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Pyrrhic Victory: Behind the rhetoric of the R18+ debate

Parliament

The debate over an R18+ classification for videogames in Australia has been the most pervasive public discussion on videogames of the last decade, yet it has never really been about classification.

Yesterday, amended legislation introducing an R18+ classification for videogames was introduced to federal parliament. Despite being immediately referred to an inquiry, it represented the beginning of the end for a debate that has framed public discussion of videogames in Australia since 1995 (if you’ve somehow missed the debate, there’s a good introduction here).

There is still emotion in this debate, but there is also a lot of fatigue. The online Australian videogame community has matured in concurrence with the debate, as its timeframe mirrors that of the introduction of the internet. Equally, many local videogaming publications have found in the R18+ issue a rite of passage of sorts: actual journalism to be done, politicians to be interviewed, legislation to cover, and press conferences to attend.

Yet since its inception, the classification debate has been layered in rhetoric. It has rarely been about classification, or censorship, or policy. Instead, the debate has had a knack for worming its way into largely preexisting discourses. It is no coincidence that the rhetoric of those who built the classification system in 1995 and the rhetoric of those who seek to change it in 2012 is consistent: it is the rhetoric of protecting children from inappropriate content. That this has come full circle over the course of seventeen years is an indication of just how strange and circular this debate is.

Originally, the discourse of the classification debate was barefaced. Those who supported the introduction of an R18+ rating did so because its absence was a perceived black mark over the medium of the videogame – their medium. It was a structural, governmental, legal indication that there was something wrong with videogames, that they could not be trusted with the same rules as other media. It made people angry.

This defensiveness, although it sometimes manifested itself in an immature, gut reaction, was largely accurate in pinpointing the motives of the legislators of the era. The Hansard reports for the introduction of the classification system reveal that the politicians at the time viewed videogames with a deep suspicion. Peter McGuarun, MP, for instance, claimed that, “It is one thing to watch a violent video; it is another thing altogether to be involved in the violence.” Meanwhile, Janice Crosio, a Parliamentary Secretary at the time, extensively detailed Custer’s Revenge, a then-twelve-year-old videogame that involved a crudely simulated rape of a Native American woman.

Instinctually, it seemed quite clear that this was a debate over whether videogames meant anything to society other than money and taxes. It has, for better or worse, over time been tied up with other, similar policy debates about videogames in Australia for this reason. However, instinctual defensiveness is not a productive lobbying strategy, and while the basic creative rights of the medium were championed there seemed to be little positive governmental response.

Perhaps the defining rhetorical move of this whole issue, then, and of the public discussion of videogames in Australia, was to shift the emphasis away from the qualities and rights of videogames and their players and towards the insufficiencies of the classification system itself. There came a point late in the last decade when various pro-R18+ groups and their spokespeople began to argue that the lack of such a classification meant that many videogames were being inappropriately shoehorned into the MA15+ category.

This was not empty rhetoric – the statistics and research is there to support this claim, and even cursory, anecdotal evidence would suggest that there is some truth there. Nonetheless, the shift to this mode of reasoning was a deliberate and careful step.

R-rating

It was a clever move, from a lobbying position. Arguing for intangible rights, like artistic expression or freedom from censorship is a difficult thing to do. It is doubly difficult when that censorship is performed on moral, and not overtly political grounds. When Tony Jones read a description of Fallout 3 on ABC TV’s Q&A in 2008, the audience responded with awkward laughter – as you would, when you are told a member of the audience is in support of a game that allows you to “self-inject intravenous drugs to make you kill more people.”

It is much easier to instead agree with the moral panickers. It is easier to agree that these videogames are inappropriate, and by virtue of an ineffective classification system, are finding their way into the hands of minors.

The strengths of this move are threefold. First, it is simply a more easily defensible position. Saving the children is the go-to weapon of the moral panic toolkit, an evergreen and clear position to take. Certainly, it is more pursuasive than arguing for the qualities of a game that allows you to “self-inject intravenous drugs to make you kill more people.”

Secondly, looking towards a flawed classification scheme turns the debate away from keeping immoral content out by assuming that such content is already here, but being poorly policed. This again shifts the frame of the debate and disempowers arguments advocating exclusion.

Finally, it reformulates the problem as one of policy, rather than of videogames. By turning the issue on its head and pointing towards a faulty classification system, the spotlight is turned away, however slightly, from the actual content of the videogames in question.

This rhetorical move has been nothing if not successful. We cannot say definitively if this move was the trigger for governmental action on this issue, but it is certainly the language with which the government has approached it. On receiving the news that the R18+ amendment would likely proceed to parliament, then-Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor said, “The introduction of an R18+ classification for computer games will provide better advice to parents and help prevent children and teenagers from accessing unsuitable material.”

By changing the language and terms of the discussion, the pro-R18+ side have seemingly ‘won’ the debate. However, by changing the discourse, the debate has shifted a long way from where it began.

