Jun 19, 2012

R18+: Is this “A Big Win For Gamers”?

Last night, the news broke that t

Last night, the news broke that the federal Senate had passed legislation allowing the introduction of an R18+ classification for videogames.

Curiously, the federal Home Affairs minister, Jason Clare (whose default position has been to oversee the legislation since his predecessor, Brendan O’Connor, was moved up within Cabinet) tweeted the news as “a big win for gamers.”

This is a strange way to put the news, though not particularly surprising or unusual. Many people will no doubt approach this moment in the same light: this is, after all, what many ‘gamers’ of many stripes in Australia have been pushing around, arguing for, and complaining about for close to two decades. The passed legislation enabling an R18+ rating is a relief in many respects.

However, a number of points make calling it a “big win for gamers” hard to swallow :

  1. The scale of the practical problem for gamers presented by the lack of an R18+ is overestimated. A quick search of the national classification database reveals that since 1995, there are 82 entries for Refused Classification videogames. A number of these are duplicates for one reason or another—the real number is probably closer to 70, if not fewer (in contrast, the same search turns up over 1000 for games classified at MA15+ alone). The vast majority of these are games that I’m sure no-one is losing sleep about not being able to play: names like Gals Panic 3, Texas Table Dance and Immoral Cumbat crop up frequently.

    For the most part, it was only in recent years that widely anticipated videogames were commonly Refused Classification. The examples here are obvious: Left 4 Dead 2, Mortal Kombat and The Witcher 2. But before these games, the big Refused Classification games were usually isolated cases: Phantasmagoria (1995), Grand Theft Auto III (2001, eventually reclassified), and Manhunt (2003).

    I’m far from suggesting that an R18+ isn’t a good move, but a “big win”? The scale of the problem suggests otherwise. Jason Clare, in his press release, and more recently on his twitter account, has taken to calling the R18+ legislation a “reform.” Which is exactly what it is, and certainly much more accurate than “big win”.

  2. It’s still unclear as to whether this might constitute something we could describe as a “win” for gamers. “Win” is language that’s close to hand for this issue, as it’s both a gaming term and is used by political hacks to describe a positive outcome for an interest group. The federal court’s ruling that Optus couldn’t re-broadcast football matches online was “a big win for sports bodies.” Apple’s use of Siri, the voice recognition iPhone program, was “a big win for Nuance,” Siri’s designers.

    The difference here is that these “big wins” have some sort of tangible outcome (usually, money). The tangible outcome in the “big win for gamers” with the R18+ is less clear.

    As I’ve previously argued, to “win” the debate over an R18+ legislation, some ground was given to “protect the children”-type arguments. We can debate the specifics all we want, but it’s clear that sharpening the tools—not relaxing them—was a prime motivation in introducing an R18+ classification.


Let’s look at Clare’s press release yesterday:

    “These are important reforms over 10 years in the making,” Mr Clare said.

    “The R 18+ category will inform consumers, parents and retailers about which games are not suitable for minors to play, and will prevent minors from purchasing unsuitable material.

    The reforms also mean that adults are able to choose what games they play within the bounds of the law.”

    The dangers of ‘mature’ videogames are still clearly at the forefront of this issue. The implementation of the classification remains open and very much at the hands of the classification board, but it seems to me that if political rhetoric is anything to go by—and it might not be a good indication, admittedly—then some kinds of videogames will continue to be refused classification, even with an R18+ rating.

    The same range of videogames under a more precise set of classification seems like a very possible outcome.

  3. Therefore, it seems to me that if there is a “win” here, then it is probably for the classifiers, or for people who want better and more granular classification legislation, or for videogame publishers who can now pitch their products to the classification board in a higher category. Or, for otherwise unknowing parents who are more able to make decisions based on a big black ‘R18+’ sticker at the bottom of the box instead of a threatless red ‘MA15+’. Or, for politicians who’ve now taken loud email campaigns and recurring complaints off their backs.

  4. If gamers were hoping that the introduction of an R18+ rating might signal a cultural shift in the way politicians, the mainstream media, or wider society think about their past-time, we can think again.

    All we have to do is take a look at the Hansard for the R18+ related legislation. Here’s Ewan Jones, MP:

    “I was driving to Ayr recently and for only the second time since I have been in Townsville I saw a brolga, Townsville’s emblem. It is a beautiful flighted bird; it is the largest flighted bird in Australia. I looked out the window and said, ‘Look, kids—a brolga.’ They were all just sitting there gaming away. Anything could have happened. So, look out the window, go and kick a ball, go and throw something, go and play with someone, go for a swim, do something with your lives other than just gaming.”

Improving the tools of a classification system is in no doubt a good thing. As far as the R18+ legislation does that, it is also a good thing, and I am quite happy that classifiers will have a greater scale to work with, just as I am happy that a system with an R18+ level just plain makes more sense—to gamers, to non-gamers, to children, to parents, to designers, to politicians.

But before we break out the fireworks and welcome this as A Moment In Time, we should take stock and assess what an R18+ is supposed to do, what it will do, and what gamers are hoping it will do. It could turn out to be little more than an exaggerated shuffling of papers.


Leave a comment

8 thoughts on “R18+: Is this “A Big Win For Gamers”?

