Today, State Parliament heard Attorney-General Michael Atkinson's arguments against an R18+ rating for video games.
Actually, that's not quite true. According to News.com.au, Atkinson was interrupted shortly after bringing up the use of drugs in the game Narc, which was refused classification back in 2005. However, News.com.au was able to get a hold of the full speech from his office.
If you haven't been following the saga, the R18+ rating for games will again be looked at during the next meeting of Attorneys-General, scheduled for later this month.
Unfortunately Atkinson is the AG for South Australia, and he's been against the rating since the beginning of time... possibly longer. His reasoning is, essentially, that every reasonable measure should be taken to prevent children from playing games containing adult content. Without the backing of every AG, there's no way the R18+ rating will be approved.
While noble, Atkinson's arguments against the rating are flawed.I had a chance to speak about the topic on ABC Radio Melbourne yesterday, though there wasn't time enough to put forward the case for the rating. So I'm glad I have the opportunity to do this now, and rebut Atkinson while I'm at it.
To start, Atkinson outlines the current ratings situation. It's only a few paragraphs in that he hits the meat:
I am concerned about the harm of high-impact (particularly violent) computer games to children. Games may pose a far greater problem than other media – particularly films – because their interactive nature could exacerbate their impact.
I should state off the bat that I believe we should have a consistent, and if possible, enforceable ratings system for games. I also agree with Atkinson that the interactive nature of games could, in terms of promoting violence, put them a step above other forms of entertainment. This leads me to his next point:
The risk of interactivity on players of computer games with highly violent content is increased aggressive behaviour.
There are not enough conclusive studies for Atkinson to assert this as true, let alone that games provoke more aggressive behaviour than TV or film. Even so, it's a weak reason to deny adults the right to purchase violent games.
I do not want children to be able to get their hands on R18+ games easily. I understand that the lack of an R18+ classification denies some adults the chance to play some games, however, the need to keep potentially harmful material away from children is far more important.
It'd be naive to say that games don't provoke any emotion - but enough for an 18-year old to go on a murderous rampage? I don't think so. As for those under 18, there are plenty of violent games with MA15+ ratings on the market to make up for those that have been refused classification. For Atkinson's reasoning to be consistent, any game that includes violent content should be banned also.
Proponents for the classification say the latest technology allows gaming platforms and computers to be programmed to allow parental locks. Today’s children are far more technologically savvy than their parents. It’s laughable to suggest that they couldn’t find ways around parental locks if R18+ games were in the home.
Atkinson attacks his own argument here. I agree that parental locks are not the way to go, and even a waste of time. But by Atkinson's own reasoning, there are kids intelligent enough to pirate games via P2P file sharing or, if they seek a legitimate method, importing titles from overseas. In fact, by not having an R18+ rating, the government unintentionally encourages people to pirate games or spend their money outside the local economy.
I have mentioned that, despite there being thousands of computer games available to consumers, only a handful are banned. I want to give some examples of games refused classification in Australia because I’m certain that fair-minded people would not want the kind of content in them to be available to children.
This is a decent point - it's not like Australian gamers have been denied triple-A titles because we don't have an R18+ rating. However, other than keeping it out of the hands of kids and adults - at least until they download or order it - Atkinson does not mention the side effects of a game being handed an RC.
If the publisher is adamant about selling the game here, it has to go back and retool it to remove the offending elements. It then has to be resubmitted for classification. For the publisher, this means a delayed release, loss of profits, wasted developer time and cash and effort blown on marketing, packaging and logistics. For consumers, we have to wait longer for the game, and then accept a cut-down or censored version while pretty much the rest of the free world enjoys the game on schedule and as the developer intended.
Atkinson then goes on to mention five games that have been refused classification by the OFLC - Blitz: The League, Reservoir Dogs, 50 Cent: Bulletproof, Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure and Narc. The specific points he brings up however are largely irrelevant, and are more for the shock and awe factor than to reinforce his argument. Firstly, the fact we don't have an R18+ rating means that some games that should have received it get an MA15+ instead. Rockstar's Manhunt is the best example of this - it was retroactively refused classification in 2004 after being on sale for a year with an MA15+ rating.
Secondly and as previously mentioned, many kids are smart enough to download banned games, and it doesn't take the brightest child to figure out e-commerce. True, by preventing their sale in the country you're reducing the potential for them to fall into younger hands, but by the same token, you're encouraging piracy.
There are not adequate safeguards that can properly protect our children from those disturbing scenes and I know how computer-literate they are. Like other parents in Australia, I want to try to protect children from being able to access computer-generated pornography and violence.
The thing is, kids are buying MA15+ games right now, games where people explode, get shot, bled and die. At least with an R18+ rating, the classifications board would not be forced into either giving borderline games an MA15+ rating or banning them and wasting the time of publishers and consumers.
Overshadowing all of this are the issues of free speech and censorship. Why should the government decide what free-minded adults can and cannot play? Shouldn't parents and not the government take responsibility for restricting what games their kids play? The problem lies not with the games, but education.
The UK, Europe and the US seem to handle an R18+ rating just fine, isn't Australia mature enough to cope as well?
Games ratings speech cut off in Parliament [News.com.au, thanks Anthony]