomy of killing’ are the demands of authority. Soldiers are more likely to kill when their leaders order them to kill, and as Milgram’s obedience experiments revealed, civilians will follow orders to kill as well. Grossman (1995) also identifies four key variables in the relationship between authority figures and killers: 1) the distance between the two; 2) the killer’s respect for the authority figure; 3) the intensity of the authority figure’s demands; and 4) the legitimacy of the authority figure’s demands (p. 141-45).

In Manhunt, the player’s orders to kill come from the Director, voiced by Brian Cox. During the first three scenes, while the player is learning the game, the Director barks actual orders at Cash and his player. When Cash is ready for an execution, the Director will say things like “Go on,” “Do it,” “Take him,” “Kill him,” “Finish him,” “Butcher him,” “Cut him up,” “Snuff him out,” “Slaughter the pig,” and “Send him to hell!”

The Director also praises Cash after he performs executions. “Beautiful,” he purrs. “You’re warming up our audience nicely… At this rate, you’re gonna massacre the whole gang—I love it… Stone cold, baby, stone cold. You have my respect, you utter psycho.” Sometimes, the Director takes a paternal tone, “That’s my boy! Get your teeth into them… Go for it, my boy, go for it… You’re making me proud of you, son. You’re a one-in-a-million find—really.”

But the Director will also criticize Cash for not killing the hunters quickly enough. At first, he merely sounds impatient, “We haven’t got all night. Get out there and start killing… Okay, we need to bump up the murder rate here—plow on… You’re pushing my patience! I want to see blood, Cash! Blood…!” Sometimes, he talks as if Cash were a temperamental movie star, “All right,” he says, “you can have your own trailer. Just get on with it!” At other times, he will make threats: “If you don’t want to play any more, I can just tell them where you are… I’m serious Cash—if you’re going to waste my time, we can end this.” If the player waits too long, the Director begins to shout angrily: “I want torrents of gore, Cash! Torrents! I don’t want to be able to see you for the blood… Look, this isn’t rocket science, you moron! Go kill somebody…! Gore, Cash! Gore! What is it you don’t understand…?”

In Manhunt, authority’s demands for killing are intense. Granted, the game’s authority figure lacks legitimacy and soon loses the player’s respect. But until Cash escapes from his control at the end of Scene Thirteen, “Kill the Rabbit,” the Director is always close, and his demands are loud, clear, and insistent. If the game is played with a headset, the Director is even closer than usual, speaking right into the player’s ear as if the player were Cash himself.

The second element in Grossman’s analysis, group absolution, is not as common as the Director’s demands. According to Grossman (1995), soldiers are enabled to kill by being members of groups: a) if the group is close, b) if the soldier identifies with his group, c) if the group is legitimate in the soldier’s eyes, d) if the members of the group are numerous, and e) if group support for killing is intense, then soldiers will find it easier to kill. (p. 150-55)

In Manhunt, Cash is on his own most of the time, but the player is given a certain amount of group absolution by scenes in which Cash must save innocent bystanders from the hunters. In “Strapped for Cash,” he must rescue four members of his family from the Wardogs. If he succeeds, the Director says, “You rescued them all! I knew I’d bring out the hero in you.” In “Drunk Driving” and “Press Coverage,” Cash must protect a drunken tramp and a journalist. These two characters cannot run or fight back if the hunters find them. To make matters worse, while the tramp has plenty of Dutch courage, the journalist is liable to panic and come running, looking for Cash if he leaves her alone for too long. “Were you ever going to come back for me?” she wails. In these cases, Cash’s killing is justified because it saves the lives of others: It should be noted that Manhunt has only three female characters, all of whom appear in scenes like these.

There’s almost no sex in Manhunt. This may surprise readers familiar with Rockstar North’s three most recent Grand Theft Auto games, which are notorious, among other things, for their sexual content. All three GTA games are full of double entendres. In GTA: San Andreas, for example, a radio commercial invites people to the Glory Hole amusement park—“where strangers become friends!” And in all three games, the player’s character can pick up prostitutes, drive them to secluded spots, and have sex in the back seat of his car. In GTA: San Andreas, in addition to visiting strip clubs and paying for lap dances, the player’s character can find potential girlfriends and take them out on dates; after a number of successful dates, these women will invite the player’s character into their homes for—ahem—“coffee”.

