Censorship is in the marrow of the bones of Australian culture and its institutions. One of the earliest acts of government in this country involved the establishment of a censorship board, and that was as far back 1917. Now, in an Australia that finally ‘grew up’, in an Australia that on January 1 2013 was granted an R18+ rating for video games 15 years in the making, we have seen two game refused classification in a single week. Those were headlines I never thought I’d have to write again, those were headlines you probably didn’t expect to read.
The real question is ‘what can we do in response?’ But the answer, depending on your perspective, is depressing.
I’d argue close to absolutely nothing.
I’m paraphrasing my friend David Rayfield when I say this but, to the outside world, gamers complaining about Saints Row IV and State of Decay sound like rabid miscreants howling at a full moon. Give us our drugs and purple dildos, we cry. It is our god given right to have drugs and purple dildos.
Not exactly a compelling argument.
And hardly the compelling argument we had previously. Pre-R18+ there was a genuine injustice and a problem that actually needed solving – adults were not allowed to play the games they wanted to play and parents were being misinformed about content unsuitable for children. Now, with Saints Row IV and State of Decay, the argument has become solely about consumer choice. That’s important, but not important enough. Not even close. There’s not a politician alive brave enough to war with lobbyists over the sanctity of the humble purple dildo.
There’s nothing to be done.
Not even the Classification Review, which was presented last year, and recommends that government remove itself from the vast majority of game classification in Australia, can save us now. For all the forward thinking in that report, it doesn’t call for a change in guidelines written as early as last year. It doesn’t recommend that industry classify games in all categories. It recommends that the Classification Board be responsible for borderline cases. Cases like Saints Row IV and State of Decay.
And the guidelines are the guidelines are the guidelines. They’re not going to change anytime soon.
The spectre of interactivity looms large in both these decisions, but I’d suggest two things are of prime importance here. Firstly, the Classification Board is simply working with the tools they’ve been given. You can question the veracity of these decisions from a cultural perspective, but it’s difficult to argue that ramming a purple dildo into the anus of innocent bystanders sans consent does not represent implied sexual violence. I think it does, and I also think it was a pathologically stupid idea in the first place. Secondly, these are new guidelines and there’s a human element to this — it takes time for the application of these guidelines to settle into something we can safely predict. And it’s going to take time for publishers to adjust and present their games appropriately.
Here’s the lesson: publishers, distributors, whoever is given the tricky task of submitting games for classification, sharpen your pencils. Australia isn’t the free ride you thought it had become. When sending in submissions make sure someone who knows what the hell they’re doing is at the helm. Be prepared to justify your purple dildos with context and your drugs with the relevant fiction. Developers: consider inventing fanciful names for the power ups in your video games. May your heroin become Hero-X, may your Methadones become Mecha-Zs. Because we may have won the battle but we have lost the unwinnable war.