Friday, 23 March 2012

R18+ : Let's be adult about it

If you are an Australian gamer, you are no doubt aware of our antiquated video game rating system, and the long and bloody campaign for an R18+ rating. If you are not, it is an issue you will find interesting, and perhaps it will make you appreciate more the enshrined rights you have in your governmental system for adults to choose their own entertainment. Unless of course you come from the handful of other countries where adults are told which games they can and cannot play, in which case this is a situation you may sympathise with.

The fight for an R18+ rating is not a fight to remove all censorship of games. Even with the titular rating introduced, there would still be a Refused Classification (RC) rating that may be applied to games with especially repugnant content, making them illegal to sell or purchase in Australia. Most people, including pro-R18+ rating gamers are supportive of the need for an RC rating. There are some games that are just unacceptable. No, the fight for an R18+ rating aims to reverse the situation we have now: where any game that has adult levels of violence, nudity or thematic material is banned. Why does this happen? Because the highest rating we have for video games is the M15+ rating, or in other words, the government legally mandates that only people aged 15 or under should be playing games. This is despite the many working, tax-paying (and voting) adults who play video games as a hobby nowadays.

This is the inertial relic of a slow, conservative government which has scapegoated video games in order to win the votes and ratings of the majority middle-aged population block, which traditionally was not into games. This trend has changed, as older people are now playing games in greater numbers; as I will detail later in this post. We do enjoy an R18+ rating for movies, TV shows, music and DVDs in Australia; but not for games. Of course no one would suggest taking away the adult rating for these mediums, because they are too popular. The fight is to create a rating system for video games that matches that of other entertainment mediums.

The Australian Classification Board has rejected quite a few games that contained adult material. These were not games with extremely disturbing content, these were games that happened to feature adult levels of violence and thematic material. You know, the same kind of content which adults watch happily on TV or in cinemas. Adult content does not equal bad. Regardless of what the true feelings of the Classification Board are, they are not to blame. They have to follow the regulation regarding classification, which does not allow adult games to be sold or imported into Australia. Period. So, it is the law that needs to be changed.

Common reasons given by anti-R18+ advocates is that video games, because of theist interactive nature, are more damaging psychologically. Additionally, it is claimed that because video games possess such allure with younger kids, that it is possible for kids to get their hands on unsuitable games. While they have a right to their opinion, it is one I disagree with.

All the studies conducted have not found a clear link between video games and violence, in fact some studies have proven video games can actually release tension. Some studies have shown that violent video games can increase feelings of aggression, but that is the same effect violent movies and TV shows also have. It is not heightened in the case of video games. Whilst it is important to keep violent video games out of the hands of children, banning adults from playing them is not the logical solution in my opinion. Alcohol and R18+ rated movies are also unacceptable for children, but where are the people clamouring for these products to be banned from the general population?

An R18+ rating will provide two benefits: 1) adult gamers can finally enjoy their rights to choose their own entertainment in the video game field and 2) it will be easier for parents to protect their children from adult content, if it is clearly labelled. It has been so embarrassing for Australia to be one of the only developed countries to not have an adult rating for games, that sometimes games clearly meant for adults were squeezed into the M15+ rating; making them accessible to minors.

Let adults play adult video games with high levels of violence, nudity and thematic content. Video games are not all Grand Theft Auto and shooting random people for no reason, there are a wide range of genres, and dare I say it; many games are actually quite complex, artistic and intelligent. In fact, many Grand Theft Auto games feature with interesting storylines, see GTA4 for an example. Sometimes, as with movies, adult material is necessary to get a point across. And if there are a few shallow games that use violence for its titillation value, so what? Would you ban all movies because of the many stupid, violent movies, or the TV shows that use nudity to sell advertising dollars?

Let the RC rating be given to games with content that is unacceptable in the eyes of a reasonable adult. Let us require everyone purchasing an R18+ rated game to show ID, to ensure children do not get their hands on the games until they are of age.

How has the issue actually progressed in reality? We are at a fairly positive stage, with the R18+ rating having recently passed the Lower House of Parliament, and facing introduction to a friendly Upper House. The provisions of the rating do seem to provide extra room for adult content, and make the M15+ rating more restrictive. I actually think that is a good thing, the M15+ rating should not have games with more than moderate levels of violence, nudity or thematic material.

This is a massive improvement over the recent years where the R18+ issue was something only a few dedicated gamers squawked about, and when it was very common for politicians to throw outrageously insulting claims about gamers around like a monkey throwing its feces. We also remember the R18+ Consultation. For years, gaming advocates have been criticizing their own community for the prevalence of crude language and impolite behaviour exhibited by gamers when angered. They often implored gamers to send polite letters to politicians discussing the need for an R18+ rating, and for greater respect for video games in political and journalistic speech. Well, we did. A large number of people submitted responses to the Consultation, most of them polite and supportive of the rating. And... politicians found an excuse to invalidate the results, stating the respondents were biased (even though the Consultation was open to everybody).

It seems like by early next year we could have a serviceable adult rating for games. There is one issue, however. There is an extra clause in the rating specifications that says R18+ rated games must meet acceptable community standards. Now, what is so bad about that? Well, for one thing, it is a stipulation not present in the Film classifications.. And for another, it is too vague. No matter how hard you try, if you produce any media product that is not completely bland, and has some edge or originality, you will offend someone. Also, let us consider the restriction on drug use that is linked to rewards. Now, I probably would not have any desire to play a game that linked drugs to rewards. But, does this not restrict games that aim for a satirical anti-drug message by letting you play characters that take drugs? Rules like these need to be taken into context.

But, overwhelmingly, the new rating will recognise that adults play games, and will add more breathing room to what games can be sold. In contemporary times, most adults are playing some sort of game, with many older adults playing core games and consoles. While, as for any medium, it is important to draw new hobbyists of young age to continue on the hobby in the future; video games are now fairly popular among the older population. And the best way to beat fear and prejudice, is to let people experience that which is new and different, and to learn that perhaps video games are just a fulfilling hobby, like any other.

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