This Thursday and Friday the Attorneys-General along with the Minister for Home Affairs Brendan O'Connor will meet to discuss, among other things, the introduction of an R18+ rating for Australia. We feel as though we've said everything that needs to be said, but in the lead up to the decision, we thought we'd take a look back at some of our R18+ features, as we move towards what could be the final decision on the issue. Today we're revisiting Dr Daniel King's definitive look at the arguments against an R18+ rating.
The Anti-R18+ Argument: Parental Guidance Not Recommended
Recently I was invited by the Editor of Viewpoint Magazine to respond to the question of whether an R18+ classification for video games should be introduced in Australia. My response to this question was published in the latest issue (No. 4) of Viewpoint (available here). Alternatively, for those without a subscription, much of the same (but not all) material can be found here. For those who do not wish to follow the links, here are my basic points:
1. There is overwhelming public support for the R18+. 2. We already have ‘adult’ games in Australia under-classified in the MA15+ category. 3. Introducing the R18+ category will not lead to a wave of ‘ultra-violent’ video games entering the country, because the most explicit games are here already (see 2.) 4. Psychological research is being used selectively to serve a censorship agenda by self-appointed media sentinels. So my conclusion was that it makes sense to introduce an R18+ because it would address the current failings of the classification system, and better ensure that ‘adult’ video game material is no longer available for sale to underage youth. Many others have arrived at the same conclusion.
Alongside my article in Viewpoint, Professor Elizabeth Handsley and Dr Wayne Warburton wrote a piece entitled ‘The R18+ Games Debate: A Critical Analysis of the Arguments’. In their paper, they respond to a list of 15 ‘propositions’ or statements that have been put forward in support of the R18+ classification.
I would like to take this opportunity to respond to their paper. First, I will argue that Handsley and Warburton’s arguments disregard important information about the current state of video game classification in Australia. I will then draw attention to the authors’ imputation that parents are in some way incapable of making (or neglect to make) their own decisions about their children’s media habits. Finally, I will argue that Handsley and Warburton’s paper reflects a concerning trend in Australian policymaking - the advocacy of anti-libertarian approaches to entertainment media availability and consumption.
Before considering these issues, I want to first draw attention to the way in which Handsley and Warburton frame a number of their arguments. The title of their paper suggests that they are presenting a “critical analysis”. However, the paper contains a considerable array of terms and phrases that belie a fair and objective process of analysis. In fact, their analysis often contains little more than opinion and speculation. To give some (but not all) examples:
“It is difficult to imagine the...” (p.46) “It is naive to expect that...” (p.47) “...it is hard to imagine...” (p.48) “...it is fanciful to think...” (p.48) “In the unlikely event that this were true...” (p.49)
It is natural for writers to hold personal views or opinions, and to attempt to hide or obscure these views in their professional writing. However, the repeated use of phrases such as “it is hard to imagine” indicates that Handsley and Warburton’s writing often lacks even a veneer of objectivity. Sadly, however, this style of writing is fairly typical in spirited debate and the R18+ debate is no exception. So let us move on.
The first pro-R18+ argument that Handsley and Warburton find reason to dispute is the average age of video game players is 30 years and, by extension, video gaming as a national pastime has ‘come of age’. They state:
If one takes into account the average age of the Australian population (36 years) and the fact that there are more adults than children in Australian society an average age of 30 demonstrates that gaming is still of primary interest to children and young people. (p. 44)
I have to confess that I do not follow their reasoning. Research studies have reliably shown that the average age of video game players in Australia is 30 years and rising – which is consistent with studies conducted in the U.S. and the U.K. The fact that (a) there are more adults than children in Australia, and (b) adults tend to be 36 years old in Australia, tells us virtually nothing about who plays video games at what age in Australia. If there are more adult video game players by virtue of there being more adults than children in the population, this does not change the fact that gaming is predominantly an adult activity.
Put another way: Let’s say you throw a party and 100 guests show up (80 men and 20 women). Half of the men (40) and all of the women (20) drink your beer. So which group would you conclude drank the most beer? You would say the men, of course. The total group of men may have had greater numbers on their side but that does not change the fact that there were more male beer-drinkers at your party.
Handsley and Warburton’s argument that video gaming is predominantly of interest to children, as part of their denial that video gaming has ‘come of age’, is later contradicted when it is suggested that the adult gaming population (now, apparently, the “majority”) poses a threat to children who play video games.
Children have the same need for protection, irrespective of how small a minority they are. Indeed, the more adult gamers there are, the greater the number of ‘adult’ games that will be in circulation and the greater the risk they will fall into the hands of children. This is a ‘majority rules’ argument in a minority rights context. (p. 46)
In any case, this argument that children should dictate the habits of adults is not convincing. It is like suggesting that the local swimming centre should have only a shallow wading pool to minimise the risk of children drowning in the ‘deep end’. Why is the ‘majority rules’ argument being selectively applied to video games, and not adult-oriented books, television, music or film? And why does this ‘need for protection’ necessitate that adult video game material be removed entirely from legal sale when the aforementioned media types are not?
