This article was published in The National Times on 5/1/2010
An issue that has been receiving increasing media attention of late is the absence of an ‘R18+’ category in the National Classification Scheme’s games ratings. The lack of accommodation for adult-only games in the system resulted in several popular games being refused classification in 2009 alone, thus strengthening support for the creation of such a rating. It is worth noting that this issue is about more than just the rights of computer gamers – it has become the latest manifestation of a debate that predates the existence of the entertainment medium by millennia: the place for censorship in human society and the conflict between governmental protection and personal freedoms.
This piece is written from the perspective of a non-gamer who, while deeply concerned with artistic freedom (particularly in the realm of film production and distribution), is troubled by the increasing fetishisation and glamorisation of violence through entertainment media and popular culture. Some purport that there is research that proves exposure to such material has no impact on the behaviour of children, while others claim the opposite; unfortunately, there is insufficient evidence to conclusively support either viewpoint. In any case, one must question its relevance to the discussion at hand – that is, the merits of the introduction of a restricted adults-only classification category.
Indeed, it is curious that so many pro-status-quo arguments revolve around the impact on minors, as this implies scepticism of not just the proposal at hand, but the entire structure of the classification system. While the protection of children from disturbing and/or inappropriate content is indeed a valid consideration, the very purpose of classification and ratings categories is to serve this concern. The fact of a minor’s possession of a game that had been deemed inappropriate for his or her age range would not represent a failure in the guidelines; it would represent a failure in the application of the guidelines. A rejection of a classification category based on lack of confidence over the correct application of the criteria can only imply a rejection of classification schemes as a whole. One need only consider the kind of repressive decency codes that predated most Western nations’ introduction of film classification to get some idea of where this kind of mentality might lead.
There is even an argument that the introduction of a restricted rating category could be beneficial to the protection of minors from unsuitable material – after all, the absence of an ‘R’ rating, it might be argued, has probably led to some games being passed with an ‘MA15+’ that might have been more appropriately accommodated within a restricted rating, had it existed. Thus, it might well be recommended that a re-evaluation (and future re-classification) of some ‘MA15+’ games be undertaken should an ‘R18+’ category come into existence.
There are a couple of arguments in favour of the creation of an ‘R’ category which have been heard quite frequently, although it must be said that one has considerably more credibility than the other. For instance, while there is certainly some logic to the claim that the presence of an ‘R’ rating in film classification presents a double standard, it is indisputable that movies and games are quite different types of media. While film violence can (particularly in the case of some recent works of the horror film genre) be gratuitous and glamorised, the interactivity offered by the latter has the capacity to present far greater social concerns. Furthermore, while the boundaries of film censorship are at least if not more often pushed by sex than violence, the vast majority of the games being refused classification are reaching their fate due to the presence of violence, which, in the opinion of this writer, is a far more pressing societal concern than depictions of sex. A far more credible libertarian argument cites the oft-quoted statistical fact that the average age of gamers is rising by the year, and that gaming is nowadays as commonly an adult pursuit as an adolescent one. In fact, this argument alone is practically sufficient to give serious consideration to the introduction of an ‘R’ rating, as it (more than a simplistic complaint over double standards) clearly shows the difference in the film and games classification systems to be an anachronism.
While it has been established that arguments pertaining to minors ought to be put to one side (given the presumption that a restricted classification would necessitate added responsibilities and conditions), this does still leave an important question: should some restrictions still apply to adults, nevertheless? That is, should we be censoring anything? It is interesting to note that many proponents of the rating proposal appear to be antagonistic to censorship of any kind. This attitude, rightly or wrongly, is in conflict with the realities of most Western societies. One is not, for example, permitted to purchase child pornography or snuff films here in Australia, and one might reasonably assume that, even with the introduction of an ‘R’ rating, there would still be games that would be reasonably refused classification (if they were to, for example, promote sexual assault). If one accepts the necessity of censorship of this sort, it must be asked where the line ought to be drawn – that is, if we as a society are not comfortable with the availability of a game such as Rapelay (a sexual assault simulation game referenced in the Australian Government discussion paper on this issue), then one might ask if we might not likewise encourage the banning of games that feature torture or gratuitous violence, especially if the game’s mission requires the protagonist to commit such acts.
Of course, this is not a strong argument against the introduction of an ‘R18+’ rating, as it has never been suggested that the classification category would prevent the OFLC from still banning games as they see fit. Nevertheless, it is perhaps important to remind supporters of the ‘R’ classification that its existence would not necessarily mean an end to (even popular) games being refused classification. Indeed, it is reasonable to demand that an ‘R’ rating come with stringent and transparent requirements that reflect societal standards.
In conclusion, the fact that playing computer and video games is a valid and widespread adult pursuit is enough to suggest that games should have an ‘R’ rating, as it must be reasonably assumed that there are games out there that adults might want to (and should be entitled to) play, but that may not be suitable for those under the age of 18. Nevertheless, an ‘R18+’ classification category must be applied sensibly with serious regard to community concerns; most importantly, perhaps, it is crucial that laws prohibiting the sale and hire of these games to minors be rigorously upheld. If these conditions are not taken seriously, then not only this initiative, but the games classification system as a whole will have failed. An ‘R’ rating for games is necessary, of that there can be no doubt – the crucial implications will lie in the manner and effectiveness with which the classification is applied.