Mitsubishi Mirage. Licence plate: G4M3R.
David Lawrence Doe steps out of his car, burly set of boltcutters in hand. Eyes hooded, brow locked in a tight grimace.
The scene: Four construction workers, on break, huddled around a kettle and steaming cups of coffee. Apprehensive. It's not every day you see a man pacing towards you with intent, brandishing a gargantuan blunt instrument.
A beat. David walks past. Four sets of eyeballs follow. Where is he going? What the hell is he doing? David gets down on his hands and knees, awkwardly prods the oversized boltcutters through the fence. He locates an election corflute, a slice of corrugated plastic wrapped rigid around a pole. Vote Gamers 4 Croydon. Vote Kat Nicholson. He deftly clicks a handful of zip ties and picks up the poster.
He walks back, past the construction workers, back towards his Mitsubishi Mirage. A round sigh of relief. Exhale.
After an election, it's the campaigner's responsibility to remove any and all advertising dotted around the city. Corflutes, posters, flyers. The party must clean up the mess it has wrought — leave little to no trace of the bloody business that is local electioneering.
Major parties usually have volunteers for this kind of grunt work, but not Gamers 4 Croydon. This is grassroots politics; it's been a long, gruelling, physically demanding election. Encounters with angry bikies, verbal jousts in the press. Sunburn, freckles. Aching feet. A father in hospital with a liver disorder. Brushes with the law at a gay bar. Corflutes. Balloons. So many balloons.
The past four months have been tough, but they've been worth it. David Lawrence Doe, founder and chairman of Gamers 4 Croydon, is driving the streets of South Australia. He has done battle with Michael Atkinson on his home turf. He is removing all proof that Gamers 4 Croydon ever existed in this sleepy suburb of Adelaide, South Australia.
He is tired, but he is happy.
"I blame Michael Atkinson."
November 2009. Australia is the only country in the Western world without an adult classification for video games. The blame, say thousands of angry, disenfranchised gamers, lies with one single man. Thanks to an archaic set of rules requiring all Attorneys-General to consent to any changes to classification guidelines, one man is essentially holding Australia to ransom. That man is Michael Atkinson. Without his approval, Australia will never have an R18+ rating for video games.
Atkinson sees it differently. He is a one-man army. He fights the good fight against minority interests bankrolled by the corporate bogeyman. Who else, he asks Kotaku, will step forward with the courage to defend civil society against a billion-dollar industry? His stand is democracy in action. He is Croydon's knight in shining armour, defending his electorate — and Australia — from the evils of "ultra-violent" video games.
As Attorney-General for South Australia, Michael Atkinson is holding back the river. Not on his watch. Every day he receives "vitriolic abuse" from gamers demanding he stand down. No, he will not stand down.
Then, a challenge.
Atkinson sends a letter to a concerned citizen, writing in defence of his policy on R18+. He questions the importance of the issue. The letter goes public. The challenge goes public.
"I am next up for election in March 2010," he writes. "The state district I represent is called Croydon. I would welcome advocates of R18+ computer games testing public acceptance of my policy by standing a candidate against me.
"I think you will find this issue has little traction with my constituents who are more concerned with real-life issues than home entertainment in imaginary worlds."
Video games aren't important to voters, said Michael Atkinson. Prove me wrong. Run against me in my own electorate. Prove me wrong.
"I offered a challenge in the only poll that counts," says Atkinson, remembering the letter.
A good old-fashioned election.
In the state of Adelaide, Chris Prior — a politics nerd with an eye for detail and a masochistic love of paperwork — reads the letter and smiles.
"Atkinson threw down the gauntlet," he says, "thinking no-one would pick it up."
He was wrong.
On the other side of the country, David Lawrence Doe, a QA manager at Firemint studios in Melbourne, reads the same letter. He grits his teeth, incensed at the "breathtaking arrogance" of Atkinson's position.
"The idea that this person could be the only thing standing in the way of the overwhelming views of the community drove me mad," he says.
"Mad enough to want to start a political party."
738km. That's the distance between David Doe's native Melbourne and Michael Atkinson's electorate in Croydon, South Australia. Far. But not far enough. Immediately, David began looking into the process of starting the political party that would eventually become Gamers 4 Croydon.
