I expected Wal-Mart to cave like a wet paper bag, but Target surprised me. A couple of weeks ago, the bull’s-eye store frantically ripped copies of Rockstar Games’ Manhunt 2 off the shelves. The reason? Ubiquitous reports that hackers had found a way to unlock the gory original code in the PlayStation Portable version of the game.

Some backstory for those who missed it because they were, um, y’know, busy playing games that actually matter: Manhunt 2 is the controversial second game in a gruesome third-person series that has you stalking dark warehouse and asylum corridors in order to stab, maim, decapitate and bludgeon victims.

The original Manhunt 2, complete with a scene in which a victim’s, let’s see, “tender parts” are tortured with pliers, got a big ol’ “Adults Only” kiss of death from the Entertainment Software Rating Board. Rockstar responded by lopping off some objectionable scenes and blurring some blood. It then scored an “M” rating and sent the game off to stores.

Problem is, the code wasn’t deleted, only buried, waiting patiently for hackers to happily unlock it. Yet another storm of video-game controversy was unleashed.

That was Target. As for Wal-Mart, its hypocritical, holier-than-thou response didn’t surprise me in the slightest. After all, this is a retail chain that once pulled a T-shirt that read “Someday a woman will be president!” from racks when a Neanderthal customer complained. Somehow, after it pulled Manhunt 2, nobody saw this irony: You can simply go to the next aisle to buy Saw III or Hostel, a pair of torture-porn flicks as bloody and disturbing as Manhunt 2.

What’s more troubling to me is how – once again – one of the best video-game seasons in recent memory is being overshadowed by mainstream media’s negative spotlight. Gaming culture now has to deal with three headline news storylines: 1) their role in school shootings, regardless of whether the shooter played games; 2) the whole “controversial games are destroying our social fabric” pap; and 3) the tall tale about über-geeks lining up outside a Best Buy or fist-fighting in store aisles, a myth that ensures this niche hobby’s image remains in a perpetual state of pimply-faced adolescence.

Rockstar, I’m sure, is lying back and watching the carnage, high-fiving each other over the success of another reverse-marketing campaign – ’cause, remember, there ain’t no such thing as bad PR in this industry. Not to mention the number of consumers (many of whom, I’m sure, are impressionably underage) who will be driven to see the game’s garrote-laden gore for him or herself.

For Rockstar, that kind of sales bump will far outweigh any short-term backlash.

Meanwhile, while everyone was hand-wringing over the effects of Manhunt 2, a game that, to people who understand games the way Roger Ebert understands movies, is the equivalent of Wrong Turn 2 – a gruesome, straight-to-video special – here’s just a smattering of news about this season’s games.

Portal is Valve’s mind-bending M.C. Escher–like exercise. Super Mario Galaxy is possibly the coolest Wii game to date. And Guitar Hero III is the latest in a franchise that has become so huge that even Stan and Kyle on South Park are lampooning it. Discussion of the impact of these games is rightfully recognizing them for the cultural contributions that they are. Instead, to break out the movie analogy again to describe the sensational coverage of Manhunt 2 instead of better product, it was like the media devoting huge play to The Hills Have Eyes 2 in the same week that The Kite Runner hit theaters.

Wouldn’t happen. Which tells us, in terms as blunt as the instruments of death wielded by the “hero” of Manhunt 2, that gaming hasn’t traveled nearly as far on the road to respectability as we thought.

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