I was on a mission this week. Some might call it suicide, others foolish. My objective: find an editorial topic this week not related to the PlayStation 3 apocalypse (cleverly coined “ApocalyPS3”) or about the Infinity Ward/Activision debacle. The way that dispute is unfolding, I could have paragraphs of speculation refuted in a matter of minutes. Information is still being uncovered and at this point it’s best to sit back and watch the public relations nightmare play out. While I’m not picking sides in the Infinity Ward/Activision madness and I’m not fueling flames of console enthusiasts, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to address a topic that has a little controversy sprinkled on it – so let’s talk politics. No, not United States politics (this time), I’m talking about the looming debate over video game ratings in Australia.
It’s a long flight to Australia, you better get comfortable.
The current situation in Australia isn’t too complicated. Let’s see if I can break this down in a few quick sentences. As it stands, the current video game rating system in Australia does not have a “Mature” equivalent. Currently “MA 15+” is the highest rating a game can receive. Any video game with content that exceeds the accepted standard for a MA 15+ rating is denied classification and cannot be legally sold at retail in the country. Recently, Left 4 Dead 2 and Fallout 3 were refused classification, forcing them to alter content before they were permitted to be sold Down Under. Now what if I told you that Australia’s Office of Film and Literature Classification Board has a rating above MA 15+ that is used for audiences 18 and older for other types of media? What makes video games so special? I wish I knew the answer, but as it stands there is no R18+ rating available for video games. But now that the Australian National Classification Scheme is debating the possibility of adding the R18+ rating to video games “in order to help curb piracy and MA 15+-rated games that are borderline adult-themed”, there is hope.
Naturally there is significant opposition to incorporating a more mature rating. Said opposition is backed by South Australian Attorney General Michael Atkinson. “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.” Additionally, he believes that the “interactive nature of video games [means] they have a much greater influence than viewing a film or reading a book.” The key to this opposition is that a change to the current Australian rating system requires unanimous consent from state and federal-level attorneys general, including Atkinson. An official debate on this proposal is scheduled to happen in April and plenty of interested parties have already voiced their opinions. As of March 4, there is a petition with over 46,000 signatures (physical and virtual) supporting the inclusion of a R18+ rating. Other interested parties include EBGames (Australia’s largest video game retailer) and the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association (an industry trade group in Australia and New Zealand).
Part of the problem with using terms like “adult” when it comes to media, regardless of the level of direct interaction, is that the layman often equates the term “adult” to pornography. Saying that video games need an adult rating can be interpreted, albeit incorrectly, that Larry Flynt and Hugh Hefner are the sole benefactors of the video game industry. You and I know that this isn’t the case. Some video games have a more significant portion of violent content compared to the average game. Some games use language more liberally than your average sailor. Some games even have nudity, although tastefulness is still sought after, it happens. But the inclusion of any of these characteristics does not make them pornographic. Gratuitous violence might not be the most appealing aspect of a video game, but that is not a sufficient reason to restrict a game from being sold. Give consumers the choice and let common sense prevail. Who knows, maybe the game will not sell because it is a lousy game. But give it the chance to fail, or succeed.
So what does this mean to you if you are reading this in the United States or some other country not named Australia? Maybe nothing. As it stands there is only one bill being considered in either house of congress – The Video Game Health Labeling Act of 2009. This bill would “require that warning labels be placed on any game rated T (13 and older) or higher by the ESRB; Would apply to both packaged and digitally distributed games; Creates a new rule within the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which forces games with a Teen rating or higher to be sold with a simple warning label, reading: ‘WARNING: Excessive exposure to violent video games and other violent media has been linked to aggressive behavior.'” I’m highly skeptical that it will make it out of the House Energy & Commerce Committee where it currently resides. For the most part legislation restricting access or sales of mature rated video games has been deemed unconstitutional or never had the chance to be signed into law. Some legislatures have added additional fines to retailers guilty of selling mature rated video games to minors, but they do not restrict access to the games themselves. Is it possible that Australia’s current quagmire regarding mature rated games could influence the direction of discourse in the continental United States? In my opinion, no. But I wouldn’t put it past our current lineup of politicians. Anything is possible with these people, and that scares me.
I’m not calling upon all gamers to rise up and fight against possible oppression from “The Man.” We have more important issues domestically speaking that require our attention, video games are not nearly as important as reforming our health care system for example. It is my hope that you simply keep an open ear to possible developments Down Under. While a ruling rejecting a proposed R18+ rating is not grounds for legal precedent in the United States, it could easily be reverse engineered by an eager politician looking to restrict video game sales in this country. This is not a sign of the apocalypse, far from it. But this could be the snowball that starts a massive avalanche of legal mayhem that could further restrict access to video games in Australia. As if the ridiculous prices and delayed releases are not enough of a punishment for Australian gamers, a government that dictates what kind of entertainment citizens are allowed to enjoy in the comfort of their homes is a government striving for adjectives like Draconian or Orwellian. I have hope that rational thought will prevail, but the realist in me says that this is only the beginning.
This post is featured on Talking About Games.