Step 1: Acquire 150 members. 150 enrolled voters. 150 South Australian enrolled voters.
David immediately began planning a road trip. Before he knew it, his foot was on the gas. David Doe was on his way to Adelaide.
The meeting place: Mall's Balls. An iconic, surprisingly testicular landmark deep in the Rundle Mall in Adelaide. David Doe had already created a website, he'd announced his intentions to run against Michael Atkinson in Croydon, he'd garnered a certain buzz amongst gaming communities. Former Kotaku editor David Wildgoose had interviewed David Doe, spreading the word, announcing he would be at the Rundle Mall, November 6, 2009, to secure enough signatures to found a legitimate political party.
The first person to arrive was aforementioned politics nerd Chris Prior. A bustling mass of energy and ideas... who didn't want to join David's party.
"I was just cautious," he explains.
Chris had turned up at Mall's Balls, intrigued by David and his drive, struck by his similar train of thought. In his own time, Chris had also looked into the logistics of setting up his own version of 'Gamers 4 Croydon'. In a sense, he was already further ahead than David: policy planning, the nitty gritty of the South Australian political system. In that respect, Chris had a more nuanced understanding of what had to be done.
"I was worried about losing control of that," admits Chris.
David Doe left Mall's Balls with a large number of signatures, but Chris Prior did not sign. Later, Chris wrestled with his inner control freak, asked himself a series of hard questions, and changed his mind.
"I quickly got around to realising the whole endeavour had a better chance if we worked together," says Chris.
That same night, David and a number of new signups headed to Adelaide's Unibar for a drink and a chat. Chris wandered up and dumped a folder of prepwork and research on David's lap.
"That started the proud tradition of party meetings in pubs," laughs David.
Almost everyone in that pub would become a candidate for the newly formed party Gamers 4 Croydon.
'Don't Be A Dick'
Almost immediately, the fledgling Gamers 4 Croydon became furiously active.
There were recruitment drives at LANs, David appeared on Radio National, Chris buried himself in the business of writing the party's constitution (rule number one: "Don't be a dick").
In particular, Chris remembers recruiting at StreetGeek, a LAN held in a church with a dedicated creche. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, particularly from parents who were openly dismayed at the lack of an adult classification for video games. "They all wanted action immediately," says David.
"We had a crowd probably six deep clustered around the signup table when the first call went over the PA," recalls Chris.
The registrations rolled in, both in Adelaide and across Australia. Eventually, when David submitted Gamers 4 Croydon for official registration, they had over 700 members.
More paperwork for Chris.
"David liked having someone else to do the paperwork," Chris laughs.
"Amazingly, it takes a lot of paperwork to register a political party," laughs David. "Who knew?"
But Chris took a perverse pleasure in the work.
"I'm sure other people would consider it hell, but it was kind of interesting for me," he explains. "I was lucky to have supportive parents so I could be a technically unemployed bum working full time."
David wasn't quite so lucky: In the frantic weeks between Atkinson's challenge and the registration of Gamers 4 Croydon as a political party, David pushed himself to the limit. Frequent trips from Melbourne to South Australia, media interviews, the pressure of essentially starting a new party from scratch began to take a physical toll.
He'd been here before, and he didn't like the way this story ended. As the quality assurance manager for Firemint, David was accustomed to 'the crunch', working extreme hours in high-pressure environments. During the past 12 months, Firemint had completed development on Flight Control and Real Racing. Real Racing was the real killer, says David, pushing his immune system to the absolute limit. At one point, David actually contracted pneumonia.
He did not want to contract pneumonia again. He made a difficult choice.
Early in the genesis of Gamers 4 Croydon, David resigned from Firemint to work full time on the campaign.
"I realised that I'd rather be working on 'party work' than 'work work', and both were beginning to suffer from the impact of the other."
It was time to get serious.
The Perfect Candidate
"I looked forward to a new challenge."
Michael Atkinson was about as entrenched as a politician could be.
Starting his working life as a journalist for the Adelaide Advertiser, Atkinson made the leap into local politics as Press Secretary to Federal Minister Chris Hurford in 1985. He became the member of the South Australian parliament in 1989 and had been part of the furniture ever since. He truly and sincerely welcomed Gamers 4 Croydon. In a sense, he was almost bored. David and Chris made things interesting.
