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No adult games for Aussies: the reasoned perspective

By on March 10, 2009
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As GameSpot.au runs a report suggesting Michael Atkinson is delaying discussion of legalising 18+ rated games, someone needs to ask: ‘does he have a point?’

A lot has been said over the past few years regarding Australia’s continuing refusal to allow the sale of 18+ rated games. Unlike film, an 18+ rating does not exist for interactive entertainment in Oz, meaning that games like GTA IV must be censored prior to release, while other titles – like Dark Sector and Postal 2 – are banned outright. It’s provided a regular (albeit consistently intriguing) conversation piece for Gamespot.au that’s most recently culminated in a series of reports on Attorney General Michael Atkinson’s implied efforts to put a spanner in the works of ongoing attempts to instate just such a rating.

It’s become increasingly common to lambaste public figures who dare to speak out against our industry. In many cases this is not without due cause (yes you, Fox News et al). Sadly, the sheer ire and fanboy retaliation these figures promote often undermines precisely the cause we are supposed to be fighting – that games are (or at least can be) a mature, dignified and legitimate form of expression.

The whole foundation of art is that it has no boundaries, but I’m setting out today to avoid the knee jerk reaction I tend to have towards even the slightest whiff of censorship. I aim to objectively explore precisely why Australia has yet to legalise 18+ rated games, and what hand (if any) censorship poster boy Michael Atkinson has had in the process.

State of Play: A Recap

As things stand, a unanimous decision is required from the Standing Committee of Attorneys General in order for any change to the ratings structure to take effect. This group of Australian politicians is split on the validity of an 18+ rating, but has agreed to discuss the matter. This discussion, however, has been put on hold by Michael Atkinson for the past four months while he makes changes to the outline document. The need for alterations to the document has not been contested – a fair playing field is what we’re after – but Atkinson is way behind on the schedule he previously agreed to.

There’s a more in depth overview of the situation at GameSpot.au.

The Effects

This is intended as a discussion of the would-be justification for the lack of an 18+ rating, and as such the effects of its continued absence is a topic for another time. Needless to say, while the number of games outright banned in Oz is insubstantial, the knock on effects are far greater. These include:

– The allegedly inconsistent application of 15+ ratings to games rated 18+ elsewhere in the world, resulting in younger people legally accessing arguably inappropriate content

– The unnecessary censorship of international game versions

– Financial woes for developers and publishers thanks to the editing and appeals process

– The prevention of adult gamers being able to play adult games

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Atkinson’s Position

GameSpot.au has a fascinating response from the man himself, issued at the end of January, itself somewhat an avoidance of the gargantuan list of questions the website issued in September last year. It’s worth checking out if you have the time.

His position, however, boils down to two elements.

First: “I don’t support the introduction of an R18+ rating for electronic games, chiefly because it will greatly increase the risk of children and vulnerable adults being exposed to damaging images and messages.”

Second: “The interactive nature of electronic games means that they have a much greater influence than viewing a movie does.”

Further, he seems proud of the fact that censored versions of games in Australia sometimes result in the international version of the game receiving the same treatment, as in the case of drug use in Fallout 3.

In his defence, he states: “The lack of an R18+ classification is not preventing very many adult-themed video games reaching the shop shelves–but it is ensuring that scenes that don’t comply with a MA15+ rating are removed. I think that’s a great result for consumers and has little impact on the profitability of game developers.”

Ultimately, “It certainly does restrict choice to a small degree, but that is the price of keeping this material from children and vulnerable adults. In my view, the small sacrifice is worth it.”

Analysis

Atkinson’s position is understandable, and not without its merits. It is, however, flawed in two very important ways.

First, there is no accepted evidence to suggest that video games, for being interactive, are any more or less influential than film or literature. It’s an understandable but ultimately unjustified assumption.

More importantly, Atkinson’s entire position rests on the assumption that the law doesn’t work. From his response to GameSpot:

“In cinemas, the age of moviegoers can be regulated, and at the video store people must provide ID to hire R18+ videos. Once electronic games are in the home, access to them cannot be policed and the games are easily accessible to children. These days, older children (18-30) are often living in the family home with younger children (under 18). This means games belonging to older children or parents can easily make their way into the hands of those under 18.”

Referring to 18 – 30 year olds as ‘older children’ aside, surely precisely the same logic applies to video purchases as video game purchases? The 15+ rating in Australia is legally enforceable as, presumably, an 18+ would be. It is just as illegal to sell an adult video to a minor as it is to sell a mature video game. Likewise, once the product is in the home, it is just as easy for a child to watch a DVD as play a game. Atkinson’s position is, in short, logically contradictory. Not only that, but in order for children to be damaged by adult video games, he assumes that the law is being broken by adults and stores in allowing the children access to the material. Now, I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that the supporting argument for one law (banning of 18+ games) shouldn’t be the assumption that another law (selling of adult content to minors) is being broken.

Against all my efforts, I seem to be coming down hard on the Attorney General. What I would say in his defence is that he is in no way wrong about the fact that an 18+ rating may have the ability to harm children. Ultimately, laws are broken, and more 18+ games means more children playing them. That’s not a good thing, but I don’t feel it’s the crux of Atkinson’s argument, nor is it more important than the draconian censorship the man enforces.

New Zealand already seems to have the right idea – we publish this post in the same week a Kiwi politician calls for fines to be converted to possible prison sentences for irresponsible parents. Ultimately, it should be clear to any rational person that the real battle is the enforcement of age ratings themselves.

Looking Forward

Atkinson clearly has the interests of Australian children at heart, but what price do we pay for a policy whose positive impact is negligible? It should be clear that the lack of an 18+ rating in Australia is not only an unjustifiably draconian infringement on artistic freedom of speech, but that it reaches far beyond the shores of that country.

So, after what I hope has been an accurate and fair appraisal of the flaws in the anti-18+ argument, where can we go from here?

Sadly, nowhere any time soon. The bizarre requirement in Australian law for a unanimous SCAG decision scuppers almost all hope of speedy change. Even if Atkinson allows the discussion process to go ahead, he – and any other member of the SCAG – has power of veto over any decision regarding the introduction of an adults only rating. Perhaps, should the public discussion reflect a positive move towards an 18+ rating, some opposed members of the committee will change their tunes. Sadly, a complete reversal for the likes of Atkinson seems extremely unlikely. While he remains in the committee, things are going nowhere.

What’s more, Atkinson is not elected – he holds his position by appointment by the Governor General and Prime Minister of Australia. Essentially, unless they want him out, he’s staying put.

Short of waiting him out, the only likely cause of change would seem to be a more public reaction that might prompt him, or his superiors, to rethink how suitable an Attorney General he makes in this day and age.

At Atkinson’s admission, he receives legions of critical responses to his position on censorship. Clearly it’s getting us nowhere. Instead, I urge you to contact Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, demanding Michael Atkinson’s immediate resignation.

You can do so here.

Thank you.

About Tom Jubert

Tom Jubert is a freelance games writer / narrative designer, best known for his work on the Penumbra series, for which he was nominated for a Writers' Guild Award. His upcoming releases include Lost Horizon and Driver: San Francisco. He was previously the Managing Editor at GameShadow.com, and has also spent time in production.