I’ve been pondering over whether to reply to South Australia’s Attorney-General Michael Atkinson’s form letter on the R18+ classification for computer and video games. What’s been stopping me is that to do so requires an enormous amount of effort (which is fine), frustration and also a great deal of patience for reasons indicated below.
To reply in some glib way wouldn’t do any justice to the debate and a superficial response would offer little constructive input. However, the debate is important and one that has been largely hijacked by Atkinson whose invective, in my view, is full of moral panic, misinformation and factual inaccuracies.
So, at the outset I warn you about the length of this analysis of Atkinson’s letter. I also resign myself to the fact that only the ‘converted’ will probably take the time to read it in its entirety. For ease I have included extracts of Atkinson’s letter, which I hope will give context to his argument. I will leave selective paraphrasing to the political experts.
Thank you for your correspondence showing your interest in the classification of computer games. I note you support the introduction of an R.18+ classification for games.
You may be aware that there was talk of the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General releasing a discussion paper about this matter. I have been awaiting the release of this paper so I could bring it to your attention should you wish to make a submission. Your views on this issue would be better directed to that discussion than to me. Alas, the paper has not yet been released and, despite my inquiring, I do not know when it will be available. If you are interested in this paper, then I suggest you keep watch of these websites for its possible release:
- Standing Committees of Attorneys-General www.scag.gov.au; and
- Office of Film and Literature Classification www.oflc.gov.au.
I want the discussion paper released as soon as possible and have done nothing to impede its release.
At the April 2008 SCAG meeting, Ministers asked officers to draft a discussion paper for public consultation on the R18+ issue. They did so, however at the November 2008 meeting, Ministers agreed to further consider the content of the discussion paper apparently in response to Atkinson’s objections to the draft. Subsequent media comments from Atkinson, such as, “I want the discussion paper to include depictions of actual games, including the types of games that are currently above the MA15+ rating” are the only indication I could see as to why Ministers were not happy to release the discussion paper.
One of the fundamental requirements of the Guidelines for the Classification of Films and Computer Games is that of considering context. Including “depictions of games” in the discussion paper presumably means including still images, or film clips of game play, captured from games. These images or clips would be then viewed out of the context of the entire work, which would clearly be contrary to the objectives of the national classification scheme.
Including the types of games “currently above the MA15+ rating” would mean including extracts from RC material for public consumption – a notion that raises some concerns. If the material is refused classification then I would guess it should not be distributed to the public by censorship ministers.
The framework for the Australian classification system is established in Commonwealth legislation and the relevant Federal Government body is the Office of Film and Literature Classification (O.F.L.C.).
I would have thought that as the Minister responsible for classification in South Australia, Atkinson would be aware that the OFLC ceased to exist in mid 2007. Understandably he’s a busy man and may not have had time to update his information. However, it might be easier to take him a little more seriously if he provided some basic accurate information in his correspondence.
Under the Federal legislation, one minister can veto changes to our classification system in Australia. Since I became Attorney-General in 2002, I have been opposed to introducing an R.18+ classification for computer games. To this point, I have been the one minister and member on SCAG who has stood against changes to our classification code – especially on the issue of the introduction of an R.18+ classification for computer games.
As tedious as it was, I ploughed through the federal legislation to find out just where it says that one minister can have that staggering ability to veto what, conceivably, the rest of the Commonwealth desires. Unfortunately it seems like I was on a wild goose chase. From further reading it appears that it’s not actually federal legislation that gives the so-called “veto power”.
When the commonwealth, states and territories got together to agree to a national classification scheme each agreed to amend or introduce respective legislation. Their agreement, together with principles on how the scheme would work was detailed in the “Agreement between the Commonwealth of Australia, the State of New South Wales, the State of Victoria, the State of Queensland, the State of Western Australia, the State of South Australia, the State of Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory relating to revised co-operative legislative scheme for censorship in Australia” (generally referred to as the Intergovernmental Agreement on Censorship).
Under Part IV of the Intergovernmental Agreement it states the Guidelines or Classification Code may not be amended unless all Ministers agree.
