Fireside chat: Felix Threepaper reviews the possibility of introducing a R18+ rating in Australia

Welcome to the occasional series, Fireside Chat, wherein Felix squats next to a small fire set at the back of the Cave of Assessment and examines issues within the games industry.  Like anything involving flames, this chat may contain traces of troll.  Given that we don’t carry advertising, trolling for comments is an entirely pointless endeavour, but someone told us this is how you do the internet.

Australia is one of the few developed nations that don’t have a R18+ or equivalent rating for videogames — you know, the rating that makes it illegal to sell a game to someone under 18.

Just this week something unexpected happened: the Federal Cabinet recommended that a R18+ rating be introduced.  The door is still open for the Entmoot Standing Committee of Attorneys-General to refuse to introduce it, but right now Australia is closer than ever to having a R18+ rating for videogames.

So I thought I’d have a look at why the change is needed, why it’s no big deal and why anyone who opposes  it is wrong.

First, what the law currently says.  In terms of videogames, the Classification Code requires that a balance be struck between the following principles:

1. Adults should be able to watch/read/listen to what they want; and

2. Children must be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them; and

3. There is a need to take into account community concerns about depictions that condone or incite violence, especially sexual violence, and showing people in a demeaning manner.

It is important to note that the first-listed principle in the Classification Code is about freedom.  Too many people try to frame the issue as all about protecting the chillun, without realising it’s a balancing act.  If protecting kiddies was the only concern, there would be a ban on all material rated higher than PG — I suspect that some opponents of an R18+ rating for games would be happy with this.  Luckily, the law is not that much of an ass.

In terms of protecting the chidjen, having R18+ would actually do that better.   The government’s recommendation for R18+ includes a proposal that existing MA15+ games be reclassified.   This would — guess what — restrict younglings’ access to them.   Also the latest survey on this point shows that 91% of respondent adults clearly know that R18+ material is unsuitable for children, meaning that relatively uninformed parents are less likely to buy an R18+ rated game for their sprog than they are a MA15+ game.

As for principle number 3 up there, if the community was so concerned about depicting people in a demeaning manner, wouldn’t we ban all reality TV?  Yeah I just did that … anyway, Principle 3 is only relevant to the R18+ debate if you believe that violent videogames directly cause people to commit real violence. You may believe that, but the research is against you.  Principle 3 is also why fetish games like RapeLay and other creepy Japanese stalker sims  would be refused classification if someone tried to sell them in Australia — they would be refused classification even if there were an R18+ rating.

Currently, our system is not completely broken but it is warped to the point that it needs correction.

The highest rating for videogames, MA15+, is supposed to mean that it is not suitable for kids under 15.  What it means in reality is that 15-year-olds can buy the game and kids under 15 must be accompanied by a parent when buying the game.  However, there isn’t really ID for 15 year olds like there is for 18 year olds.  So I suspect many retailers don’t bother age checking unless the kid is wearing nappies.

Where the system is warped is that the Classification Board has to find new and interesting ways to analyse the context and impact of violence, drug use and crime in order to make games MA15+.  Content in a videogame that is classified equivalent to R18+ elsewhere in the world, or would be R18+ if it were in a movie released in Australia, is shoe horned into the MA15+ category, resulting in a kind of bracket creep   This undermines the consistency of the ratings system.   One example is the case of Fallout 3 and Velvet Assassin.

Fallout 3 originally had morphine, which could be taken in the game to increase a player’s damage resistance for a time.  The Board refused classification on the basis that the game contained “real-world” drug use that enabled the character to “progress through the game more easily”, thus providing an incentive to use the drugs in game, thus promoting real-world drug use.

In response, Bethesda simply renamed morphine “Med-X” and rejigged its item illustration in the inventory menu.  Bethesda did not change the in-game effect of the drug.  The Board considered that the revisions contained “fictional drugs depicted as stylised icons which will not alter the physiological characteristics of the characters in the game” (source: http://www.r18games.com.au/2009/03/morphine-and-the-classification-board/) , and classified  Fallout 3 as MA15+.

Velvet Assassin came along some months later.  It allowed the player to pick up syringes containing morphine (called “morphine” in the game) and use them to enter a bullet time effect where the character moves faster, does extra damage and, most bafflingly, wears fewer clothes.   The Board rated this game MA15+ right off the bat, claiming that “although the use of morphine enables the player to better complete difficult parts of the mission, this does not lead to killings being more violent, to the demise of more enemies or a better outcome for the player …” (source: http://www.r18games.com.au/2009/03/morphine-and-the-classification-board/)

Neither game actually depicted the character taking drugs, compared to say Bioshock, which shows you sticking a needle in your arm for a definite in-game benefit.

These decisions are inconsistent.   How is “getting through a difficult part of a mission” different from being able to “progress through the game more easily”? Why is increasing a player’s damage resistance considered an “incentive” that promotes drug use, but making a player deal more damage or move faster is not?  Further, the basis for classifying the modified version of Fallout 3 seems to rely on splitting hairs between whether the drug has a real life name or not.

The Board made further comments about nuance and context, but the only consistent principle I can discern from the Board’s rulings on these games is that it’s OK to use drugs with real names in a linear brawler with a set number of enemies per level, but not in an open world RPG containing a randomly generated number of enemies.

All this highlights the hair-splitting length lengths the Board has to go to in order to squeeze mature content into the upper spectrum of MA15+.  It should also be noted that both these games are rated R18+ or equivalent in the US, UK and New Zealand.  Having a R18+ category would make the Board’s life easier in being able to accurately classify content, though it will still have to analyse content for its impact, context and the like.

So here’s hoping the Entmoot Standing Committee of Attorneys-General can agree to this sensible and ultimately minor reform, although bitter experience tells us it only takes one tool to put the kybosh on the whole deal.  If R18+ is introduced, it may help the industry grow up a little bit too — hopefully game makers will realise that “mature” doesn’t just mean “stuff that we think a 15 year old boy thinks would be cool”.

Category Rating
Practicality: 9
Reasonableness: 10
Necessity: 9
Overall:

9

UPDATE:

The Entmoot has met and failed to reach unanimous support for R18+, which means it will not be introduced for the time being.  There is talk of making amendments to other aspects of the classification scheme, such as the classification guidelines.  Victoria’s newbie A-G, who has been in office for a week, asked for more time to do his homework.  Rumour has it that the A-G from WA is not a fan of R18+.  We’ve all heard this tune before.  So close!

Next Fireside Chat :  Why Nintendo sucks.

– Felix

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