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Game case study - Watch Dogs 2

Hacking into the mainframe

Watch Dogs 2 is an open-world game available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

This highly anticipated game was submitted to the Classification Office on 12 August 2016 and classified ‘R18: Violence, offensive language and drug use’. The decision was appealed to the Film and Literature Board of Review and the current classification is ‘R18: Violence and offensive language’.

The game

Watch Dogs 2 is the sequel to the widely popular Watch Dogs.

The player takes the role of Marcus Holloway, a precocious hacker, as he joins the underground group DedSec, who position themselves as a vigilante hacktivist group that fights against corruption in corporations and the government. The game uses multiple references to real life people and events, such as Martin Shkreli and Project Chanology, to provide players with a snapshot of San Francisco.

Classification Considerations

The Classification Office identified matters of sex, crime, cruelty and violence within the game. In particular, the game makes references to sexual acts, deals with drug use, and allows the player to do nothing as a police officer commits suicide. One of the main points considered by the Classification Office is that the player is able to inflict violence on other characters, including civilians, with little consequence:

Over the course of the game the player is given a pistol, and may pick up or unlock stronger weaponry such as explosives, machine guns or shotguns. This allows the player to gun down numerous opponents (be they gang members or police), or execute civilians as they see fit.

Watch Dogs 2 frames its vigilante characters as the good guys, morally virtuous as they fight against corporate interest and governmental power. While this is a staple of the cyberpunk genre, […] their characterisation sits poorly with the game’s allowance for cold blooded killing, and the triviality of its consequences.

The way the violence was presented influenced the classification decision.

In examining publications, the Classification Office must look at the extent, degree and manner to which classifiable material is presented under section 3(3) of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993. With regard to the game’s depiction of violence, the Classification Office concluded that:

Compared with other games of its type, the degree of violence is quite restrained, with minimal blood spurts and occasional blood splatter should a target be standing near a wall or car. There is no indication of injury, with people simply collapsing as a ragdoll when killed.

While the degree of violence is limited, the ability to engage in repetitive violence against police or unarmed civilians with minimal consequence, ensures the impact can be quite strong.

The Classification Office decision

The Classification Office assigned the game an R18 classification.

Due to the extent and manner in which the game deals with criminal acts, including violence and drug use, the unrestricted availability of the publication is likely to be injurious to the public good. The depiction of suicide (or attempted suicide), and the cruelty of being able to choose to not intervene is particularly likely to disturb younger audiences. Some sexual references and the sheer extent of highly offensive language further support a need for restriction.

The Board of Review decision

Decisions made by the Classification Office can go to appeal.

If the creator, publisher or distributor of a publication is unhappy with a Classification Office decision, they can make an application to the Film and Literature Board of Review. The Film and Literature Board of Review, an independent body, will then examine and classify the publication under review. In this case the applicant to the Board of Review felt that the classification was overly restrictive and should be lowered to an R16.

On 31 October 2016 the Board dismissed the appeal, concluding:

…the acts of extreme violence which a player can perpetrate on innocent bystanders or civilians means that the publication is objectionable […] unless restricted to those over the age of 18 years.

Further the ability of the player to allow a policeman in the game to commit suicide (despite having an option to save him) means that […] the Board consider that the publication should be deemed objectionable unless publication is restricted to those over the age of 18 years.

The Board agreed with the age restriction, however they did make an alteration to the descriptive note:

The Board uphold the warnings placed on the game by the Classification Office that the game contains violence, offensive language. However, the Board do not consider that the game requires a warning as to drug use.

Game case studies

Watch Dogs 2 Cover

And with DedSec’s underground HQ located underneath a comic book store, complete with board games and 8-foot statues of fantasy characters, Watch Dogs 2’s dedication to geek culture is both intrinsic to its DNA and a self-aware joke. There’s even a whole mission where you break into Ubisoft headquarters to leak a trailer of new game it’s working on. So meta.

Sam White, The Guardian

Useful Links

Screenshots from the game

Watchdogs 2 - city street
Marcus walking down a city street
Watch Dogs 2 - shotgun in a donut store
Marcus holding a gun in a donut store
Marcus and Wrench fist-bumping
Marcus and Wrench sharing a fist-bump