A US judge has ordered developer Rock Star Games to hand over a pre-release copy of its controversial title 'Bully' for review. The judge will assess its content in a move civil liberties activists say breaches free speech rights.
The decision is the result of a legal action brought against the publishers by veteran anti-game violence campaigner Jack Thompson. Thompson wants the game to be declared a "public nuisance" in Florida and blocked from sale and its rating upped from 'T', which means it can be sold to people aged 13 and older.
Ronald Friedman, a judge at Miami-Dade County Circuit Court, has ordered a copy of the game for review in a step unprecedented in recent times in the US.
Previous rulings on similar issues had established that a court's pre-publication review of material constituted a violation of first amendment rights. The first amendment of the US Constitution enshrines the right to free speech.
"In Florida you have what is called a nuisance statute which says that a private citizen can get an injunction to shut down any commercial activity that is dangerous to the public, so I think that the statute is appropriate to apply to this game," Thompson told OUT-LAW Radio last month. " I filed the lawsuit to prevent the sale of the game to school age kids, because this is where the real danger is."
"In the UK, you embody in your laws the notion that there is certain adult entertainment that shouldn't be sold to kids," he said. "No-one is trying to ban it outright, but as it stands now, regardless of the rating that the game may get, anyone of any age will be able to buy it and that is just very dangerous. America has become the land of the free and the home of the utterly depraved."
Bully is set in a boarding school and involves the player becoming a school boy who has to negotiate and sometimes fight his way through school life, with all its cliques and confrontations.
Rockstar Games, the Take Two subsidiary responsible for the game, was pilloried for its last game, Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, after a hidden sex scene was found in the game. Originally rated for people aged 17 and older, the game was re-rated as adults only after causing a political storm.
With the game due for release in under a week, doubts are beginning to emerge, though, about whether or not Bully is actually very violent. Wired journalist Clive Thompson is one of the few people to have seen the game and wrote in his review that: "it turns out the game doesn't glorify bullying at all. Indeed, it's almost precisely the opposite".
"In Bully, there's no blood, and the stakes are pretty low," wrote Thompson. "One of the biggest 'crimes' is staying out after curfew, or wandering around when you ought to be in class. Even then, all that happens is the prefects hunt you down and put you in detention, where you play word and puzzle minigames."
The Miami-Dade County Court said that the judge would review the game with a representative of Take Two. The game is released on 17th October.