In Australia there is merit in a national classification scheme that requires unanimity between jurisdictions. State and Territory borders are incapable of restricting media to jurisdictions: once games classified R.18+ are available in one State they will be readily available in others. It will be no different from visitors to the Australian Capital Territory taking home explicit pornography, which they could not purchase in their own State. With people travelling so readily between States and Territories, a State-based classification coding system would be unworkable and useless. If Victoria introduced an R.18+ classification and South Australia did not, we could not prevent R.18+ games coming into this State.
Great point and I guess it’s only a matter of time then until South Australia abolishes its Classification Council that can make classification decisions that apply only in South Australia and override national decisions.
I have considered the statistics. I am well aware that many game players are adults. Indeed, a whole generation has now grown-up with computer games. It is not surprising that those who enjoyed gaming as children go on playing into adult life and, indeed, play electronic games with their own children. Added to this, games grow ever more sophisticated, challenging and entertaining, and, accordingly, more attractive to adult players. My three sons are always playing computer games at home and one of them is now 22.
OK, so we agree on something.
However, it is important you do not confuse the classification rating of a game with the game’s sophistication, or the challenge or interest to the player. I understand the Wii console has been phenomenally successful for Nintendo and that system provides many games to challenge and develop skill, physically and intellectually, without depraved sex, gore and cruelty.
And some that contain blood and gore! Let’s be clear, ALL consoles and PC platforms offer a wide range of games with and without classifiable elements from very mild to strong.
Depending on tastes and interests, adult gainers will find something challenging to play in all of the categories of games now available. It does not follow that a game is more interesting to an adult simply because it contains extreme violence, explicit sexual material or highly offensive language. Indeed, with all the effort and money that goes into game development, coupled with the effects and graphics now available, there is no need to introduce these extreme elements. I am baffled and worried about why proponents of R.18+ games are putting up their hands and saying ‘Give us more cruel sex and extreme violence!’
I’m not really clear who (apart from Atkinson’s own personal preference) has claimed that games are more interesting to an adult simply because they contain extreme violence, explicit sexual material or highly offensive language. More so, who is calling for more cruel sex?
This assertion is patronising in the extreme, deciding what is good for all adults and is dripping with moral panic.
Some of the kinds of games that I expect would be available on the Australian market under an R.18+ classification include Blitz the League, an American football game where illegal performance enhancing drugs can be dispensed by the gamer to the football players and fake urine samples can be used so players avoid positive drug tests. Another is Narc – as in narcotics – which allows a gamer to choose that his game character take illegal drugs, including heroin, speed, L.S.D., marijuana and ecstasy. The gamer can have his character take ecstasy so it is immune to attack and the character can escape. Further, when given speed, the character can run faster and catch opponents. These are all activities that are illegal for individuals in the real world so why ask governments to give people the right to do them virtually?
The classification guidelines state “material that contains drug use … related to incentives or rewards is Refused Classification”. Introducing an R18+ will not change this.
If time is taken to actually review recent Classification Board RC decisions on games, most state very clearly that the game is RC only because it exceeds the MA15+ classification, not because it meets the RC requirements of the Code and Guidelines.
However, in the case of both examples cited by Atkinson, Narc and Blitz the League, an analysis of the Board reports clearly shows that even with and R18+ the games would still be RC.
You may recall earlier this year media reports that Amazon decided it would not allow a `third-party merchant’ to sell Rapelay, a Japanese video game, on its site. It was reported that the gamer could simulate rape in the game. It was also reported that the game manufacturer had other game-titles including Battle Raper and Artificial Girl. These kinds of depraved and sickening games are well protected from sale in Australia under our current classification regime. Although I expect this game studio would never seek an Australian classification, there have been other studios that have tried their luck with titles that have been restricted for sexual references and nudity. Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude was Refused Classification in September, 2004 and was reported to include ‘implied sexual activity’, nudity and sexual references.
Again, there’s that spurious argument that any changes to the classification scheme will result in games containing sexual violence being available in the Australian market. This is simply untrue and to me seems completely disingenuous. Unless the RC guideline is significantly altered (and all AG’s have to agree to that!), there is no way that games such as Rapeplay will be allowed in Australia. Suggesting that they would indicates that Atkinson is ignoring the vast majority of supporters for an R18+ classification who unequivocally reject the inclusion of this sort of material in our system.