The sex in these games is always implied rather than explicit and is pursued less for its own sake than for certain advantages it provides in the game. Paying for the services of a prostitute, for example, will restore lost health points, and the transaction is represented onscreen merely by the rocking of the player character’s car. But even this implicit sexual content has attracted much criticism, and in light of the game’s outrageously violent subject matter, my reviewers have wondered if Rockstar North left sex out of Manhunt in order to avoid additional controversy. That is possible, but it seems more likely to me that the game’s designers were merely following the genre’s perversely puritanical conventions. In slasher films, the penalty for illicit sex is death, and this punishment is meted out in Manhunt as well. Near the start of Scene Five, “Fuelled by Hate,” Cash finds a hunter watching an adult video. The director complains that, “this shit seems content to watch porno and miss all the action”; needless to say, this distraction proves fatal for the hunter, just as it has for innumerable cinematic teenagers.

Cash’s heroic and even chivalrous behavior in “Strapped for Cash,” “Drunk Driving,” and “Press Coverage” brings us to the third element in Grossman’s analysis, the physical and emotional distance between killer and victim. Grossman (1995) argues that it’s easier for soldiers to kill when their victims are distant. Sometimes this distance is physical and sometimes it’s emotional. For soldiers to kill their enemies at close range, they must distance themselves emotionally from their victims. This distance can be cultural, arising from ethnic and racial differences; moral, arising from belief in the killer’s righteousness and the victim’s wickedness; social, arising from class differences; or simply mechanical—“the sterile ‘video game’ unreality of killing through a TV screen, a thermal sight, a sniper sight, or some other kind of mechanical buffer” (p. 160). In particular, Grossman stresses the fact that soldiers find it easier to kill when they cannot see their victim’s faces—if their victim’s backs are turned, for example. “The essence of the whole physical distance spectrum,” he writes, “may simply revolve around the degree to which the killer can see the face of the victim” (p. 128). This helps explain, for example, why condemned criminals are blindfolded or hooded before being executed, and why “the risk of death for a kidnap victim is much greater if the victim is hooded” (p. 128).

Clearly, Manhunt enables its players to kill by distancing them from Cash’s victims in various ways. Though the game’s violence is disturbingly lifelike, it all takes place at a considerable distance from the player. Manhunt is a ‘third-person’ game where the player’s point of view is above and behind Cash, and the player watches Cash’s exploits through the “mechanical buffer” of the TV screen. In addition, the game’s nighttime settings are often dark and indistinct. Additional physical and mechanical distance is provided by the game’s execution mechanics. When Cash executes a hunter, the player momentarily loses control of his character. The viewpoint shifts, the picture quality declines, and instead of mashing buttons as we must when Cash gets into a fight, we can watch passively through the Director’s closed-circuit television cameras as Cash kills his victim. These executions are brutal and gory, but instead of killing someone, the player is merely watching someone being killed.

In addition, the player can rarely see the hunter’s faces. Executions can be performed only from behind, and when Cash executes his first two victims, he uses a plastic bag that both covers their faces and muffles their cries. In addition, most of the hunters disguise themselves with masks or face paint. The Hoods wear ski masks, balaclavas, and nylon stockings. The Skinz wear hockey masks. The Wardogs cover their faces with neckerchiefs and camouflage paint. Some Innocentz disguise their faces to look like skulls, while others wear baby-face masks. The Smileys get their names from their yellow smiley-face disguises. CCPD SWAT team members wear helmets and balaclavas, while Cerberus mercenaries wear sinister-looking rat-faced masks and goggles with glowing red eyes. “Can’t see shit through these goggles,” one of them complains. “Why are we wearing these stupid things, anyway?” To make them look less human, and enable the player to kill them.

One of the game’s unlockable extra scenes provides one more example of the game’s use of masks. At the beginning of “Monkey See, Monkey Die,” the player is told that, “The banana shortage has given the Zoo monkeys an appetite for death! Start feeding them lead to stop being on the menu too!” Somehow finding himself back at the city zoo, Cash is attacked from all sides by crazed-looking monkeys armed with machetes and shotguns. These monkeys, however, make suspiciously human-sounding noises when they’re killed or wounded. And if players examine dead “monkeys” closely, they’ll see they’re just men wearing monkey suits; the zipper is clearly visible at the crotch.

