A piece of legislation passed this week means that from 1 January 2013 Australia will have an adult rating (R18+) for computer games, which restricts the purchase of games targeted at adults to those adults in the same way that the R rating for movies restricts those.
Previously the highest rating available for computer games was MA15+. This meant that under Australia’s rather unique classification and censorship laws, games that exceeded the MA15+ rating jumped into our banned category called "refused classification".
Some titles were modified by their publishers specifically for the Australian market so that they could be snuck into an MA15+ rating. Each year for the last decade or so, some titles have been banned from sale — or seized at the border by customs when Australians tried to buy them from overseas retailers usually based in New Zealand, the United Kingdom or South East Asia.
The subject matter of these games isn’t the type of stuff that horrifies your average Aussie 30-year old man or woman (the average age of game players according to industry statistics). They’re simply the type of titles that are for adults the same way Pulp Fiction, Saving Private Ryan, The Silence of the Lambs and Black Hawk Down are movies for adults. Games like these aren’t banned in any other country like Australia; Germany has laws on the books which ban games (or anything else) which deal inappropriately with the Holocaust, the UK has act specifically to ban one particularly grizzly title in the past, but we’re the only country that has a framework and procedures for examining each game proposed to be sold, and banning the ones we don’t think people should play.
And boy do we ban them; 12 titles in the last three years have been blocked from the shelves, 35 in the last decade. One was banned so hard that the title of it wasn’t released by the Classification Board, we can assume the title "Unrevealed item 201001752" was much worse than the game banned in 2006 for including graffiti.
So now we have an R rating. So everything is great and Australian adults will be able to play the games designed for them the same way we can watch Game of Thrones and The Graduate right?
The creation of an adult rating doesn’t bring us into line with the rest of the world, the question of what goes into that rating, who puts it there and the criteria on which it’s assessed are all still wildly out of step with community expectations and other examples of developed countries around the globe.
Teams of as few as three from the government-nominated classification board will still decide whether or not a game is to go on sale. They’ll probably adjust their thinking slightly from "is this suitable for a 13-year old" to "is this suitable for a 31-year old", but the criteria on which they judge will otherwise contain the same vague notions they have since well before the recent legislation was even drafted.
The Classification Code still insists that the bureaucrats ban anything which includes enough "revolting or abhorrent phenomena". The review board which oversees the Classification Board’s decisions will continue to insist that it is a safeguard designed to reflect the length and breadth of Australia’s diverse societal and community standards. This diversity isn’t necessarily reflected on the Board.
It’s unfortunate that trade press and some mainstream media have been positively remarking on the new rating when it’s unlikely to affect any sort of alignment of our classification and censorship systems with either Australian community attitudes or more suitable systems overseas. A handful of the top end of MA15+ rated games will nudge up into the new R18+ category and out of reach of kids, but there is no change to the underlying stratum of judgment that routinely decides how adults will entertain themselves and no reason to believe that the history of poor decisions will be arrested by a new way of labeling the result. We got an adult rating, but not the adult rating we were after, and it’s likely now that the government will put the problem in a folder labeled "Inquiry, Findings, Legislation, Solved".
That folder gets opened every 20 or so years. See you in 2032.
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