Many films and other forms of entertainment include implied sexual activity, nudity and sexual references and they are included in different degrees at most classification levels. Most reasonable Australians recognise the fact that sex is a natural part of life and is often included in entertainment products. They also appreciate that systems such as the national classification scheme provide advice regarding suitable audiences and even legally restrict access or ban some products.
The Board’s Decision (not a unanimous decision) on Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude indicates that the sex and nudity in the game was not so detailed or offensive that it should be banned from distribution to all Australians, but that it was only suitable for adults. As there is no R18+ classification, it was banned.
In the case of the more violent games refused classification, reading through game descriptions set out in the decisions can be Iike reading through a virtual living hell – one that I imagine is all the more disturbing as it plays out before a gamer. The 2003 Classification Board Report of The Getaway gives details about electric-shock torture to a person suspended from a roof. The description paints sadistic imagery of the body swaying and crying.
Just like the issue of sex, violence occurs in a lot of entertainment product. The Getaway decision was another split decision. Some of the Board thought the violence was OK at a restricted MA15+ classification. Reading the report may dismay Atkinson, but actually playing the game (or similar games) may provide a better context than reading a few words that justify a decision to ban a game.
A look through all Board decisions will show that they are very concerned about images of torture – in films, games and publications. This rightly reflects community standards. One would assume that unless community standards regarding torture change, the Board will continue to take a cautious approach to this type of content – irrespective of whether or not there is an R18+ classification.
And by the way, the Board report doesn’t say the person was “crying” but “crying out in pain”.
From the Grand Theft Auto series, the Classification Board’s 2001 decision about the series’ third game says that after engagement with a prostitute the player can chase the prostitute on foot or with vehicle and strike the character with the vehicle or another weapon. That attack can include blood sprays and may leave the body in a pool of its blood. The Classification Board’s decision about Dark Sector, which resulted in R.C., describes that the violence in the game “includes decapitation, dismemberment of limbs accompanied by large blood spurts, neck breaking twists and exploded bodies with post-action twitching body parts.” The Report explains that when a circular, three-bladed weapon is used to cut-off limbs, blood spray and screams accompany.
Linking sex and violence (even only by visual suggestions of the activity) is RC content under the guidelines. Inserting an R18+ classification will not change this. (I hear a recurring theme here.)
Violence in entertainment media, such as the game Dark Sector, is often contentious. Some products are assessed as OK for teens, some only for adults and some not for anyone. Cherry-picking parts of the Board Report for a decision will not express the true content of a game. Perhaps Dark Sector would be classified R18+ if there was that opportunity – perhaps not.
The Classification Board’s decision to refuse classification for Soldier of Fortune: Payback states:
“Successfully shooting an opponent results in the depiction of blood spray. When the enemy is shot from close range, the blood spray is substantial, especially when a high- calibre weapon is used, and blood splatters onto the ground and walls in the environment. The player may target various limbs of the opponents and this can result in the limb being dismembered. Large amounts of blood spray forth from the stump with the opponent sometimes remaining alive before eventually dying from the wounds.
Blood remains on the ground as do the dead bodies. Dead bodies on the ground may be repeatedly attacked The limbs may be shot off; resulting in large amounts of blood spray and the depiction of torn flesh and protruding bone from the dismembered limb. Shooting the head of a body will cause it to explode in a large spray of blood, leaving a bloody stump above the shoulders. Bodies will eventually disappear from the environment.”
SoF: Payback doesn’t sound like a game for minors. But it does sound a lot like the content we see in many R18+ movies. That doesn’t mean it should be banned through the simple expedience of not having an R18+ classification for games.
`Interactive Australia 2007′, a report prepared by Bond University for the Interactive Entertainment Association, surveyed 1,606 Australian households randomly. The report found “79% of Australian households have a device for computer and video games”. Further, 62% of Australians in these gaming households “say the classification of a game has no influence on their buying decision”.