"The Liberal Party and the Greens rarely offer worthy opponents in the Croydon electorate," he explains. "Although I knew Gamers 4 Croydon could not win, it was good to see young people show such passion in parliamentary politics." Gamers 4 Croydon could not win. Back then, the words rankled, but winning wasn't necessarily part of the plan. David and Chris were like Kamikaze pilots, spiralling head first into a well-oiled political machine. It wasn't about winning, it was about putting the biggest dent possible into Michael Atkinson's re-election campaign. It was about making a noise — taking a megaphone to the issue of games classification in Australia. Atkinson made a target of himself, and Gamers 4 Croydon were looking for the bullseye.
All they needed now was the perfect candidate.
The Perception Problem
"It's funny. I remember at one point, maybe a year beforehand, musing about the situation and idly thinking to myself, 'Someone needs to run against Atkinson!'"
No-one saw Kat Nicholson coming.
For gamers in Australia, It was a time of great frustration. Games — not many, but some — were being refused classification in Australia. Permeating the issue was an overwhelming feeling of impotence, the idea that games weren't being taken seriously and there was nothing anyone could do about it. As long as Michael Atkinson remained Attorney-General of South Australia, there was zero chance of finding a resolution.
A rogue element channelled their frustrations in the worst possible way.
"I have a remarkable catalogue of gamers abuse and threats to me and to my family from that time," remembers Atkinson.
In particular, Atkinson recalls a death threat, complete with cut out letters, slipped under his door in the middle of the night. Even his children were threatened.
"Why they had to abuse my children, I don't understand," he says. "My three boys were and are keen gamers and agreed with Gamers 4 Croydon."
It culminated in one of the most infamous statements of the campaign.
"[M]y family and I are more at risk from gamers than we are from the outlaw motorcycle gangs who also hate me and are running a candidate against me," Atkinson claimed on ABC's Good Game.
To this day, Atkinson stands by his comments.
"I don't resile from those comments," he says. "They were true."
Gamers 4 Croydon was about to have a perception problem.
Kat Nicholson, in a sense, was a response to Michael Atkinson's hyperbole; the antidote to that burgeoning perception problem. Atkinson claimed he was in danger from gamers, but Kat Nicholson was an articulate woman in complete command of the issues. She looked like she wouldn't (and couldn't) hurt a fly.
A post-graduate journalism student, Kat had initially volunteered her services as something of a media handler. Then one evening — during a Gamers 4 Croydon dinner — David Doe surprised her with an announcement.
"I was halfway through my schnitzel when the entire table full of people turned to me and David went 'Kat, before you got here this evening, we voted that you should be the candidate in Croydon."
She almost sprayed her mash across the dinner table. Wait. What?
David's reasoning was sound, Kat defied the image of the 'traditional gamer'. She was smart and articulate. She was a surprise attack. Atkinson wouldn't know what hit him.
But Kat Nicholson was unsure. This wasn't what she signed up for.
"I was in two minds about it, that's for sure. But that night was the same night that Atkinson was quoted as saying that he expected G4C would engage in criminal activities. That decided it for me. I was like, 'How dare he?'"
Kat Nicholson had made up her mind.
"That's it. I'm doing this."
"Ms Nicholson was just a name on a ballot paper," says Atkinson. "Gamers 4 Croydon would have got a better vote had they run pistol-packing Yosemite Sam, from Canada, and had him remain in Yukon throughout the campaign.
"At no time in the campaign did I come across Kat Nicholson."
But Gamers 4 Croydon was simply campaigning in different places. They had less resources, less manpower. They didn't have the colossal might of the Australian Labor Party behind them. They had flyers, they had corflutes. They had... balloons.
"Chris spent weeks going to the ABC studios every day with G4C balloons trying desperately to get some airtime," remembers David.
At one point during the campaign David's dad had taken ill with a liver disorder and, instead of flowers, he made up a bouquet of Gamers 4 Croydon balloons for his dad to cheer him up. He would understand the joke.
"I had a doctor walk past saying, 'Are you with Gamers 4 Croydon?'," remembers David.
That was just Gamers 4 Croydon's style of campaigning. It did. not. stop. ever. And people took notice.