So what is Handsley and Warburton’s actual stance on the R18+ issue? Based on my reading, the overall position of their paper is captured well in this quote:
“The evidence...is sufficient to justify a precautionary approach.” (p. 47).
A precautionary approach effectively dictates not introducing the R18+ classification because it would not offer any new protections for young people. The current classification system should be preserved, they argue, because otherwise games like Manhunt would be legalised. However, this is later contradicted when it is stated that “more information or warnings needs to be provided about games other than a simple age-based classification system”. On what basis do they presume that ‘warnings’ – prone to ambiguity - would be more effective than categorically labelling some video games as restricted for adults only?
Handsley and Warburton show no apparent concern that there are many popular video games (as graphically violent as Manhunt) currently classified as suitable for young people in Australia, such as Red Dead Redemption, Gears of War 2, Dead Rising 2, Grand Theft Auto 4 (the list goes on), and that every other developed country in the world considers these games to be ‘adult’ entertainment. Handsley and Warburton fail to understand, as do many anti-R18+ parties, that gamers do not want an R18+ rating so that they can gain access to ultra-explicit video game material. On the contrary, gamers already have access to the best of the worst adult video game material in Australia.
What do I mean by the “best of the worst”? I am referring to the fact that those games that are refused classification (or banned) in Australia are generally not the commercial or critical successes. For example, the ‘adult’ video game heavyweights like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto that draw in millions of sales and receive rave reviews experience little to no difficulty in being rated MA15+ in Australia, whereas lesser titles like Marc Ecko’s Getting Up or BMX XXX are banned.
This raises an important question: If gamers already have access to what former Attorney-General Michael Atkinson referred to as “depraved sex and extreme violence” in games, why do gamers actually want an R18+ classification? Why are gamers campaigning so hard for an R18+ classification if apparently they have what they want? According to over 20,000 Australians who play or have an interest in video games, the No. 1 reason is clear – “The R18+ classification category sends a clear, unambiguous message to parents that the game material is unsuitable for minors”.
Ironically, this suggests that gamers are just as concerned about adult video game material as the politicians, lobbyists, academics, and anyone else on a soapbox (myself included).
What is most disconcerting about reading Handsley and Warburton’s paper is what little faith the authors have in parents in Australia. There is a pervasive subtext that the majority of parents would simply be lost without the guidance of media watchdogs and government-imposed censorship. Handsley is the vice-president of the Australian Council on Children and the Media, an organisation committed to informing parents about the potentially harmful content in media. However, she paints an unflattering - if not contemptuous - portrait of parents and their ability to raise their children in a suitable media environment. Here are some examples:
If parents shirk their responsibilities in parenting the media – as we know many will – the consequences are felt not by them, but by their children and their communities. (p. 48)
"Hundreds of parents appeared to queue up to purchase the game [Call of Duty]for their children." (p.46)
"It is fanciful to think that even diligent parents will have the motivation to take the necessary steps for protecting their own children from legally-available material." (p.48)
Such comments contradict Handsley and Warburton’s earlier calls for parents to be provided with better information and warnings about video game content. After all, what is the point if parents are by nature incompetent and unmotivated media sentinels? I will conclude by noting an interesting parallel. In the very same issue of Viewpoint as Handley and Warburton’s paper, there is an article about the regulation of gambling machines. Anthony Ball, the CEO of Clubs NSW, writes: “The real motivation of the anti-gambling lobby is not to reduce problem gambling but rather to reduce gambling per se.”
I cannot help but feel that the same mentality drives the anti-R18+ lobby.
Handsley and Warburton profess to be prioritising the protection of minors – but this agenda is clearly mixed in together with a disdain of adult video games and the material they contain. For example, in regard to the fact that some video games must alter their content to be classified for sale in Australia and may therefore be ‘ruined’ creatively, Handsley and Warburton respond that censored material would offer “little benefit to adults” and would achieve little more than increasing “the likelihood of antisocial attitudes” (p. 47). But is it really fair to reduce video games to this?
There is no acknowledgement that video games represent a form of creative expression and, inevitably, this medium will tackle darker, more mature subject matter. Critically acclaimed television shows such as The Sopranos and Dexter, and Oscar-winning films such as The Godfather and The Departed, all contain extreme violence. But it is not simply the violence that defines them as exceptional examples of art. To suggest that such films and television shows would not be “ruined” if they were sanitised to make them suitable for child audiences misses the point entirely. Such media – with its complex adult messages, themes and content - was never envisioned by their respective artists to be suitable for children in the first place. Handsley and Warburton are essentially criticising a square peg for not fitting in a round hole.
My closing thought. The anti-R18+ lobbyists often have an almost-Orwellian undertone to their arguments. They argue that the only way to protect children and adolescents from themselves is for adult forms of media to be controlled, censored, or filtered by an overseeing regulatory body. They expect adults to live in a child’s world, and dismiss this as a small price to pay. There is no compromise or flexibility in their thinking, and no appreciation of the liberties afforded to adults. At the same time, parents’ ability to regulate their children’s media use is criticised and undervalued – and, ultimately, marginalised. Parents are simply not trusted to make the right decisions about media for their children.
Personally, I find this to be more worrying than the content of any video game.