Given this data, I cannot fathom what State-enforced safeguards could exist to prevent R.18+ games being bought by households with children and how children can be stopped from using these games once the games are in the home. If adult garners are so keen to have R.18+ games, I expect children would be just as keen.
If Atkinson can’t fathom it, he should perhaps ask someone who does? Australian government research over the last 15 years has consistently returned results that show most Australian parents are comfortable with managing their children’s access to media content in the home – including games. It is a given that kids will want to get stuff that they aren’t allowed to have. Our society has been comfortable with thousands of R18+ films available in the home for 25 years. Adding a few games isn’t going to make it any more of an issue for parents to manage.
Given his lack of trust in parents, perhaps we should prohibit alcohol, cigarettes, R18+ films and prescription drugs from entering households as well?
By the way, Bond University has now released follow up research – Interactive Australia 09, which gives more recent information about the same issues. I’d be happy to forward another copy if needed.
Classification of electronic games is very different from the classification of film. In cinemas, the age of movie-goers can be regulated. An article from the Sydney Morning Herald website early this year reported that “Australians spent nearly $2 billion on video games and consoles in 2008…” and that “[m]ore money was spent on gaming than cinema or D.V.D. videos” (Jason Hill, 29 January, 2009). Rising game and console sales make it clear that this is a growing area that needs careful regulation, even more so than cinemas and private D.V.D. hire and purchase. Access to electronic games, once in the home, cannot be policed and therefore the games are easily accessible to children. If adults think they can devise a lock-out system to defeat children, tell ’em they’re dreaming.
This is just a ridiculous comment regarding games being somehow magically different from films in the home.
And where is the conversation about console devices to lock out children. Industry has parental control systems to assist parents, but at the end of the day it is a matter of real parental control in the home. The systems can help parents, and no one would be so naive to think they would replace supervision.
With or without an R18+ children will always try to access material that they are denied, it’s always been that way. If someone says that not having an R18+ is magically stopping them from doing so, tell ‘em they’re dreaming.
Moreover, by not having an R18+ we may be pushing legitimate and regulated distribution of content underground where children may seek to access it in potentially unsafe ways, for example from peer-to-peer or other underground networks.
What the present law does is to keep the most extreme material off the shelves. It is true that this restricts adult liberty to a small degree, however, I am prepared to accept this infringement in the circumstances.
He is happy to accept it even though it is against one of the fundamental principles of the National Classification Scheme. And to labour the point, thankfully an R18+ would simply not allow “the most extreme material” onto our shelves.
In practical terms, this infringement stops very few games from being refused classification in Australia. A search of the O.F.L.C. on-line database shows that in 2009 four games were refused classification: Necrovision in April, Sexy Poker in May, Risen in July and recently, in September, the zombie-killing game Left 4 Dead 2. A search of 2008 shows five R.C. games: Dark Sector, Shellshock 2: Bloodtrails, Fallout 3, Silent Hill: Homecoming and F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin. Further, a search of 2007 produces only two R.C. games. The Classification Board and Classification Review Board Annual Reports 2007-2008 states that the Classification Board made 961 classification decisions about computer games. In that year, the Report says the Classification Board received 969 applications for computer game classification and shows how many games were allocated to each classification.
Did I mention that the OFLC no longer exists?
Apart from small data errors (one needs to check the decisions more carefully and realise the RC decision on one of those games was overturned by the Classification Review Board) Atkinson is right. There aren’t many games that get an RC decision. And as discussed above, some of them would still be RC even if we had an R18+. So I’m not too clear on his point.
I am concerned about the level of violence in society and the widespread acceptance of simulated violence as a form of entertainment. I am particularly concerned about the impact of this extreme content on children and vulnerable adults. On balance, the rejection of less than a handful of games each year has a trifling impact on the choices available to Australian adult garners, compared with the impact extremely violent and sexually explicit games would have on at-risk adults and minors.
Unless Atkinson can get his Censorship Minister colleagues to agree to additional changes that no one else wants, it is not possible that the introduction of an R18+ classification will result in “extremely violent and sexually explicit games”. If he is truly concerned about “the widespread acceptance of simulated violence as a form of entertainment” he would be doing more than having an attack on one sector of the entertainment market and one small element of our media content regulation system.