  1. Clytie

    For our family, this was about demonstrating that democracy worked … or didn’t. When my younger daughter reached voting age, this issue was important to her, and she has followed and participated in the campaign since.

    It’s been slow, but we got there. Let’s enjoy the moment. 🙂

    As the author implies, this is just one battle in our ongoing struggle against Internet/content censorship, but we can stop and smell the flowers for a bit, while remembering the front is still there.

  2. margbozik

    It’s a big win for common sense and hopefully some more sensible labelling of games. Some of the current M15+ games really should be rated R but there has been a lot of wiggling to get them in under the current rating limitations. With the average age of gamers now in their 30s (really), it makes sense to let them legally access R rated games in Australia if that’s what they want. While kids will always be able to get around classifications, parents will probably be a little more wary of giving into their 13-14-year-olds request for a game with an R sticker instead of a M15+ sticker on it.

  3. Brad Sprigg

    @Mr AK

    Part 1 is already out! It is really good too, best game they have done by far.

  4. Ruprecht

    I see where you are coming from, but given the long road to get here, it’s worth some fanfare.

    The fact that it took 10 years to achieve a minor reform is due more to opponents of R18+ and their choice to make it a fight about the worthiness of videogames, as exemplified in your quote from Hansard. So in that respect, it’s a “big win” over those people.

    There are some big games on the RC list — Left 4 Dead 2, Witcher 2, GTA III.

    If R18+ leads to parity with markets in USA and Europe and perhaps Japan, then good. If R18+ means fewer contortions by the ACB when classifying games, and therefore less delay in releasing games here, then good.

    As an aside, the assumption that some content harms children applies to ALL media classified by the scheme, not just videogames. The more difficult assumption that needs to be examined is that a game’s interactivity causes the content to have greater impact. I’m mixed on this, because to some degree I think it is true — it’s actually why I prefer games.

  5. Steven Warren

    Daniel it is a big deal.

    There have been many times that games have had to be modified to be sold in Australia due to our censorship decisions. To date most of the time the various game companies have actually gone and done this and so we have had games eventually slide through censorship after changing the name of Morphine to Magical Painkilling Juice or some other cosmetic change that has allowed it to slide past (without the kiddies actually getting exposed to less “bad” material)

    But recently EA decided not to publish Syndicate Wars in Australia due to our archaic censorship laws. Their press release stated that:

    “The game will not be available in Australia despite its enthusiastic response from fans. We were encouraged by the government’s recent agreement to adopt an 18+ age rating for games. However, delays continue to force an arcane censorship on games – cuts that would never be imposed on books or movies,” EA Corporate Communications’ Tiffany Steckler said in a prepared statement. “We urge policy makers to take swift action to implement an updated policy that reflects today’s market and gives its millions of adult consumers the right to make their own content choices.”

    So basically the biggest game publisher in the world has literally decided to not bother editing titles any more to meet our censorship demands and has decided to exclude us from distribution. Obviously any further game they publish that meets any censorship hurdles will be treated the same way. These are games that can be played in any other country in the Free World.

    I noticed a couple of commenters here claiming they will simply purchase the game from overseas, but this too will soon become impossible. More and more games require constant internet access and so can be region locked. What better way to stop potential lawsuits from lobby groups like the ACL? Live in Australia? Game won’t start with using a proxy server.

    Then of course you can’t buy the game through an online game purchasing platform like Steam, GOG etc.

    So that forces any local gamer to break the law and pirate the game (risking both copyright and possession of restricted materials charges) and denies artists money for their work. Content that in any other form of media wouldn’t be restricted by our copyright laws.

    Seriously, you’re a muppet for claiming this isn’t a big deal. Unless you think the government restricting what we can access on our computers like they do in countries like China is a good idea. No, wait, that would still make you a muppet.

  6. Mr Ak

    Can’t speak for everyone, but it’s a win for me. Now a chance Telltale will release The Walking Dead.

  7. JSW

    I think it’s a big win in that a small group of people lobbying for something that makes ‘common sense’ has actually happened.

    However, as a ‘win’ for Australian retailers or Australian gamers, ever heard of eBay? Hong Kong? Put the two together, and the whole issue becomes moot. I remember waiting for Left 4 Dead 2, and, after seeing a review of the non-Australian version, and the abortion that was the Aussie ‘censored’ one, I promptly bought the normal version from Hong Kong via eBay for $50 less than in Australia. An Australian retailer lost $99, Hong Kong Post got $6 and Hong Kong eBay seller got $49.

    This conditioned me to accept the 2 week wait after a games launch while it was mailed to my office, instead of wandering down to the local store on release day and picking up a copy. Before you know it I’m successfully transitioned to a person who does most of their shopping online and is happy to wait a week or two for it to arrive.

    Aussie gamers haven’t won anything, really. We could still buy the games from overseas. It’s really a win for Aussie retailers.

  8. Brad Sprigg

    It is a big win in that an R18+ rating for games has been something that gamers have lobbied long and hard on, with considerable resistance from the “establishment”. South Australian AG Mick Atkinson held up the push for R18+ for many years, then when he was finally deposed, we started to finally see some traction on the issue. Even then we have since had considerable resistance from groups such as the ACL who traditionally have the ear of government much more than us gamers do.

    In that context, I am sure that many gamers see this as a “big win” even if the number of affected titles is fairly small.

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