Why R18 ratings are still a losing game

Behind the recent banning of two new video games lie complex questions about violence and human nature. But double standards in classification are unfairly impacting the gaming industry.

It’s the issue that has more lives than Super Mario and once again it's back to haunt Australian gamers, the video game industry and the government. 

Many assumed that when an R18 video game classification made it into Australian law, it would put an end to the government's plan to vet games and have the final say on what should and shouldn't be on the shelves. 

But in less than six months since the new rating system game into effect, the Australian Classification Board is at it again, doing the one thing an R18 rating was supposed to prevent: banning the sale of certain video games.

In the past month, two games have been banned by the Australian Classification Board – both of which were deemed invalid for an R18 rating. Needless to explain, the Australian Classification Board has some grounding here. Both games are graphic and at least deserve an R18 rating. But the board doesn't help its cause by listing in a media statement "elements of illicit or proscribed drug use related to incentives or rewards" as one of the reasons behind the ban on the title Saints Row 4.

In all honesty, do we really think that adult gamers are going to go try "illicit or proscribed drugs" after seeing that they enhance a player's speed or strength in a video game? Really?

The timing of all this couldn’t be worse. In less than two months’ time one of the world’s best-selling but also most notorious gaming franchises, Grand Theft Auto, will launch the next rendition of its series in Australia.

It’s fodder for the Classification Board, which could easily ban the game due to the series basing its gameplay around the themes of drugs, violence, sex and crime. Given the board's new-found fondness for cracking down on drugs, this meme below containing gameplay footage of GTA 5 circled through Twittersphere and Reddit in anticipation of the board's decision.

Graph for The need for more than R18  games (Any headline suggestions welcome)

Aside from annoying a lot of gamers, banning the game could also prove damaging to Australia's multi-million dollar video game retail industry. We've already covered why this is the case at Technology Spectator, but in brief, some retailers would be relying on the launch of the latest GTA to drive consumer foot traffic and help buffer a poor year of software sales.

Indeed, there were many reasons – aside from appeasing gamers – as to why we needed an R18 classification. Many rejoiced when the system was finally introduced, but now it seems we're back to where we started. 

So what went wrong? What turned the biggest win for the video game industry in Australia into a time bomb?

Digging into the legislation

The answer to this question is multifaceted. The first part of it lies in the new guidelines that are being used to classify games. These rules were also revised when an R18 rating was introduced, but they include some rather odd language.

Here’s the criteria for the establishing the violence levels in a R18 video game:

Violence is permitted. High impact violence that is, in context, frequently gratuitous, exploitative and offensive to a reasonable adult will not be permitted.

And to give you a contrast, here’s the same criteria for ranking violence in R18 films.

Violence is permitted. Sexual violence may be implied, if justified by context.

The contrast between the two documents is staggering. The language used in the film classification guideline is clean and concise, whereas for games, the higher the rating, the more muddled the wording becomes.

The contrast seems to imply that there is a difference between violence in video games and violence in movies.

The Interactive Games and Entertainment Association – the body that spearheaded the last campaign to attain a R18 rating – is priming to dive into the issue once again. This time it’s trying to get the government to completely review and refresh the entire content classification system.

IGEA head Ron Curry praised the introduction of an R18 rating, but identified the current system as a "Band-Aid job" by the government.

He explains that the Australian Law Reform Commission actually asked the government to review and completely reimagine the current system and, in doing so, consider whether there is a separate need for different rating criteria for different kinds of content. 

Curry makes a convincing point. Saints Row 4 was refused classification because of a drug reference. Meanwhile, the movie Limitless centres around characters receiving a massive IQ boost – and all the perks that go along with it – from an illegal drug. Curry's example involves a fictional drug, in a fictional movie, but regardless, it flew past the Classification Board with an M rating.

One solution, Curry proposes, is to have the video game industry classify games and simply have the government police an industry-led ratings system. This would more or less put us in line with video game classification systems in the US and in parts of the EU.

Any change to our current system may be easier said than done, however. Our current parliamentary set-up means that every state and territory across Australia has to individually sign off on a new ratings criteria for it to be passed. 

As a result, the most conservative states often get their way on the issue. This politicking possibly saw the guidelines for the rating of games altered to suit the agenda of these governments so that they would sign off on it. Politics at its finest.

Gamer see, gamer do? 

Next, it’s worth considering why these reforms are so contentious in the first place. This issue revolves around the debate on whether violence in video games leads to antisocial behaviour.

This claim was the catch-cry of the Australian Christian Lobby and many other politicians who opposed the R18 game rating reforms last year. 

It’s a vexed and complex topic. According Morgan Tear, one of the authors of a recent University of Queensland study that disproved a link between antisocial behaviour and video games, it's one matter that academia is yet to find an empirical conclusion on. 

“The evidence for a link is far from conclusive and highly contested because some of the prominent researchers vehemently disagree with each other on the ways violent video games can impact actual behaviour,” Tear says.

To this point, another 2011 University of Queensland study conflicts with Tear’s study and does prove a connection between violent video games and antisocial behaviour.

“It’s a young field of research and so I think it’s right for scientists to have thoughtful disagreements,” Tear says.

“As better data and better designed experiments are published, I think the picture will become clearer, and we will be better equipped to answer seemingly simple questions like: ‘Do video games cause aggression?’.”

Teal did however express concern that gaming content is evolving faster than ever before and that it may be difficult in the future for research on games to keep up with the industry.

So, where to from here?

There's no doubt that a lack of conclusive evidence either way is going to make it hard to push any kind of future changes to the current ratings system. It was a near 10-year battle just to get the current system in place.

But hopefully the fact that these existing classification laws are quickly being superseded by technology may prompt another more sweeping discussion on the issue. 

As Curry points out, we're already seeing signs of this. Around 800 games were reviewed by the Classification Board last year, while roughly 400,000 apps were released – including app-based games – without an Australian rating.

The rise of indie gaming development and digital-only titles is also set to further challenge the existing legislation. 

There’s no argument against the fact that we need a system that helps parents in keeping adult content away from minors. Formerly working in a video game store, I’ve seen first hand the kind of psychological stunts eight-year-olds (yes, kids as young as eight) will pull to get their parents to buy them the latest Call of Duty or GTA game. Sadly, I’ve also seen parents frequently cave in to their child’s demands, despite seeing the rating and getting advice from the sales staff on duty against the purchase.

More parental checks and measures are being built into consoles and devices than ever before, and if the Australian government reviewed this set of laws with the idea of harnessing the industry’s resources rather than working against it, it could lead to a better outcome for both parents and gamers.

As it stands, the current set-up is, frankly, downright confusing and defeats arguments by those both for and against violent video games in Australia. It both fails to truly protect children from graphic content and still takes away mature gamers' ability to make their own decisions on what content they consume.

It’s time to realise that behind the nerdy petitions and online gaming forum banter lies an issue that is only going to become more perplexing and exacerbated as interactive content becomes a bigger part of our future digital economy.

Better to find the political courage to stem this problem while it’s manageable, rather than be forced to play dire game of catch-up in the near future.

Got a view on Australia's R18 games issue? Drop us a line in the comments below or you can reach the journalist, @HarrisonPolites, on Twitter. 

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