The Little Rating That Couldn’t

The holes in the Australian Classification Board's R18+ rating are beginning to show.

Jamison's Row 4

Editors Note: This editorial is an opinion piece, and the opinions within are those of the author and do not reflect MTB’s feeling on the matter being discussed.  If you have your own opinion on the matter the comments section is open for debate and discussion.

So, Saints Row IV got refused classification in Australia a couple of days ago. This happened despite the implementation of the R18+ rating — the one that was supposed to finally open Australia up to the games it’s been outright banning for years. They seem to have a solid reason in their claim that the game contains interactive, implied sexual violence. That’s rough stuff if what they’re claiming is actually true, but I’ve been around long enough to see more than one vague description make something that’s relatively tame look much worse than it is. Still, if anyone was going to make that happen it was the Saints Row series. Dildo bat? That would have probably gotten them banned right there. And it’s just one game, right?

But then State of Decay got banned for its drug use two days later, and now I’m really starting to wonder what the point is of the R18+ rating at all. Really, if you’re just going to outright ban the games that are coming to your country for content anyway, what is really different from the time before the classification was approved? Sure, Australians got to play Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge and Army of Two: Devil’s Cartel (maybe they were better off beforehand), and things seemed to be going relatively smoothly for a few months, but unfortunately it seems that everyone got excited for the new ruling a little too early. With this recent spat of games being banned despite the classification being in place, it makes me wonder if anything was really changed at all.

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There was a lot of celebrating when the rating first appeared. Many game sites reported on it; happy that Australia would finally get a lot of the games that had been denied there before. The games did start to appear on store shelves, but as we’re seeing now, the people in charge of rating the games still haven’t changed all that much. As much as the law has been altered, the same people who didn’t want an R18+ rating still seem to be the ones doing the rating. The rules may be different, but the people implementing them are the same as they’ve always been.

Then again, have you ever taken a good look at the R18+ rating guideline? It would be funny if it weren’t something that was affecting what an entire country’s population of adults could play. For instance, the first rule is that materials cannot exceed high impact. Is this the difference of having the game shot at a person out of a cannon or out of some sort of rail gun? What are they even talking about with that rule? Again, this seems kind of funny, but this stuff doesn’t make much sense because it’s meant to be fluid by the policy maker. This way, no one has to come up with any hard evidence about something containing a very specific issue, and rather they can say that the game’s ‘impact’ was too high. If you’re wondering what something means when you read a legal document, odds are good it’s written that way so that the people using it can interpret it however they like. Talking about a game’s ‘impact’ without actually quantifying specifics about what that actually means makes for a pretty shaky legal situation.

Saying there are ‘virtually’ no limits to themes is also kind of scary, but nothing we’ve seen used so far (a handy ace in the hole for later should something they not like come up). Limitations on realistic depictions of sex seems to make sense, but that’s one of the things that’s gotten Saints Row IV in its current snag. The denial claims this comes from an ‘alien anal probe gun,’ something that’s right up Saints Row‘s alley, but smashes against Australia’s denial of sexual violence. I thought I would compare it to the passes the game got from both the ESRB and PEGI rating boards, but in PEGI the 18 rating is as high as it goes. Just about anything is fair game in PEGI 18, so there’s no reason for the game not to pass there. The ESRB is a little bit closer for comparison, with the AO rating existing for graphic sexuality and the M rating for games that simply contain some sexual content. So, if the ESRB passed it, it seems like they saw the same sexual content and felt it wasn’t violence, or not graphic enough that they felt they could label it as sexual violence.

SaintsRow4

Without seeing the weapon in question it can be a little hard to say how graphic the weapon may be, but the interesting thing is that I’d only be adding my opinion to the mix. We’re still talking about setting up a legal ban using an opinion. The term ‘graphic’ in the rating is another one of those fluid words; ones that certain policy makers love because there is no concrete rule in place. It doesn’t say intercourse, doesn’t say that it becomes graphic when genitals show up; nothing. It just says graphic. So, is anyone surprised when a game gets banned over something that sounds a little ridiculous? How bad is that alien anal probe gun? Are we seeing penetration? What happened here that didn’t bother the ESRB but got Australia’s board in a twist?

While it doesn’t really pertain to the games getting banned here, the point on violence is pretty troubling. It’s got the fun phrase “offensive to a reasonable adult” in it; again, something that policy makers can go to town with. What will a reasonable adult find offensive as far as violence goes? How does your average Joe on the street feel about cutting a man in half with a chainsaw gun? How does he feel about shooting someone at all? Again, you could use this argument on any violent game that you felt like, making a compelling argument that only a psychotic would want to see a man get shot or stabbed. I haven’t seen it put into use, but the way this is phrased just begs to put it to use on whatever the ratings board felt was questionable. Give it time. It’ll show up.

The drug use one was strange. Apparently you can have drug use, but it can’t be shown in a positive or realistic light. Saints Row IV lets you use alien drugs to gain superpowers, and the more recently banned State of Decay has you using drugs to cause certain positive effects. Well, I thought we all panned Narc a couple of years ago. Does anyone remember that game? If not, it’s the PS2/XBOX version, the one that let you do drugs to gain positive effects in the game. I bought it for $2 because that sounded like the dumbest premise you could possibly have for a game. Again, this is something the ESRB passed, and I am pleased to say that the entirety of the gaming public did not collapse because of it. Go us.

