The Birth Of Moral Panic In The Age Of Video Games

The Birth Of Moral Panic In The Age Of Video Games
Image: Boneface

PAX Australia 2019 was filled with so many great panels, but there was one panel we recommended above all others. Games and Moral Panic: Why Are We Here Again? was a panel that strove to answer questions many of us had about the Australian games industry, and why classification is such an important and enduring issue.

This story first appeared in October 2019 and has been republished following the opening of public submissions into the review of Australia’s classification system.

A Review Into Australia's Classification Laws Has Begun, And You Can Have Your Say

The review of Australia's classification guidelines has formally begun and the Department of Communications and the Arts - and the Classification Board - would like you to have your say.

Read more

The panel featured icons and speakers from across the gaming industry, including IGEA CEO Ron Curry, Jeff Brand, an experienced professor at Bond University, Ella Lowgren, who specialises in communications, writing and games development, Dave McCarthy, VP of operations at Xbox, and Margaret Anderson, the director of the Classification Board.

Anderson was an incredible voice to have on the panel because her position as director places her in such a position of power over the games industry, but also reveals how tight and restrictive those powers are. One of the core themes that arose many times in the panel is the nature of government and governing processes.

Simply put, the Australian classification system is so restrictive because classification changes are a “gentleman’s agreement”, as Anderson puts it. To enact change, at least nine state and territory leaders have to agree to make the change possible, and with the rise of moral panic around video games and an overall lack of understanding about how video games operate and impact people in society, these changes are nigh-on impossible.

As it stands, the classification guidelines for video games haven’t been revisited since 2012, a time when video games were far less ambitious and technically sound, or as involving as they are now. But despite an acknowledgement by Anderson that adults should be able to see and play what they like at their own discretion, it will take a push to see any actual change happen.

Part of the reason that change is so delayed is that while there is a push for overall change, there’s also an incredible push against it. As Jeff Brand explained, a lot of this has to do with the rise of moral panic.

Brand highlighted a quote from professor Janet Murray, “new media in any age is always distrusted media”, to explain why this push exists in the first place. Video games are still relatively new media, and there’s always going to be a fear of new and unfamiliar things, and a fear of change in society.

This comes about via a four step process, according to Brand:

  1. There arises a threat to social norms or community interest
  2. The threat is depicted as a recognisable symbol by the media
  3. The portrayal of this symbol in the media raises concerns from the public and what follows is a response from authorities
  4. Moral panic ensues, based on this (often false) depiction

This process creates fear, and the ensuing moral panic often means the core change becomes a threat, even if its depiction is false in modern media. Video games are considered scary, because they’re so often tied to more serious issues like mental illness, addiction and gun violence. This depiction of video games is what has been proliferated and spread to modern society, therefore, moral panic consumes the ‘image’ of what video games really are.

“It’s new and bad for you,” Brand explains. Change is scary, and it’s this fear of change and newness that drives people to reject new media like video games. If it wasn’t video games today, it was drinking and ‘fornicating’ in the 1600s. It happened to comic books in the 90s, and it’s happening now — as Brand puts it, it’s a cyclical process.

Ultimately, the Classification Board is tied to the eventuation of moral panic. When asked if the guidelines cause moral panic in the first place, by establishing a stark dichotomy of ‘right and wrong’ in entertainment, Anderson suggests the guidelines are “reinforcing the concept of moral panic that was around at the time the guidelines were written.” Moral panic shapes the guidelines, because they represents the views of the majority — they also exist at the mercy of a generation that didn’t grow up with video games. This unfamiliarity eventually leads to fear, and it’s clear that the guidelines are extremely one-sided in this way.

Anderson discusses this idea in depth throughout the panel, particularly focusing on the content of video games and how its impact on players can be understood. She particularly calls out the strange double standards in the classification of video games — that scenes like ‘simulated sexual activity’ are permitted, but those depicting ‘realistic’ sex are not. She also calls out that drug use is permitted in games, but only if it doesn’t pertain to a ‘reward’. As far as discretion goes, Anderson states the board’s hands are tied.

Don't Blame The Classification Board For DayZ, Blame The Government

Games don't get banned all that often, and every time it happens there's a surge of interest in Australia's archaic classification system. That's generally followed by a torrent of abuse against the Classification Board, occasionally Australia itself, and more recently, a bit of public vitriol directly against the members of the board. But as was the case when Fallout 3 and Mortal Kombat were completely banned from sale, the same situation applies with DayZ. Rather than directing ire towards the people whose sole job is to enforce the letter of the law, people need to go all the way back to 1995.

Read more

The current guidelines are outdated. This is something that everyone involved with video games knows. They were created in a time that was rife with moral panic, and arguably, the moral panic around video games has only gotten stronger since then. But that doesn’t mean that any of us can’t enact change.

