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Feb 16, 2012

Pyrrhic Victory: Behind the rhetoric of the R18+ debate

The debate over an R18+ classification for videogames in Australia has been the most pe

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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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