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.

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