"I pretty much had to live and breathe it," says Chris. "Grocery shopping? Ask the cashier about the election, heard of G4C? Games classification? Here, have a badge. Haircut? Taxi? Unlucky enough to be in an elevator with me? Congrats, you get the spiel."
The Mars Bar
Then there was the night Gamers 4 Croydon went to proselytise at a gay bar. Balloons. Balloons everywhere.
In addition to its obvious stance on gaming and R18+, Gamers 4 Croydon had a number of progressive policies. As a result of that, its members found themselves campaigning in the Mars Bar — Adelaide's only gay nightclub.
"That was our best campaigning night ever," claims David.
"I was exhausted and had a cold," adds Kat, "but it still managed to be incredibly good fun."
Chris was a little bit tipsy on a steady supply of free drinks in exchange for his now legendary collection of balloons, Kat fought through the sniffles to be as charismatic, friendly and approachable as Atkinson didn't want her to be. And David? He was just proud Gamers 4 Croydon was the first political party allowed to campaign behind the hallowed doors of The Mars Bar.
Everything was going swimmingly until the cops showed up.
3am. Several shandies consumed. The party was winding down. David and Chris had the sterling idea to put up corflutes near the Mars Bar to consolidate their grand victory.
That was when the police car drove past, slowing to a crawl.
"I was paranoid as hell," says Chris. "I was pretty sure we weren't breaking any laws, but... well, drinks."
The worst case scenario plays out. The cops pulled a U-turn and headed back towards David and Chris.
"A tiny bit of panic began to set in."
The cops slowed down a second time, took a long hard look at David and Chris, then drove off.
It took David and Chris two days to realise that, in their drunken state, they had been stapling the corflutes upside down.
The Smart Man
David Doe and Chris Prior both paid tribute to Michael Atkinson's incredible work ethic. During Atkinson's tenure as the Croydon member of parliament, they estimate he had met every single registered voter in his electorate at least twice.
"He is a seriously hard worker," admits David.
One Atkinson story stands out. While door-knocking, David was cheered up a driveway by a group of core, vocal Gamers 4 Croydon supporters. They regaled David with an Atkinson incident he remembers to this day.
During one of his marathon door knocking sessions, Atkinson had knocked upon their door to introduce himself.
"So," the supporters asked, "how about those R18+ games?"
Without saying another word, Michael Atkinson simply turned around and walked away, in complete silence.
Atkinson recollects the incident — he even remembers the person's name — but tells it differently.
"Of the thousands of doors on which I have knocked, only thrice was R18+ raised," says Atkinson. "The second was Michael Bamborough and his partner on 26 February, 2010. His partner did most of the arguing. I tried to put my case, but the old door-knocking adage is if you win the argument with the voter, you've lost the vote."
David Doe agrees.
"He knew he was never going to get their vote," explains David.
"People say a lot about Atko, but they always overlook that he's an incredibly smart man."
Quite A Coup
Gamers 4 Croydon had a habit of finding supporters — and enemies — in the strangest of places.
The press gathered, the lightbulbs flashed. The smaller, 'micro' parties gathered on the steps of Parliament House for what would most likely be their only mainstream photo opportunity of the election. This was the moment Ky Meekins, a major candidate for FREE Australia (a party representing the interests of motorcycle gangs), decided he had a score to settle with Gamers 4 Croydon.
He steps towards David Doe, towering above him — seething — demanding to know why Gamers 4 Croydon decided to place its voting preferences with another party.
"I told him in no uncertain terms that there had never been any agreement," explains David. "That our parties were so different that we couldn't possibly be seen to be cooperating
Of all the times to raise grievances. Cameras flashing, the press in attendance. The one chance for the micro parties to make a major splash; that was when Meekins decided to pick a fight.
"Mind boggling," laughs David.
Then there was the naked gardener. Chris stumbled upon him watering plants during an epic leafleting session that left him sunburnt, blistered and almost short a few fingers. Kat Nicholson was interviewed by Matt Gilbertson of the Adelaide Advertiser, who arrived to the interview dressed as 'Hans the German Drag Queen' and stayed in character throughout the whole interview. "That experience has given me eternal sympathy for all The Chaser's victims," says Kat. David's favourite was the constituent who was adamant he would be voting Family First ("I've got a family and I want to put them first").