We have already seen some ways in which the game increases the moral distance between Cash and the Director. By the game’s end, the Director’s betrayals justify Cash’s bloody revenge. The hunters’ dialogue helps increase the cultural and social distance between the player and the rest of Cash’s victims. Racial and ethnic minority groups are almost absent from the game. The sole exception is a nameless member of the Innocentz, a skull-faced Mexican devil-worshipper who can be heard saying things like “Diablo, give me the gringo’s eyes tonight!” (Unlike the game’s lack of sexual content, this omission may well represent a concession to community standards. GTA: Vice City attracted a great deal of negative publicity for a level in which the player’s character fights a battle with a Haitian street gang; Haitian-Americans were particularly upset when the screen flashed instructions to “KILL ALL THE HAITIANS!”) Nonetheless, in Manhunt, the first three groups of hunters all speak with regional accents that make them sound stupid and uneducated, and stereotypes abound. The Hoods, for example, have New York City accents. They call each other “Duke” and “Vince,” and when they’re chasing Cash, they shout things like “Where ya goin’, little bubby?”

Most of the Skinz and Wardogs, by comparison, have Southern drawls. One Skin can be heard threatening to show Cash some “Deep South hospitality” if he catches him. Another Skin speaks in pseudo-religious terms, like a Christian Identity preacher. “Soon this’ll be how we punish all wrongdoers,” he muses. “God bless white America.” Some of the Wardogs are dressed more for duck-hunting than for man-hunting with billed caps and vests over their camouflage jackets. These “gung-ho losers” invite further contempt by posing as Vietnam veterans and using military slang, badly. “Gonna get me some buku boom-boom once we skin this fool,” says one. “Could be an alpha bravo,” says another when he hears a noise

All the members of these gangs are poor white trash from the rural and urban underclass, and their dialogue is laced with profanity, which increases the social distance between the player and his victims. Indeed, it would seem that Manhunt was designed to appeal especially to suburban middle-class gamers. Most of the game takes place in a nightmarish inner city full of abandoned and ruined buildings, and gangs like the Hoods are this desolation’s native inhabitants. These are the sorts of places and people that inspire fear in suburbanites, and in Manhunt, the middle-class player penetrates and explores this asphalt jungle, moving through a linear series of scenes like Marlowe steaming up the Congo River, heading for the heart of darkness in Starkweather's mansion and battling Carcer City's cannibal tribes along the way. The Skinz and Wardogs, by constrast, have been transplanted from the rural South, a place where unreconstructed Confederates and inbred backwoodsmen wait in ambush for those who stray from the safety of the Northern suburbs—at least, in horror films. Moreover, Piggsy and his filthy, dilapidated attic were clearly inspired by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the game’s final scene, where Cash and Piggsy meet, is entitled “Deliverance.”

In addition to cultural and social distance, the game enables killing by creating moral distance between Cash and the hunters. Since Cash has escaped from death row, his hunters are portrayed as worse than ordinary murderers. The Smileys, for example, are all hopelessly insane. One of them, Barry, wanders around in a woman’s dress, talking like his murdered wife. “I just wouldn’t shut up,” he babbles. “Nag, nag, nag. He had no choice but to beat me to death with that crowbar.”

Some of the Innocentz, like Daddy, are just as unbalanced. Players who listen to the baby-faced Daddy will quickly discover that he is a child-abuser and child-molester. When idle, he mutters to himself, “It ain’t my fault, they made me think those things… With their dirty innocent looks, making me want them… They need discipline and punishment. They’re dangerous…” When he learns that his prey is nearby, Daddy will try to wheedle Cash into coming out of hiding as if Cash were a frightened child. “It’s no good hiding—Daddy knows you’re here… Look, I’m sorry, sunshine, Daddy won’t shout again. Just come back out, and we can be friends… Come on out—I’ve got some candy and some baseball cards…” If Cash can lose him and hide again, Daddy will stalk around angrily, mixing shouts and snarls with his pleas. “Come out here right now—RIGHT NOW, DO YOU HEAR ME… We can talk about this, Daddy understands, just DON’T FUCKING MOVE…! Don’t be scared; I’ll be right there before you can SCREAM FOR HELP, YOU LITTLE SHIT…!”