Children are the most computer literate and computer savvy group in our society and the interactive nature of electronic games has a high impact. I watch my own children become obsessed with games and I can find it difficult to drag them away from the gaming console.
In a panel of the International Ratings Conference (hosted by the then OFLC) held in Sydney in 2003, a 3-1 majority concluded that many of the claims made about research on aggression and the media were unfounded. The panel included international media scholars including Professor Guy Cumberbatch, Professor Kevin Durkin and Dr. Jeff Brand as well as Professor Craig Anderson.
When my children seem to be spending too much time watching TV, on the internet or playing video games I tell them to stop and, failing that, push the little button on the machine that turns it off. But, if that is too difficult, there is advice on our website for responsible gaming which I’m sure will assist the Attorney in better managing his children’s media consumption.
I believe the repeated act of killing a computer-generated person or creature desensitises them to violence. Moreover, this makes violence part of their everyday lives and what is especially worrying is that it is their recreation. To my mind, a child being able to watch depraved sex and extreme violence in a movie is damaging to the child, but the child’s participating in depraved sex and extreme violence in a computer game is worse.
These are personal opinions. While one can respect Mr Atkinson’s right to his own personal opinion, it’s simply that – an opinion; it is not supported by research into the effects of media violence nor would I think it is a reasonable claim for the chief legal officer in a state to make carelessly.
Again and again he has chosen to use misleading and inflammatory comments. No-one wants a child to be exposed to depraved sex and extreme violence in a movie or a game, or anywhere else for that matter. That is why the guidelines don’t allow extreme violence or depraved sex in any films or games. Adding an R18+ for games won’t change that.
Game-houses are always free to adapt games that would otherwise be R.C. and modify the game content to be in line with the M.A.15+ classification. Decisions of the Classification Board show that in February, 2008 Dark Sector was refused classification and a revised version was classified M.A.15+ in July that year. I understand Grand Theft Auto IV is another game modified by the game’s producer to meet the Australian classification code. The modification of the original Grand Theft Auto IV game shows that the game can be played in an M.A.15+ format and can still be popular without the R.18+ content. I do not accept that this destroys the artistic integrity of the game – excusing gore and depraved sex as art is an immature argument.
The irony here is that suggesting that the industry or consumers are “excusing gore and depraved sex as art is an immature argument” is an immature argument. There will always be debates about the artistic merit in our entertainment products. The Classification Act provides for that debate in its requirement that classification decisions take such matters into account. Many people will dismiss the creator’s using artistic merit as a reason to include stronger content in films and games (or photography for that matter). Many will not. This is an ongoing debate in our society.
As Atkinson says, some games are modified (by removing content) to fit into the MA15+ classification. The question arises: “Is it better to have them modified for an adolescent audience, or have them restricted to an adult audience?”
Contrarily, it has been suggested that games that would otherwise be classified R.18+ are instead slipping through as M.A.15+ and becoming accessible to children. This argument does not support an R.18+ classification for games. There may be games some people consider too violent for the M.A.15+ classification but the solution is not to create a classification to permit even more violent games in Australia. M.A.15+ games are restricted to children over 15 and if younger children access these games it further justifies complete protection from R.18+ games. It is up to parents and responsible adults to ensure a game is appropriate for a minor whatever age he or she is. It is up to members of the Classification Board to apply the Guidelines correctly and not to try to defeat the Guidelines because they disagree with the outcome of the deliberations of elected officials in a democratic rule-of-law society.
Absolutely correct. Games that don’t meet the requirements for MA15+ should not be squeezed into that category. However, Government research indicates the community is satisfied that the Classification Board gets it right nearly all the time. Atkinson is also correct that it is up to parents and adults to restrict inappropriate access by minors to MA15+ or R18+ content. Fortunately, Australian Government research indicates parents are confident to do this.
It is a little unfair to suggest that members of the Board try to defeat the guidelines because they disagree with the outcome of the deliberations of elected officials – even if the outcomes of their deliberations are the result of poorly informed vetoes from one or two individuals.