Before the end of the year, the Classification Board will release a discussion paper on the state of video games classification. After publication, the Board will open the paper up to discussion, and the public will be able to put in submissions for a limited period of time. (Update 9/1: That discussion paper is now available for viewing here. The public can have their say via a form on the Classification Board’s website.)

Anderson encouraged everyone at the panel, and at home to sit down and read the guidelines, and to keep an eye on the Classification Board’s website. She did not give a specific time frame for submissions. Once the paper is released, there will be a limited time for submissions, but your voices need to be heard.

As Anderson states, the Board doesn’t randomly decide a game should be refused classification. They operate within the restrictive guidelines that govern their actions, but these guidelines aren’t set in stone.

If we want video games in Australia to thrive, and if we want to be given the same discretion and choice that other countries around the world get, it’s time that we sit up and pay attention. I would encourage all of you to keep an eye on the Classification Board’s website, and when the time comes, to make your voices heard.


  • Great article. Now I’m gonna sit back and wait for the comments from people who jump the gun after only reading the title…

    • The only way i see that we can solve our rating board problem is to have people on the board who are actual gamers and understand the context of things presented to them.

      Too many times it’s obvious the Ratings board looks at things in the vacuum and doesn’t understand the larger context of something they find objectional in a game.

      I don’t hold high hopes for our situation ever improving because our government seems too focused on enabling religious discrimination and selling more coal.

      • Basically, until you get a generation of people in there who grew up with games, it won’t happen. I’m including candidates for PM too. We’re looking at 10-15 years minimum for that to happen.

  • You all seem so very young.The Classification board has never mattered.Banned games are easily obtained,and have always been so,whilst taking money from local retailers.The board can do whatevs,and you can write as many articles about it as you want,but the truth is that it is and always has been irrelevant.

    • Weird flex, but ok. It’s not a question of *can* you pirate things, anyone can and I guarantee you we all have, and probably all still do to some degree. The question is, why should we be controlled by archaic rules from a bygone era that aren’t suited to the purpose they’ve been given?

      • You don’t have to pirate the games, just buy them from overseas and get them shipped – often it’s cheaper too.

  • Its no longer coming from outside the gaming world like it was in the days of Night Trap and MK panic. We now also have moral panic coming from within the gaming community and gaming journalists about things like sexualised characters, depictions of colonialism, and use of certain weapons, just to name a few.

  • What is worse moral panic, or that XYZOMGWTFBBQ isn’t represented in games panic?
    Politicians use vidya games as a scapegoat for purely deflection reasons.

  • The ACB has always been irrelevant, especially now that everything is digital. You don’t even need to pirate: its called buying digitally on any one of the hundreds of platforms out there

    No need to physically import, this is 2020, not 2001. Create a US or European account on PSN/XBL/Nintendo shop and buy a digital points card. Now that VPNs are cheap and mainstream, region locks are also irrelevant.

    The govt is also trying to isp block various websites, as well as collect meta data, so anyone without a VPN is a fool.

    The ACB hasnt been relevant since the 90s and by the time the govt tries to play catchup, theyre already a decade behind. I think they must live in a bubble up there in the ACT, because their precious “classification’ laws aka censorship laws, stop precisely no one from obtaining anything.

    Whats their obsession with trying to ban anything with drugs??? Yeah so digital murder is OK but dont gain health from smoking a bong? LOL. This country always has been a nanny state, where everything is so overregulated that wiping your own butt requires a permit.

    • I’m as big a VPN user as anyone, more so probably. A good chunk of my collection has been purchased overseas. Nonetheless, I think your comment is reflective of a particular point in time, but it’s a point in time that’s receding every day.

      Countries are building bigger and more robust firewalls. Companies are making it harder and harder to redeem keys across regions. Once upon a time it was possible for me to just log into my Steam account and purchase when the VPN was connected to another region, now that would earn me an account lock. Once upon a time GMG and GOG were champions of no regional pricing, now they both apply the Australia tax like everyone else. Once upon a time any key I bought from a key reseller would work, now there’s at least half a chance that the key will stop working in a few weeks or months, if it works at all. Pretty much every significant digital company applies and collect the GST on behalf of the Australian government, including ebay and Amazon.

      Sure, it’s still not impossible, but it’s getting harder and harder every day to avoid the Australian regional firewall. One day the tipping point is going to be reached and all our easy work-arounds will be gone.

      • VPN, a proxy gateway sold as a supposed solution to anonymity. My IP address is an another country, I’m invisible no one can see me. Believing something offers protection is good enough I suppose.

  • The incredibly irony is that the people suffering from this ‘moral panic’ are almost all religious conservatives. Some of the most evil, least moral people on the planet. They shouldn’t get a say or a right to ‘push back’, their stupidity should be ignored as the buzzing of flies that it is.

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!