It is telling that the discourse of politicians has generally remained unchanged throughout this process. If the Australian Christian Lobby can be believed, in 2010 the attitude of the majority of Attorneys General was “a state of bemusement that anyone could want to make or play many of these games.” While there may have been successes in communicating the failures of the classification scheme as good policy, there has been a complete failure to communicate the meaning of videogames to those with power.

It is also concerning – but, given the tone of discussions, not surprising – that the revised guidelines make extensive note of how the interactive nature of videogames might increase the impact of restricted material.

Far from being a victory for widespread acceptance of videogames as an artistic and mature creative medium, we have reinforced their appearance as a barbarous medium. Many who have argued for the introduction of an R18+ rating have done so by reinforcing the perception that there is a potently destructive element in videogames that must be legally withheld from young eyes.

Therefore, the question is not whether the R18+ debate has been won or not. Despite the deferral of the legislation yesterday, it seems likely that there will be enough momentum to carry the altered scheme through.

Australia will get its symbolic R18+ rating. However, it is unclear as to whether the cultural importance of the form has been impressed upon the halls of power. I suspect it has not. An R18+ rating, as the debate stands, will also not stop sensationalist media attacks on videogames, and will not bestow any greater cultural legitimacy on the form. If these were goals of the campaign for an R18+ classification, they were lost some time ago.

The serious question is about on whose terms the debate has really been conducted and settled. It is difficult not to conclude that this victory is less than it seems.

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  • 1
    Posted February 16, 2012 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Good point, although once those games are locked behind R18 it’ll blunt the “think of the kids” attack.

  • 2
    Isaac Groves
    Posted February 16, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Essentially, gamers will have to wait out the generational shift for a true change in established attitudes taking place. The majority of boomers – especially in politics – simply have no interest in engaging with the entire concept of video games, let alone trying to appreciate or understand the nuances in this debate or the medium itself.

    Nup, it’ll only be when we have pollies and media editors who have grown up lifelong gamers themselves that we’ll get decision making based on knowledge rather than fear, moral panic and general bewilderment.

  • 3
    Matt West
    Posted February 16, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Well written as always, Dan.

    It has become a little concerning how we’ve wandered off the path to defend our passtime’s rights. If I remember correctly I think either the ACL or ACCM have previously criticised the fact that pro-R18 lobbyists began to use the “child protection” platform to highlight the ways the current classification scheme lets us down.

    Unfortunately anti-R18 arguments based on “child protection” really ended up setting the battleground, and it was a little difficult to walk away from after that. They say think of the children, so we say “well if games are as bad as you say” how about YOU think of the children. It’s a fantastic argument winner, but it also seems to accept the opposing view that mature games are evil, horrible things that will naturally corrupt our youth.

    So you’re right, we’ll get our R18+, but it’ll be off the same moral panic that used to rile us up so much. Freedom of expression and anti-censorship won’t warrant a mention. Hell, I’m pretty sure they’re trying to talk up the budget side of the agreement, as if R18+ will magically fix the local developer scene…

  • 4
    Posted February 16, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    If a Tank is at the door, and the only available weapon is a guitar, you pick up the guitar.

    i.e. less hysterical attack might mean a less desperate defence.

  • 5
    tinman_au
    Posted February 16, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    This remands me of the old days of D&D (Dungeons and Dragons).

    There was a similar moral outrage about that in the early days after a few people that played it decided to shoot some other people. But after a while, once “normal” people found out their kids were playing it, and even some friends, and hadn’t turned to homicidal maniacs they realised it was just a hobby/game/pastime, and not a demonic training system like the media made it out to be.

    so I agree with Issac, after a time this will only be wheeled out when some lunatic snaps and goes on a shooting spree and someone finds a copy of “Modern Warfare 23″ on his bookshelf….though it’s more likely that people snap like that due to credit card worries than because they were playing some game…

  • 6
    Posted February 17, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    I think its a bit delusional to believe that debate over the appropriateness of one censorship system over another was actually going to promote any kind of positive message about the medium it is designed to restrict. Censorship systems regardless of medium have never really been concerned with the artistic merit of content.

    Video games reaching mainstream acceptance as some kind of art form or valid pastime that people freely talk about without worrying about social repercussions is a completely different thing. It won’t be Fallout 3, Left for Dead 2, or MW3 that capture the imaginations of the broader public, but a more accessible game where rating is not even an issue, but where games are now, I think it’ll be a long time coming.

    I suspect that like climate change, social acceptance will come with generational change.

  • 7
    Ruprecht
    Posted February 17, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Simon beat me to it… the R18+ campaign always proposed a relatively small change to the law. In that regard, it had to show that the proposed change was consistent with the stated principles of the law, one of which is protecting children from harmful/disturbing content.

    I do agree with your concerns about the ACB’s assumption that interactivity = greater impact. This assumption seems to sail through to the keeper without much evidence to back it up (or to disprove it).

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