Perhaps worst of all (at least, for someone who likes to think he’s liberal and humane) are the Skinz, neo-nazi skinheads who spew racist insults, referring to Cash as a “mongrel,” “subhuman,” and “half-breed scum.” “I can smell your tainted blood like rotten eggs,” they sneer, as they search for their prey. “It’s a sign of the weaker race—the instinct to hide… His muddy blood lacks the strength for confrontation.” If Cash makes a noise, they will say, “Sounds like our monkey!” In a fight, they will shout things like “Lie down and take it like a mongrel bitch,” “Gonna whup you like Pa used to whup me,” and “Spill some of that tainted blood!”

The Director’s dialogue also helps increase the emotional distance between the player and Cash’s victims. The Director denigrates and insults his hunters constantly. Right at the beginning of the first scene he calls them “scum.” When Cash approaches his very first victim at the beginning of the game, graffiti urges him silently to KILL THIS DUMB FUCK. After the Hood has been suffocated, the Director calls him a “chump.” Later, as Cash nears the scene’s exit, the Director warns, “Okay, there are some more of these shitheads hanging around the exit.” At the beginning of another special extra scene, “Time 2 Die,” the player learns that the Hoods are trying to run away. “Cash, baby, you’re scaring the shit out of these Hoods. They’re trying to bug out!” says the Director. “Fucking low-life cowards. Do me a favor…KILL EVERY LAST ONE OF THEM!”

The Director is equally contemptuous toward his other gangs. When he praises Cash after a kill, he’ll say things like: “Way to go, Cash! You’re totaling these assholes,” or “Keep going, Cash! Execute those worthless motherfuckers!” At the beginning of Scene Five, “Fuelled by Hate,” he says, “These Skinz are boring me—dumb-assed supremacist bastards, always blaming others for their inadequacies. Butcher them, Cash! Cut ‘em up. Beat ‘em down and choke the fucking life out of them!” He calls the Wardogs “pricks” and “dickless, gung-ho losers.” Remember that the Wardogs are hunting Cash in the city zoo. “Shame we can’t feed some of these bozos to the original inhabitants,” the Director muses as Cash hacks off the Wardogs’ heads.

For some reason, the Director is especially hateful toward the Smileys, who roam the grounds of an abandoned penitentiary. “The lunatics have taken over the asylum, Cash,” he warns. “The only way to reason with these gibbering idiots is with a stick and a gun.” As Cash guns them down, the cackling Director exhorts him to greater extremes of violence. “Just keep on capping these crazies,” he says. “They come out of the woodwork like termites…! That’s it, Cash! Don’t let a single nutjob back on the streets…! This is the best kind of therapy money can buy!”

Since the player must kill the Director to finish the game, Manhunt goes out of its way to create moral distance between Starkweather and Cash. The Director’s dialogue, for example, makes it clear that the violence is exciting him, sexually. “So you’re not resting on your laurels,” he says, impatiently. “But I haven’t gotten stiff for a while, so step it up a little!” If the player complies, the Director will say things like “Phew! You’re getting me all flustered here… You’re really getting me off, Cash… Unh! Oh, man that was good… You got me hot, Cash… You’re really doing it for me! I ain’t been this turned on since—well, let’s not go there,” and finally, “Oh, my God! I’ve had an accident. I’m serious, man; you brought me off.”

In each case, the message is clear; the Director and his hunters are people the player can feel good about killing. Compared to these monsters, Cash is just an ordinary decent criminal. Even the police are corrupt and brutal. But in their efforts to demonize the hunters, Manhunt’s designers did make one small mistake. One of the Innocentz is mentally handicapped. He calls Cash “Mr. Bunny Rabbit” and obviously does not appreciate the seriousness of the ‘game’ he’s playing. “This is a silly game,” he complains, in his man-child’s voice. “Why do we have to wait so long? Why doesn’t he come out and play?” When I first encountered this character, I was dismayed. It bothered me when Cash killed him. My exact, uncensored, politically-incorrect response was, “Oh, man—I don’t want to kill some retard.” But I’m not sure if other players respond the same way.

