Censorship and the games people play
Last week, a small, pivotal moment in the history of Australian censorship made itself known.
On one hand, say experts, it exposed a process of review that is flawed, unenforceable and based on outmoded standards. On the other: no one wants to be the champion who stood up for the right to bear weaponised extra-terrestrial sex toys. As gaming website Kotaku's editor, Mark Serrels, puts it: "There's not a politician alive who would be brave enough to go up against the Australian Christian Lobby to preserve the sanctity of the purple dildo."
The dildo in question is a weapon featured in Saints Row IV, the latest instalment in a hugely successful franchise that has traded on juvenile humour and anything-goes gameplay.
The game sees players in control of a pimped-out president of the United States defending Earth against an alien invasion, and one of the objects he encounters is ... well, here's the board's description: "The lower half of the weapon resembles a sword hilt and the upper part contains prong-like appendages which circle around what appears to be a large dildo which runs down the centre of the weapon. When using this weapon the player approaches a (clothed) victim from behind and thrusts the weapon between the victim's legs and then lifts them off the ground before pulling a trigger which launches the victim into the air. After the probe has been implicitly inserted into the victim's anus, the area around their buttocks becomes pixelated, highlighting that the aim of the weapon is to penetrate the victim's anus."
The game also contains references to "alien narcotics" that afford players super powers, according to the board's report. A day after Saints Row IV was refused classification, the zombie survival game State of Decay met the same fate for featuring real-world drugs - from codeine to morphine - as tools for recovering health and stamina.
The response to the double ban was one of disbelief. The gaming industry had spent more than a decade campaigning for the introduction of an R18+ category to bring Australia in line with overseas ratings systems.
"The really surprising thing about all this is that it just seems so silly," says Laura Parker, an Australian game journalist now based in New York. "Even though we have an adult classification for games in Australia, adult games are still getting banned. It's hard to believe that a government can make the case that it has to protect its adult citizens from something called an 'alien anal probe'.
"Prior to Australia having an adult rating for games, we were one of the only countries where adults were not allowed to play games that other adults in other countries played," she says. The R18+ rating "brought us into line with other countries and meant adults could now make their own choices about what content to consume".
Parker says that the industry's embrace of R18+ rules included an understanding that the government would retain the power to ban any game it thought was unsuitable for adults and children.
"However, since only a handful of games were ever banned under the old system, maybe an average of one or two per year, to have two games banned within a week of each other under the new system, which was supposed to bring about less restriction, not more, was a shock."
No one is going to the wall in defence of these games, however. "To the outside world," says Serrels, "defending a game like Saints Row IV or petitioning for its reinstatement sounds like we're petitioning for our right to purple dildos. 'Give us our purple dildos! You won't take them without a fight!' It sounds utterly ridiculous and it makes us sound stupid. It's not a cause worth fighting for."
Ron Curry is CEO of the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association, which represents publishers and distributors of video games in Australia and New Zealand. IGEA was one of the many industry bodies to support the introduction of the R18+ category: "We had said right through the whole R18+ debate that there will still be some games that will be refused classification. We always said that the guidelines set the standards and if something [is] at the wrong end of R18+ then we support that it will be refused classification."
But, he says, the Refused Classification status of Saints Row IV and State of Decay reveal the insurmountable obstacles the current legislation faces. They're problems the government understands: "They're struggling because they have this piece of analogue legislation and we're all living in a digital world."
According to Curry, the classification board reviewed about 800 games last year. The number of games released through the iTunes store alone was closer to 40,000. "A government body is never going to be able to manage that process."
The cracks in the current legislation are exacerbated by the global nature of the gaming industry. A few years ago Curry was at Auckland Airport when he spotted a pile of games that had been banned under the pre-R18+ system, with a sign urging travellers to buy a copy before heading home to Australia. Even that seems quaint today - most games can be purchased and downloaded direct to your PC or console.
"We're moving away from this notion where you go into a shop and pick up a box and this box has a label on it. Once we start delivering digitally, it takes it out of the realm of Australian legislation, because you're buying your game from a server that's based somewhere else. The only people who can manage that process really is the industry itself."
Australian gamers are already using online forums to boast of their recent acquisition of State of Decay, setting up US Xbox accounts to sidestep the law. Even if our digital borders could be effectively policed, a game today isn't a discrete object like a book or DVD.
Publishers automatically make changes and updates to their products over a user's internet connections, and unofficial modifications to games are produced and distributed by gamers themselves.
Today, says Curry, a "game itself is transient, the content is transient. So what you sign up for when you buy it may not be exactly the same as when an update changes it. And again, that responsibility needs to be shouldered by industry. Under the current act, as soon as there's a change it's a different game and technically needs to be reclassified."
Curry says that the standards applied during classification also require review. It's not simply that attitudes towards nudity or language or criminal activity need to be reassessed - rather, the current elements taken into consideration are based on an old model of media distribution. He asks: should parents and caregivers be better informed on a game's approach to privacy? Should a product recording the geolocation of its player be noted? Should gambling be a classification consideration?
Yet nobody in the debate seems to question the need for government regulation - only how it is applied. For Curry, the only workable model is a co-regulatory relationship between politicians and industry.
"There's a place for government to set a framework that says yes, here is our classification scheme, and this based on research and evidence is what the guidelines should look like. That's very important, that it's based deeply on research, on what people really want. And then say to industry: OK, based on these guidelines, go out and manage the process yourself."
Serrels agrees that the classification board should only have to saddle itself with the borderline cases: "Your MA15s and R18+s, games that might be refused classification. Everything underneath that, which is the vast majority of video games, some sort of industry regulation would be far better than people wasting their time and the government's money." But when it comes to alien anal probes, Serrels has been surprised how many in the gaming community have questioned their own inviolable freedoms.
"Some gamers that I've seen in [Kotaku's] comments section and in discussions with friends are saying 'maybe this game should be banned. Maybe it is unacceptable.' The reason the game was banned is because it has a weird purple dildo weapon that you can anally insert without consent on innocent bystanders. I'm thinking to myself, I'm totally for the adult's right to choose what they consume, but is that really what I want in my video games?"
The makers of Saints Row IV have stated their intention to release a version of the game that will satisfy Australian laws, which Serrels sees as a minor victory.
One of the arguments against an R18+ rating Serrels has encountered again and again is that it will open the floodgates: "As soon as you have an R18+ rating, all these video games are going to come out that will poison the youth and blah blah blah.
"I'm totally happy for us to be able to point to Saints Row IV and say, 'No, here was a moment when something that we probably shouldn't have let into the country wasn't let in'. And the game was amended in a positive way because of it. I'm totally happy for Saints Row IV to be the example that kills that argument dead so I never have to bloody hear it again."