Support, bizarrely, came from the Australian Sex Party, a party formed to serve the interests of Australia's sex industry.
The Sex Party's reach was stratospheric. And, with no candidate running in Croydon, it decided to endorse Gamers 4 Croydon. In each and every adult store, there were Sex Party flyers declaring clear support. If you bought anything from an adult store, nestled next to that pornographic magazine or dildo was a family-friendly piece of paraphernalia politely inviting you to vote for Gamers 4 Croydon in the upcoming election.
"Quite a coup, I thought," says Chris.
David Doe and Michael Atkinson had never had a face-to-face discussion. A scheduled debate on Radio National was cancelled; Atkinson's extremely busy schedule wouldn't allow it. Finally, at a polling station in Croydon, they collided for the first time. Predictably, there were fireworks.
"Atkinson arrived at the booth and began yelling in David's face, calling him a racist," says Chris.
Atkinson was upset. One of his election corflutes had been defaced by a group he believed was acting in the name of Gamers 4 Croydon. He was furious. The corflute belonged to a Congolese refugee who was working for Michael Atkinson at the time. The refugee's fence was broken, the corflute clumsily ripped off in a stunt that had apparently been recorded and posted on YouTube.
"I tackled David Doe about this at the West Croydon polling booth," remembers Atkinson.
"They did this in the middle of the night to the home of a man who had fled persecution in his war-torn country and was trying to participate in Australian civil society for the first time."
David Doe was gobsmacked, unsure how to react. He knew nothing about the incident, and he was being called a racist and a vandal at a voting booth by his main adversary in front of registered voters on their way to the polls.
"It was truly a lowlight of the day," David says. "Other party volunteers were getting along famously, then he comes in with these unfounded allegations and kills the mood entirely."
David argued back, saying that Atkinson's claim was ridiculous. None of his volunteers would have been so stupid.
"But he just kept calling me a racist, so I ended the conversation and went back to handing out how to vote cards."
Almost A Holiday
It was swelteringly hot. Kat Nicholson was running on fumes, handing out how to vote cards for eight hours straight after two hours of sleep the previous night.
David himself was almost half relieved. The finishing line was in sight. Election day was an inglorious grind, but after months of door-knocking, interviewing, walking — dear God the walking — David Doe was able to almost stand still and bask in the fruits of his labour. Gamers 4 Croydon was here, contesting an election, doing its level best to put a dent into Michael Atkinson's re-election hopes.
Chris, who had perhaps racked up the most miles on foot, had the easiest job of the day. He was planning to run for the legislative council and as such couldn't legally campaign on election day. On a disgustingly hot day, it was his job to boost the morale of his party in any way possible. He spent most of his time in an air-conditioned car full of snacks and sunscreen for the poor bastards braving the blisteringly hot sun.
"For me, it was almost a holiday," laughs Chris. "All I had to do was drive around, chat with our volunteers and keep their spirits up."
Purely by participating, Gamers 4 Croydon had a profound effect. There was a different atmosphere in the air, even Atkinson noticed it. Despite his anti-R18+ rhetoric and his crusade on adult video games, Atkinson remained a massive fan of Gamers 4 Croydon's cosplay efforts.
"The costumes that Gamers 4 Croydon how-to-vote card distributors wore added colour and interest to the Croydon polling booths and were a credit to Gamers 4 Croydon," he remembers. "Their get-up brightened the day."
"It was a whirl," says David.
And then, before they knew it, the polls closed.
Worth Voting For
Back to where it all began, the church LAN with the concerned parents and the crowds six people deep, Chris thought it fitting. Post-election, Gamers 4 Croydon supporters packed in the hall where StreetGeek was held all those months ago — before the paperwork, before the door knocking, before the balloons. That night the church hall was a space where volunteers and candidates could simply exhale, wait for the results to roll in and — hopefully — celebrate.
The atmosphere was as jovial as you might expect but, in the corner of the hall, Chris Prior sat alone.
"I was bloody nervous," he admits.
Would this be an unmitigated disaster? Would Gamers 4 Croydon become a laughing stock? Would a single solitary person even bother voting for a political party with video games as its primary reason for existing?