Earlier this year I was fortunate to meet with American researcher and Professor of Psychology Craig Anderson who has produced studies about the impact of violence in the media. I was interested to hear his views about how the interactivity of computer games increases the impact of the graphics. I understood his argument to be that interaction in violent activities on-screen can heighten the player’s aggression.
Professor Anderson raised a good point about research in this area, which caused me to think- about the contribution to this debate of reports about how garners feel about playing games, especially violent games. Asking an adult how he or she feels about playing violent games gives you his or her opinion only – it does not look at how the game affects them, physically and emotionally. Of course, if a gamer thinks it is fun to play violent games, it is probable that he will say it is not harmful; and if he wants to play even more violent games, he will tell you that is what he wants, that is how he feels. This is a very different and inferior angle from those studies that look at changes in his behaviour and his brain and neurological function when he plays violent games.
A recent study co-authored by Professor Anderson causes me concern as a parent. This study looked at the impact of violent media on people’s capacity to help others in need. The research, ‘Comfortably Numb: Desensitizing Effects of Violent Media on Helping Others’, observed how 320 tertiary students reacted to a posed violent event after playing a computer game. Some subjects played a violent game and others played a non-violent game. After gaming they answered questions in a room. During this time a recorded mock-fight, which resulted in injury, was played outside. Interestingly, the researchers observed a difference between how the two groups responded: the students engaged in the violent game thought the fight was less serious than those who played the non-violent game; the violent-game players took longer to provide assistance to the victim and were less likely to pay attention to the incident.
If you are interested in Professor Anderson’s research, you can find information on the Young Media Website – www.youngmedia.org.au.
I wasn’t sure on who Prof Anderson is, so I thought I’d do some of my own research and speak to others in academia to get a sense of his research and share it around.
Anderson began his research interested in social psychology and aggression. He is a scholar who publishes with colleagues and has consistently focussed on factors that affect aggressive behaviour including hot temperatures, competition and more recently video games. In the mid-1990s, he discovered video games in a study on hot temperatures, hostility and video game playing. The focus of that research was on temperature effects on aggressive behaviour (which he was exploring in the 1980s).
Since then, Anderson has increasingly focussed on video games and aggression and has developed the GAAM (General Affective Aggression Model). It is not a simple model and he has been criticised by some academics for it mainly because they believe that he has not demonstrated GAAM with his empirical research (that is, the evidence from his research does not demonstrate the model).
His big push into games came in 1999 and 2000 when he and Brad Bushman and he and Karen Dill published their studies on video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviour.
According to University of Toronto psychologist Jonathan Freedman, author of Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression, the major criticism of effects research is that it explores artificial stimuli in artificial lab settings on university students (mainly) using the stimulus-response model of psychological research. Furthermore, Karen Sternheimer from the University of Southern California and author of Connecting Popular Culture and Social Problems, opines research like that of Anderson and his colleagues lacks external validity.
There has been a strong attachment by Barbara Biggins and Michael Atkinson to Anderson. He is all they can draw upon in their arguments which, in themselves, are convoluted. Their dependence on this single source demonstrates there is not a widespread scientific support for their position.
I acknowledge that others have opinions different from mine. However, I will maintain my reasoned and considered position on this issue and continue to campaign against the introduction of an R.18+ classification for computer games.
I think most people are willing to accept that Atkinson has an opinion that differs from the majority of people in our community. It is unfortunate, however, that an individual with such a narrow and misinformed view can shape national policy from such an incredible position of power.
I am next up for election in March, 2010. The State District I represent is called Croydon. I would welcome advocates of R.18+ computer games testing public acceptance of my policy by standing a candidate against me in that general election. I think you will find this issue has little traction with my constituents who are more concerned with real-life issues than home entertainment in imaginary worlds.
I think Mr Atkinson is just being a bit of tongue in cheek with this comment. He knows it is very difficult for a single issue candidate to successfully beat an incumbent government minister. Though I doubt this will stop him claiming victory over R18+ issue if he is returned at the next election.
But I have to ask: if this is such a non-issue with his constituents, why does he get so worked up and spend so much effort on it?
It seems the only hope for rational national policy on media classification rests not in whether Atkinson loses an election, but in whether his State colleagues think he remains suitable to serve as Censorship Minister.