This is what happens when those in power ignore the advice of experts. This is what happens when the narrative remains stagnant. This is what happens when you ignore legitimate research and allow the poorly informed to influence your decision making process. This is what you get.
Today the new R18+ guidelines were released and today there was much gnashing of teeth. It was a document rife with error, filled with basic misunderstandings, to the extent that working through these mistakes one by one would be pedantic in the extreme.
So, instead, let's first go through the positives. Or, to be precise, the one positive: there are games, that were banned under the previous guidelines, that would most likely pass classification under the R18+ rating.
We should be clear: the R18+ we have is not an MA15+ rating with a false face — it's an easy conclusion to leap to (and I made the same mistake initially) but it's inaccurate. The new R18+ rating accounts for 'high' impact video games (in terms of violence and sexual content) while the MA15+ rating will be applied when that impact is 'strong'. The terms are relative, but the difference is important. Allowing for different interpretations a game like, say, Mortal Kombat may have been classified in this country.
So in terms of adults being allowed to play the games they want to play this may be the only actual positive. But it comes with the following caveat...
Due to the interactive nature of computer games and the active repetitive involvement of the participant, as a general rule computer games may have a higher impact than similarly themed depictions of the classifiable elements in film, and therefore greater potential for harm or detriment, particularly to minors.
"Interactivity may increase the impact of some content: for example, impact may be higher where interactivity enables action such as inflicting realistically depicted injuries or death or post-mortem damage, attacking civilians or engaging in sexual activity. Greater degrees of interactivity (such as first-person gameplay compared to third-person gameplay) may also increase the impact of some content.
We have no way of telling precisely how this 'higher impact' of interactivity will translate to video game classification in the real world. It will all depend on the Classification Board's interpretation, but it instantly removes cross media parity and I find that a worrying precedent to set.
Leigh Harris from MCV mentioned that he believed this 'interactivity' caveat was mentioned in the guidelines purely because the Classification Board has to represent community standards — and it is a sound argument — but it still smarts to see that old chestnut being rolled out, particularly when it is being used to justify video games being treated differently from other media. Particularly when there is no evidence to suggest that interactivity increases the negative impact of violent or sexual imagery.
There is also the issue of 'minors' or, to be more specific, the issue of why the word 'minors' is being used at all in this context.
Before R18+ was passed, there were two major arguments put forward in support of an adult rating for video games. The first was that adults should be allowed to play the games they wanted to play. The second? Children should be protected from adult material, and parents should be liberated from the confusion of the current system. The existence of an R18+ rating, and the clear message that classification sent, was supposed to help parents distinguish what was suitable for their children and what should be left on the shelf.
So why do we still need to engage in these old arguments? Why are we still discussing the greater impact of violence on 'minors' in the context of R18+ rated games — games that should not be available to them, games that are only suitable for adults. Why is this something that needs to be taken into account?
I understand and I agree: children must be protected. But this is why the rating is being implemented in the first place — to draw that dividing line between content for children and content for adults. Absolutely, a subset of younger teenagers and children may still be exposed to R18+ video games, but censoring games designed for adults is not the solution to that problem.
We should be educating children, educating retail staff. Watering down an adult rating to cater to minors actually sabotages the reason for the actual existence of an R18+ rating in the first place! It blurs the lines; it creates further confusion when we should be drawing a line in the sand. This is a game for adults, it is unsuitable for minors. End of story.
Yes, the R18+ rating is a step forward and absolutely there are areas within which we must compromise. It is the Classification Board's responsibility to reflect public concern, and I don't have a problem with that. I do, however, have a problem with the language of this document, with the words being used. They suggest an inability to push this debate where it needs to be pushed. We are still using the same words in the wrong ways — the government is still treating adult video games as something children play and adults tolerate. It returns endlessly to arguments about interactivity that hold little water in any legitimate research. It panders to ignorance, instead of moving forward with good sense.
And that is disappointing.