The answer to that question was a resounding 'yes'. As the results filtered in, it quickly became clear that Kat Nicholson had outperformed all expectations.
"Kat had done really well — 3.7 per cent of the vote eventually," says Chris.
Michael Atkinson had famously taunted Gamers 4 Croydon, claiming the party wouldn't even secure 1 per cent of the vote.
"That's when the nervousness dropped away and it turned into a proper party. With lots of political discussion and yelling at the tv!"
In the end, Atkinson won the election, but suffered a 15.6 per cent swing against him. A serious dent. Chris and David had no real idea how much impact the R18+ issue had on the vote, but suspect it was significant. It turns out people were interested in "home entertainment in imaginary worlds". 3.7 per cent of Croydon electorate, at the very least, decided it was worth voting for.
"The Croydon result was an amazing vindication for us, and the work we'd put in," says Chris.
"It really did feel like a win."
That Answer Alone
22 March 2010, two days after the election. Michael Atkinson, the newly re-elected member for Croydon, resigns as the Attorney-General for South Australia. Australian gamers no longer have their bogeyman. The one man stand against R18+ games for Australia ends.
Back then an ensconced Atkinson believed it was time for 'renewal' in Labor's leadership. That was one reason for his resignation. Another was his young son Johnno. He'd just had his first soccer match and his Dad wasn't there to cheer him on. "That disappointed me," said Atkinson. "Like so many times, I wasn't there."
The election results, and the presence of Gamers 4 Croydon, claims Atkinson, had nothing to do with his decision to resign.
"I wanted to turn my attention back to my personal life," he explains. "I'd like to say Gamers 4 Croydon helped. They didn't."
After the election Michael Atkinson did something he never had time for as Attorney-General for South Australia — he took his family on a holiday. He lay on the sand, listened as the waves from the southern ocean broke on the beach. He reflected on a hard-fought election, on eight long years in the line of fire.
But old habits die hard. During his holiday, he arranged to meet with a handful of local judges and magistrates for dinner. A quiet catch-up. Mid-way through the meal, one magistrate confessed he didn't agree with some of the decisions Atkinson had made during his tenure as Attorney-General.
"I know you didn't like my legislation against bikie gangs," replied Atkinson. "What was the best thing I did?"
It was his stance on R18+ games.
"As a parent," said the magistrate, "I can't in this world of computers always protect my children from harm. I need the Government helping me. You did."
"That answer alone," says Atkinson, "made it all worthwhile."
Remember Gamers 4 Croydon?
August 2013, just before the Australian federal election. Chris Prior is at a house party, sipping on a drink. The conversation turns to politics.
"Hey, remember Gamers 4 Croydon?"
Chris is a friend of a friend. No-one in this crowd knows him well enough to make the connection. He takes another sip of his drink, stifles his laughter. People still remember Gamers 4 Croydon.
"It was really interesting, and encouraging for me, that people were still really excited about what we'd done," he remembers.
David's attitude towards that period of his life is a surprising one — very matter of fact. There's an easy narrative: the underdog story, the ramshackle gamers done good, but David defies that. He knew what he was doing, he says. Chris knew what he was doing. Everything was precise and deliberate. It moved according to plan. No nostalgia remains, only the cool satisfaction of a job well done.
"It was very much a case of determining the final outcome," he says, "and planning back from there."
"It felt like the right thing."
Gamers 4 Croydon was on the right side of history. Even Atkinson knew it. He had done his level best to hold back the river. Eight long years. But, as time wore on, he had to admit defeat.
"I knew Gamers 4 Croydon would win in the end," admits Atkinson, "but sometimes in politics one's best work is done delaying a vice whose day is inevitable."
And it was inevitable. On 7 March 2013, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus was released in Australia, the very first R18+ game released in this country, but not the last. Since January 2013, when the legislation was put into place, 38 video games have been given an adult rating by the Australian Classification Board.
And every time Kat Nicholson sees that R18+ label on a video game case, she feels a small thrill of achievement.
"The whole thing was a good lesson in sustained, organised people power," she says. "Australian democracy is very far from perfect, but I firmly believe that the will of the people ultimately calls the shots, not the politicians.
"It was a hell of an experience."