Grossman’s remaining enabling factors can be passed over quickly. What Grossman (1995) means by target attractiveness are “the relevance and attractiveness of available strategies for killing the victim (that is, the means and opportunity)” and “the relevance of the victim and the payoff for the killer in terms of the killer’s gain and the enemy’s loss (the motive)” (p. 171) In war, for example, soldiers prefer to kill with as little risk as possible to themselves and also prefer to kill those enemies who pose the greatest danger. In Manhunt, the way to kill without risk is by performing an execution. It’s dangerous to try killing hunters by fighting them; if nothing else, the noise of the fight will attract other hunters. Every hunter is a relevant victim, and each hunter’s death increases Cash’s chance of surviving and completing the scene. But executions—especially Gruesome executions—pay off much more handsomely than fighting; besides increasing Cash’s chances of survival, they will increase the player’s rating at the scene’s end and give players access to bonus episodes and cheat codes.

The killer’s predisposition covers factors like a soldier’s training, his recent experiences, and his temperament. Modern soldiers are conditioned to kill by their training. Soldiers whose comrades are killed in battle often react with anger (one of the first stages of the grieving process) and kill for revenge; the victims of these revenge killings are often prisoners and sometimes civilians. Finally, a small percentage of men seem to be ‘born soldiers’ who can kill without remorse (Grossman, 1995, 177-85). Similar factors encourage Manhunt players to kill their virtual enemies as well. Presumably, people who choose to purchase and play Manhunt have a taste for violent video games, as I do. Players are eased into the game gradually. The first few scenes are essentially training sessions, in which players learn how to play the game and become accustomed to the violence therein. Cash often gets killed in fights while players are still mastering the game’s controls, and his deaths encourage his players to get back at the hunters who killed him.

How Players React

Clearly, there are some interesting similarities between the ways that soldiers are enabled to kill in war and the ways in which players are enabled to kill in this video game. I developed this hypothesis by reflecting on my own thoughts and feelings as I played, and I conducted a preliminary test by asking three graduate-student teaching assistants to play the game while I watched. Two of my subjects—Neil and Heather—were enthusiastic video gamers, the third, Greg, was not. Moreover, Greg was notoriously squeamish and often averted his eyes from bloody scenes in movies. I told all three of them that they were going to play an exceptionally violent video game, but otherwise, I left the reasons for this experiment unexplained. All of them played my copy of the game on my PlayStation 2, while I sat behind them taking notes, asking questions, and making comments as they played.

My three players responded in very different ways. Neil played for more than three hours and found the game very enjoyable. Greg played the game for about an hour and found it a guilty pleasure. “I shouldn’t be enjoying this,” he said. Heather played for about half an hour, until she was overcome by motion sickness (the game’s constantly shifting camera viewpoint made her ill). Even if the game had not made her sick, she probably would not have enjoyed it. She said it was more amusing than challenging and later described it as “boring.”

All three players found it funny when Cash killed hunters in fights. Heather laughed as Cash kicked an opponent to death during the first scene. When asked why she laughed, she said, “I’m kicking the crap out of the guy!” Later, Cash stabbed a fleeing hunter in the back with a glass shard, killing him. “Whoops,” Heather said, laughing. “That was unnecessary.” Later still, after Cash had beaten down a third hunter, she was amused by the quantities of blood being spilled. “Good God!” she said. “Look at the puddle of blood.” Afterward, Heather commented that the violence “wasn’t as graphic as I thought it would be.” When you’re fighting, she said, you’re just kind of swinging away and can’t really see what you’re doing.

As expected, Greg was averse to the sight of blood and even, it seems, to the sound of hunters being slashed and stabbed. At one point, Cash was armed with a shard of glass and got into a fight with a hunter. When he realized that Cash was hacking and stabbing at his opponent, Greg actually closed his eyes and simply mashed the controller’s buttons blindly. I had to tell him that the hunter was dead and he could stop. Beating down hunters with Cash’s fists or a blackjack didn’t bother him, though. And at one point, when Cash was clubbing a Hood, Greg exclaimed, “This is the penalty for plagiarism!”

Interestingly, both Heather and Greg expressed some interest in nonviolent alternatives. When a Hood was down, begging for his life, Heather hesitated and asked, “Can I befriend these guys?” For his part, after defeating a hunter in a fight, Greg (a practicing Christian) asked plaintively, “Where’s the mercy and forgiveness button?”

My third player never asked about mercy and forgiveness. Like Heather, Neil soon discovered that he could kick a hunter who was down on the ground. When I asked him why he kept kicking one dead hunter, he replied, “Gratuitous violence.” He soon began doing this to every dead opponent. Later, after beating down a hunter with a bat, Neil discovered that post-mortem beating would crush his victim’s skull. “Holy shit!” he said. “I took that dude’s head off! I didn’t know I could do that. Brutal.”

