All of the furor over LFD2‘s censorship in Australia has caused a righteous uproar, both domestically and internationally. Since it seems that Australia has begun to take over China and Germany as the king hate-state of video game hatred, let’s get some facts straight.
Australia’s OFLC ratings board, who are mandated under law to provide a rating for every single film, and game, released in this country, are provided with inconsistent and outdated guidelines. There is no R-rating for games, so titles, even those with excessive language, violence, and sex, are squeezed into an inappropriate classification.
Not a day goes by that I don’t read a blog or a news post that makes blanket statements or groups Australia with other regions that regularly censor content. This is not the case. I’m not by any means defending our system; it’s deeply flawed and in need of change, and I’ll explain how and why.
As I mentioned in an earlier editorial, the game classification system in Australia is heavily based around existing film and television guidelines. When computer games were introduced to the rating system in the mid-nineties, very little was changed from existing guidelines to fully understand the nature of interactive entertainment. An R-rating was omitted completely, namely due to the fact that the government (wrongly) assumed that games would never mature enough to a point that would require them to be blocked from the hands of children.
The top rating that remained, MA15+, does have a set of “guidelines” that can, and are, interpreted subjectively by the members of the ratings board. These guidelines are supposed to represent a “cap” on extreme content that is deemed suitable for a 15-year-old to consume. Thus, there are certain pet hates that are contained in certain titles that seem to push the board into a rapid spin in which they very rarely come out rational.
The first is drug use. Drugs, like in any other nation, are a contentious issue. When you’re dealing with teenagers, any indication that drug use is cool, or fun, or generally induced without repercussion, is deeply unpopular with governments. Thus, any references to real world drugs are fine, as long as their use does not “enhance” the player. This was Fallout 3‘s original mistake, and the simple change of a few names warranted a pass through (namely morphine).
The second is what’s called “high impact violence” or HIV. Violence, generally, isn’t too much of a problem. It’s why you can mow down civvies in MW2, blow heads off beasties in Gears of War 2, and chainsaw people into pieces in Mad World. In fact, the large majority of titles breeze through an MA15+ rating. What turns heads is when things get messy. Lopping off the heads of real people (not zombies), intense wound detail – like intestines slopping out, or intense, graphic, slicing and dicing.
This is a topic that actually tends to split the board in a few cases. In the cases of (the ultimately RC’d, or “Refused Classification”) Dark Sector and Left 4 Dead 2, there were minorities that disagreed with the label of HIV and claimed that there were no differences between the violence in these titles and others that had passed the ratings board previously.
That point is an important one. There is no “case law” when it comes to ratings board decisions. Games that have excessive violence, yet still gain an MA15+ classification, aren’t used as examples in future decisions. Each title is reviewed on a fresh base, which can serve up completely different, and often surprising, decisions. L4D2 isn’t really much worse then L4D1, but the original was not used in comparison, thus the sequel was banned and Australians were served a neutered experience.
The third is, well, random. Games can be refused classification for almost any silly reason they want. Promotes crime through graffiti? Banned. Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure was banned in 2006 because the review board claimed it promoted graffiti as a positive solution to repression. The key seems to be that if games promote criminal elements in a positive way, and reward without repercussion, it’s deemed as inappropriate.
When it comes down to it, the ratings board are only working within the guidelines and ruleset that they are given by the legislation. The law says that the classified games need to be suitable for 15-year-olds, so excessive violence, drug use, and positive depictions of crime are generally, and rightfully, frowned upon. The point of the system is to create a line in the sand, but that line, after being blurred for so many years, has finally become solid.
In most cases, the board are passing games that are grossly inappropriate for children to play, because it’s the only way that the large majority of mature themed games would be published. The lack of an R-rating is hurting not only adults, who are rightfully angry to be dictated to, but also to clueless parents who are trying to find suitable games for their children to play.
We need an R-rating because some games are created, from the original intention, for adult gamers. Not children, not teenagers, but adults. The population of the country understands this – most opinion polls put acceptance for an R-rating in the mid-80 percents. The industry understands this. In fact, most politicians understand this; of the nine Attorney-Generals representing Australia’s states and territories, eight of them agree in principle to a change. Except for one.
Michael Atkinson M.P, from South Australia, is the only vocal opposition to this change. His case is uninformed, confused, and generally ignorant. He thinks he is “protecting the children and the public”, when really he is making conscious decisions on the freedoms and rights of people he doesn’t even represent. He is the only barrier to the introduction of a new rating that almost every single other country, including our closest neighbour, New Zealand, already has.
But, the sands are shifting. Gamers are becoming proactive. Petitions to state parliament, public protests, political parties, and numerous campaigns are but a few of the efforts Australians are making to change the conditions that restrict our choices.