I have an even bigger problem with this than I do with the sexual content ruling. You’re dancing a fine line on the border of pornography with sexual content, but how many stories for adults contain depictions of the positives of drug use? Can you even go out and watch a comedy that doesn’t have everyone smoking weed and showing no issues with it? This is Comics Code era banning, or more specifically, pre-R18+ banning. You don’t need to protect a fully grown adult from drugs any more. Odds are good they’ve been told everything they’re going to be told on the subject, and there’s no reason why a reasonable adult shouldn’t be able to make decisions about whether drugs are good or bad.

A game is not suddenly going to influence a grown man or woman into getting into drugs. The fact that the R18+, PEGI 18, and M ratings exist tells us that these boards, sometimes begrudgingly, admit that the majority of adults can see the difference between fantasy and reality. They don’t need drug use hidden from them. No one is going to play Saints Row IV and believe they will gain superpowers from doing a line of cocaine. No one is going to try out some morphine after playing State of Decay. If they are, I think they’re in far more trouble from things other than video games.

The point is that the Australian Classification Board is still treating adults like children. Many of us were pretty happy to see Australia catching up with the rest of the world in allowing adults to buy media based on their own choices. Certain games would be set aside as pornographic, sure, but overall there wouldn’t be any limits for content that wouldn’t be under the umbrella of the R18+ rating. That’s what the highest rating was for, right? Keeping that kind of objectionable content restrained to adults who could handle it. Well, with Australia’s ratings, apparently they still don’t believe that adults can handle this sort of thing. Grown people who can vote and own property aren’t being trusted with stories about drugs and games where you can jam a gun into someone’s butt. It’s ridiculous, but apparently Australia can still keep adults from making their own decisions about their entertainment.

state-of-decay-inventory

It’s all under the same umbrella of pseduo-science it’s always been under when banning games gets brought up. In their own rating, they justify it by claiming that games can have a negative impact on mental stability. Given the lack of any concrete studies that make a compelling claim in this matter, and also given that I have yet to be murdered at PAX by all of the gamers there, I’d argue that this is hardly a valid reason to block content from adults. It’s the sort of defense that sounds good on paper when you talk to parent lobby groups, but why do adults need the government to hold their hands? How old do you have to be before the government finally decides that you’re allowed to watch some adults do drugs and have that be a positive thing?

This was what was supposed to change with the R18+ rating, and why it was so disappointing to finally see the new rulings on the subject. The country has opened its doors to M rated games, but someone is standing right behind that door waiting to slam it shut again. The ratings are riddled with holes and terms that can be brought to bear with little concrete evidence. Terms like ‘impact’ and ‘offensive to a reasonable adult’ have given raters the freedom to ban something just because they don’t happen to like it. The provisions on drug use are archaic and naive, and they have been put in place as if the R18+ game was going to be played by a young child that needed to be protected by this rating system instead of by their parents.

This is the crux of the rating, isn’t it? Despite it being R18+, this rating is designed to protect children. Its assumptions are built on keeping this sort of material away from kids, and I do respect that. Its provisions tell me that the Australian Classification Board still does not trust the adults who can buy these games not to let a child play them. It’s stepping in and playing parent for the entire country because it doesn’t trust the parents to do so. Well, if you’re going to do that, why not just seize the children from the parents to begin with? If you can’t trust them to make a decision about what media their children consume, why would you even let them care for their kid? If I couldn’t trust a babysitter not to rent a porno and put it on in front of my young child, I would not leave a child in their care. Simple, right?

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Unfortunately, the board is protecting children by denying adults something they may wish to see or play. It’s not fair that the entire adult population who wants to play mature games cannot do so because a percentage of parents can’t be bothered to look at the rating for their children. It also isn’t fair to do so based on some unfounded belief that games can have an effect on mental stability. Until you have some concrete science proving that games are worse than books, television, movies, and just living in the real world, you don’t have the right to say so. A tenuous connection between a few murderers who played Candy Crush Saga is not good enough to tell the rest of society that they can’t experience a certain story or game. You’re not actually protecting anyone.

So, let’s try this again, Australia. You need a rating for adult content. The R18+ rating is undeniably broken based on your own usage of it. You can’t just go back to your old ways of banning content from your entire adult population because of a handful of negligent parents. People have been demanding to be able to play the same games as the rest of the world, and your rating system will not allow that. It has not been built to segregate content away from children, but has been built to still protect kids by assuming that bad parents will let their children play R18+ games. If so, there’s no point to your rating. It’s the same system as it always was, only a little more lenient than before. Start assuming that same public that can vote can maybe make a decision or two about the media they consume and what their children are allowed to see, okay?

Can you stop treating your adult population like children, please?

Images courtesy of beegamer.es, maroonersrock.com, vgblogger.com, ign.com, leviathyn.com, tvtropes.org

Joel Couture
Joel Couture
Joel Couture

MASH Veteran

A horror-obsessed gamer, Joel is still spending his days looking for something to scare himself as much as Fatal Frame. Even so, he has ridiculous action games and obscure gems to keep him happy in the meantime. A self-proclaimed aficionado of terrible retro games, he's always looking for a rotten game he hasn't played yet, and may be willing to exchange information for candy.

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