Only Neil played long enough to master the mechanics of executions, and he clearly enjoyed watching them. “Oh, my God,” he said, laughing at Cash’s first execution with a plastic bag. “That was pleasantly surprising.” He soon began to look forward to watching each weapon’s effect on a hunter. At one point, while Cash was armed with a shard of glass, I commented that Neil could switch it for a plastic bag if he wanted. “No,” he said. “I haven’t seen a proper execution with the glass shard yet.” When he did succeed in executing a hunter with this weapon he said, “Oh yeah! Oh yeah! Holy shit! Right in the throat…that’s brutal.” When he switched back to the plastic bag for another execution soon afterward, he said, “I think I like the moderate execution better. More death throes.”

Neil’s enjoyment, it seems, increased as Cash acquired more powerful weapons, and his executions became bloodier and more varied. “Oh, my God,” he laughed, after a Hasty execution with a blackjack. “That’s too much!” After a Gruesome execution with a wooden bat, he said, “Oh, no! Oh man! Oh, now, that’s the best one. Home run!” Then, after a Gruesome execution with a crowbar, “Oh! Ooooh! That was the best one yet! Fucking crowbar in the spine!” When he did this again a little later he said, “That was a quality kill—satisfaction.” (To be fair to Neil, I responded in a similar way the first time I played the game. I particularly remember performing a Gruesome execution with a loop of wire. Instead of just strangling his enemy, Cash puts his knee to the hunter’s back and saws his head off. I laughed and exclaimed, “Oh, yeah! Head right off!”)

Heather and Greg were unable to execute many hunters. Most of the time, they blundered into their opponents and were forced to fight. Heather complained afterward that the game’s onscreen instructions went by too quickly. As a result, she wasn’t sure exactly how to perform an execution. Their few reactions to executions were ambivalent. After Cash executed the first hunter with a plastic bag, Heather said, “He’s nasty.” Greg’s aversion to blood made him look away from an execution with a glass shard but executions with a plastic bag left him unmoved. He was a little dismayed by this afterward, since, objectively considered, suffocating someone with a plastic bag seems hardly less horrible than stabbing them to death.

Even for Neil, executions were a guilty pleasure. Toward the end of the first scene, he said, "I’m starting to get the hang of this. That’s not a good thing." When I asked him why, he said, "It’ll be mass carnage." When the Director praised Cash for executing a hunter, Neil said, “He’s enjoying it!” During the next scene, after more praise from the Director Neil said, “This dude is sick!” And when Cash first picked up a crowbar, Neil said, “It’s horrible too, because now I want to see an execution with the crowbar. I want to see what he does.”

Neither Heather nor Greg made many replies to the Director. At one point, after a fight, the Director complained, “You’re supposed to be picking them off, not slugging it out in a mass brawl.” To this, Heather said, “Good advice—a little too late.” When asked if the Director was helpful, Greg said, “He doesn’t tell you much until you’ve done it.”

Neil, however, replied to the Director frequently. He responded positively to the Director’s praise, laughing when the Director complimented Cash after one of his first executions, because “He’s praising the way I killed that dude.” Later, when the Director said that Cash was “getting a real taste for this,” Neil said, “Oh, yes.” Neil also responded negatively to the Director’s criticism. At one point, when the Director criticized Cash for breaking cover, Neil said, “Shut up, asshole.”

When asked if the Director was helpful, Neil said ‘no’ as well and commented that the Director merely provided “comic relief after I kill someone.” During one scene however, Neil was preparing to execute a hunter, when the Director barked an order:

Director: Do it!

Neil: Do it! Do it! (Executes hunter) That actually did help that time.

Me: How?

Neil: Well, he just kind of spurred me to action.

Both Neil and Greg expressed very negative feelings toward the Hoods. During the first scene, “Born Again,” I asked Neil why he was kicking the body of a dead Hood. “They deserved it,” he said. Later, during the second scene, “Doorway into Hell,” Neil surprised me by volunteering the following opinion, “These guys are just rude and uncouth. They need to be put out of their misery. They’re guttersnipes.” As Greg was playing the same scene, I asked him what he thought of the Hoods.

