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Michael Atkinson, No R18+ For Games In Australia: Why It Hurts Children

Australian Gamer has posted a letter one of its readers received from Michael Atkinson, the South Australian Attorney-General against an R18+ rating for games. The letter is in response to the reader’s arguments for the new classification.

I encourage you to read Atkinson’s entire response so you can formulate your own judgement. I’ve previously dissected his position at length, and I won’t be doing it again here – I’m afraid my head would explode from the sheer ridiculousness of the situation.

What I would like to do is pull out a few key points from his letter and explain why I feel they’re “not a good enough reason” to deny an R18+ rating – to use the Attorney-General’s own words.Here’s what I believe are the AG’s main concerns, going from his response letter:
• Despite classification stickers, parents still make “bad choices” in regards to what content their children view (this is “backed” by IEAA survey data);
• Our desire for unedited games shouldn’t come ahead of protecting children from inappropriate material;
• R18+ content adds nothing to the gaming experience;
• Games classification is different to film classification, in that films can be better regulated; and
• Children and “vulnerable” adults should not accept violence as a part of everyday life.

One thing I’d like everyone to note is that these are all valid points. Ignoring Atkinson’s motivations, I can understand his logic. So, it’s not about proving Atkinson wrong, but showing that a compromise between allowing adults to see what they want, and preventing children from seeing what they shouldn’t, is possible. After all, this is what the OFLC is all about, if we’re to believe the National Classification Code.

Before we start: What the community thinks
The other point Atkinson brings up is that it’s not just about protecting children, but considering what society feels is inappropriate. In other words, despite what we may think is right and wrong as individuals, and how well we can back up our opinions, it’s the community as a whole that should influence the OFLC and Attorney-Generals.

Unfortunately, the community at large doesn’t represent the views of gamers, which we can assume are strongly in favour of an R18+ rating for games. This, combined with Atkinson’s pessimism regarding parents and their ability to make informed purchasing decisions, is the primary reason he is not in favour of the rating.

I’d like to use an analogy to illustrate the hypocrisy of this position (please ignore any religious/cultist overtones, they’re not intended). Let us assume that Michael Atkinson is our parent/guardian, and we his children. Let us also assume the other Attorney-Generals, who must vote unanimously on changes to classification legislation, represent the community.

If you’re willing to accept this as a reasonable analogy, then Atkinson, as our parent, is effectively making our purchasing decisions by disallowing the R18+ rating. We can assume he believes he is making the “right choice” based on the information he has. Yet, this decision goes against the feelings of the community. If Atkinson believes parents are, by and large, incapable of making correct and informed decisions for their children, then the decisions he makes for us, against the feelings of the other AGs, cannot also be correct and informed.

• Despite classification stickers, parents still make “bad choices” in regards to what content their children view (this is backed up by IEAA survey data)
This is one of Atkinson’s stronger points against an R18+ rating. And it’s true – parents don’t always make correct and informed choices for their children. However, I’m sure this isn’t limited to just games. DVDs, toys, chemicals – while there are laws in place to dissuade children from watching inappropriate material, swallowing small parts and consuming household cleaners, it is up to the parent to enforce these preventatives.

Atkinson acknowledges that children are able to get their hands on things they shouldn’t, and that his disapproval of an R18+ rating is really just damage control. That’s fine, I can understand that. But is suppressing an individual’s rights an acceptable compromise? I don’t believe so. If parents can learn to not give their three-year olds Lego as a birthday present and to keep ammonia on a high shelf, then they can be educated about games classification. I’m not saying it’ll be quick, cheap and painless – not at all – but if we are to reach a compromise, it has to be done.

Atkinson provides statistics from the IEAA to show that a majority of Australians are not influenced by ratings when they make their purchasing decisions. Let us ignore the fact that the average gamer is 28 – so classification, which only truly affects those aged 15 and under, could not possibly affect their decisions – and that the statistics do not say how many of these people are parents, the data only emphasises how poor a job the government has done at educating people on classification. This is hardly a point the AG should be highlighting.

Atkinson might be doing the right thing on the surface, but it’s a passive, band-aid fix (and a poor one at that) to a wider problem – a lack of education. If he’s so passionate about keeping bad stuff away from minors, he’d be taking a more aggressive stance on not just classification, but toys, drugs and the world’s other evils as well. But he doesn’t, which makes it hard to believe “protecting the children” is his objective.

• R18+ content adds nothing to the gaming experience; and our desire for unedited games shouldn’t come ahead of protecting children from inappropriate material;
On the surface, this first point seems a good one – why have explicit content if it adds nothing to the material? The answer to this question, however, is simple: it doesn’t matter. The “experience” is entirely subjective – what Atkinson believes is nothing, someone else might find poignant, groundbreaking or artistic. Freedom of expression is all about pushing boundaries. What would The Diving Bell and the Butterfly be without the scene where Jean-Do floats naked and crippled in a bath tub, or the moment in the elevator in the US version of The Departed? To some, these scenes are confronting, maybe even disgusting. To others, they are powerful and emotive. For adults, they don’t promote aggression – they promote thought.

You can’t make decisions on what’s a good or bad “experience” for adults, and to do so must surely go against society’s expectations of individual freedoms. How can we know what’s “too explicit” if we never have the chance to experience it? How can a classifications board made up of members of the community make informed decisions on censorship if they don’t know where the lines should be drawn? How can the Attorneys-General make legislation on what is and isn’t “inappropriate material” for the entire community, if their ideas of sex and violence are diluted, or even distorted? How can we protect children, while allowing adults to see and hear what they want, if we don’t have a mature idea of where the boundaries are?

I don’t want to speculate, but could the OFLC’s inconsistent application of the classification guidelines be a sign that things have become too protected and insular?

• Games classification is different to film classification, in that films can be better regulated
Atkinson says that children can be protected from films as they’re shown in public locations, as opposed to games, which are taken home and played. Let’s pretend Atkinson isn’t suggesting the 16 to 24-year olds who man ticket booths are in a better position to make classification choices than parents (even though he does). What Atkinson doesn’t acknowledge is that film classification applies to DVD and VHS movies as well, which, like games, can be taken home and viewed. Why do we have an R18+ rating for movies if this is the case? If Atkinson is willing to accept the average gamer isn’t a child, it makes no sense to disallow an R18+ rating on this basis.

• Child and “vulnerable” adults should not accept violence as a part of everyday life
I’m not sure what constitutes a “vulnerable” adult, but the sad truth is that violence is a part of everyday life. The thing is – it has little to do with video games. September 11. The Bali bombings. The invasion of Iraq. Violence is real, it’s scary, and it’s important adults and children understand why it’s wrong. Games are definitely not the way to educate – that’s not what I’m saying – but to stop adults from playing violent games because it will somehow protect them from the realities of life is naive. I don’t know about you, but after a game of C&C: Generals I don’t get the urge to build an army of tanks and declare war on the US or China. After putting down the controller in Grand Theft Auto, I don’t at all feel like driving my car off the edge of an on-ramp. Again, it comes back to education – we should be educating kids about why violence is bad, not trying to hide it from them. Giving games an R18+ rating won’t stop kids from experiencing violence, sex, etc from other sources. If forced, I’d rather a child ask about violence, sex, etc after seeing it in a simulated environment, like a game, rather than the real world.

Okay, so I did end up writing an absolutely massive chunk. My apologies.

If you decide to email the AG to voice your concerns, please do it in an intelligent and considerate manner. We’re all angry and disappointed about the state of classification, but crudeness and vulgarity are not going to win us the day.

Hon Michael Atkinson MP Responds [Australian Gamer]