Greg: Scum.

Me: Why scum?

Greg: They’re miserable. I assume they’re—they look like they’re not even human. Are they wearing masks?

Later, while discussing the game, Greg again commented that he couldn’t see their faces. He said the hunters seemed “subhuman” and looked “degenerate.” “If you suddenly had these looking like ordinary people, it might be a different dynamic,” he said. Indeed.

Only Neil played the fourth scene, “White Trash,” but when he did, he voiced even more negative feelings toward the Skinz. He referred to the hunters as ‘Jethro’ and ‘Billy Bob’ and mocked their Southern accents, saying “yee-haw” and “hee-haw” after they spoke. For example, when a hunter shouted, “Gather round and we can pin him in,” Neil said “Just like a pig, hee-haw.” At one point, Neil pointed out that a hunter had a Confederate battle flag on his mask. After executing this hunter, he said, “The South will rise again, buddy.”

Only Neil and Greg commented on their performance once a scene was completed. After he finished “Born Again,” Neil said, “Oh, man, my final score, two out of five, that’s pitiful.” After he scored even lower on “Doorway into Hell,” he said, “I gotta get my style up. I’m a very poor serial killer.” After “Born Again,” however, Greg was more concerned by the fact that Cash had killed six hunters and executed two. “I didn’t know I had it in me to kill eight people,” he said.

These results were not as clear-cut as I would have liked, and I’m sure that my colleagues in Psychology would roll their eyes at these amateurish proceedings. My subjects were few in number, and my methods were qualitative and exploratory. Nevertheless, I think the results were encouraging overall and suggest that the game does indeed simulate the psychological pressures that enable killing. Neil’s responses to the Director suggest that this authority figure’s demands are important. The casual way in which all three players killed hunters in fights, combined with Neil’s enjoyment of executions, indicates that the physical and mechanical distance between the players and the game’s graphic violence is more than sufficient. Heather’s comments indicate that the execution mechanics provide additional distance from the action. “I’m kicking the crap out of the guy,” she said during a fight, and she said, “He’s nasty,” during an execution. Both Neil and Greg’s negative comments about the hunters suggest that the game also succeeds in fostering cultural and social distance between the player and Cash’s victims. Neil’s negative comments about the Director’s enjoyment—“This dude is sick”—show that the game succeeds in creating moral distance between the player and the Director. Greg’s comments about the hunters’ masks and his indifference to plastic-bag executions would seem to support Grossman’s claim that hiding the victim’s face enables killing.

One result that I did not anticipate was Neil’s attitude toward executions in general. Though Neil was concerned about his rating at the end of each scene, the prospect of watching new and different types of executions became his chief incentive to play well. In a sense, the violence became its own payoff. Only Neil found the game as absorbing as I did, but the fact that Greg enjoyed the game at all suggests that even players who are not predisposed to enjoy violent games can be sucked in by Grossman’s five factors. Heather’s lack of enjoyment might have a number of causes, including physical discomfort (the result of motion sickness), personal taste (she prefers racing games like Gran Turismo), and gender. But Heather’s complaint that the game’s onscreen instructions were difficult to follow may suggest that the game itself had not succeeded in training her to kill the way it had trained Neil and Greg.


Of course, this analysis overlooks the most important enabling factor of all: It’s just a game and the killing isn’t real. But it’s interesting to note that the most important enabling factors in Manhunt—emotional distance and the demands of authority—are almost absent from games like Medal of Honor, Allied Assault and Call of Duty, in which the player’s characters are Allied soldiers in the Second World War. The German soldiers in these games are not portrayed as inhuman monsters, and officers do not stand over the player’s characters ordering them to kill—in spite of the fact that these are first-person shooters in which players view the game world through their character’s eyes.

Why don’t these games enable players to kill the way Manhunt does? For one thing, these games can assume a certain moral distance between the player and his victims. Though perhaps not evil themselves, the German soldiers in these games are defending an evil regime. What’s more, the physical distance between the killer and his victims is generally much greater—the player’s character spends most of his time shooting his enemies with rifles and submachine guns, and close-quarters combat is rare. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the violence in these war games is much less graphic than the violence in Manhunt. Soldiers cry out in pain when they’re wounded and they fall dead in convincing fashion, but there’s very little blood and bodies are never mutilated. As a consequence, the violence and killing in a game like Call of Duty requires much less justification than the violence and killing in a game like Manhunt—which is ironic, since Grossman was trying to explain how soldiers justify killing in war. For this reason, I would argue that the seemingly surreal Manhunt is actually closer to reality than the realistic-looking Call of Duty. Unlike the designers of war games, who simply simulate (some of) the physical consequences of killing, Manhunt’s designers have taken care to simulate the psychological causes of killing as well.

In addition, the pressures which Manhunt exerts on its player have broader theoretical implications as well. Video-game studies are quite a new discipline. Their flagship journal, Game Studies, is less than four years old. What’s more, scholars have not yet agreed on a theoretical approach to the subject. Some, like Janet Murray, have argued that video games are essentially similar to traditional narratives like literature and motion pictures, while others, like Espen Aarseth, have argued that they’re essentially different. Within the field, the two competing schools of thought are known as “narratology” and “ludology.”

Manhunt certainly resembles traditional narratives in some ways. It has a plot, characters and scripted dialogue. Most of the narrative unfolds during “cut scenes,” which are short sequences over which the player has no control. What’s more, these cut scenes are integral parts of the game’s execution mechanics. Whenever Cash executes a hunter, play stops and a simulated snuff film rolls; as a result, the player spends a lot of time watching instead of playing. Finally, the slasher films which inspired the game are not exactly renowned for sophisticated story-telling.

Nevertheless, in most ways, Manhunt is a game rather than a story. For one thing, underneath all the blood and filth, Cash and his enemies are actually playing a very simple game—namely, hide and seek. But, more importantly, the player’s relationship with Cash is very different from the reader’s relationship with the main character in a traditional narrative. Manhunt’s non-player characters are very talkative. The game’s producer and lead artist, Andy Hay, says that more than eight thousand lines were recorded for the gangs alone. What’s more, the voice acting is top-notch, with veteran actor Brian Cox giving an especially memorable performance as the Director. By comparison, Cash himself has very few lines, and these are delivered very stiffly by Stephen Wilfong, an unknown. Moreover, Cash’s facial expression remains the same throughout the game; even the most violent and gruesome executions leave him unmoved.

As a consequence, Cash has about as much personality as a chess piece. Aarseth (1997) has argued that a video-game player “assumes the role of the main character and, therefore, will not come to see this person as an other, or as a person at all, but rather as a remote-controlled extension of herself,” (1). Manhunt, it seems, was designed to maximize the player’s identification with Cash—a point which New Zealand’s Office of Film and Literature Classification (2003) mentions in its decision: “The character of Cash has been designed as an empty vessel which the player fills by controlling Cash’s actions and reactions,” they say (p. 2), and cite “the ease with which the player ‘becomes’ the protagonist” as one reason for classifying the game as “Objectionable” (p. 11).

When played with a headset, the player’s identification with his character becomes even more complete. Besides hearing the Director’s voice in his ear, the player’s voice (and even his breathing) can be heard by the hunters; but even without the headset, the remarks of my test subjects suggest that their identification with Cash was complete. “I’m kicking the crap out of that guy,” said Heather. “I didn’t know I had it in me to kill eight people,” said Greg. “I took that dude’s head off,” said Neil. Add to this my own reluctance to kill a mentally-handicapped hunter, and we begin to see how this “character” is merely the player’s puppet. While character development is an important part of traditional narrative, the only character that develops during a game of Manhunt is the player’s, a disturbing prospect—at least, for someone who likes to think of himself as liberal and humane.


Aarseth, E. (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Bogenn, T. (2004). Manhunt Official Strategy Guide. Indianapolis: BradyGames.

Computer game banned for repetitive extreme violence. (2003, December 12). New Zealand Herald. Retrieved August 15, 2004 from http://www.nzherald. =general

Golze, B. (2004, August 3). “Murder by PlayStation” case takes twist. Gamespot. Retrieved August 15, 2004 from manhunt/news_6104067.html

Grossman, D. (1995). On Killing: the Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Boston: Back Bay Books.

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Ontario gives Manhunt video game ‘'R' rating. CTV. Retrieved August 15, 2004 from 73743689?s_name=&no_ads=

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Thorsen, T. Manhunt blamed for UK murder. (2004, July 29). Gamespot. Retrieved August 15. 2004 from

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