Give us an R: Australia's little gamers are all grown up

by Sarah Stokely

From Atomic magazine, January 2005 (cover feature):
http://www.atomicmpc.com.au/news.asp?aid=22972&cid=76&sid=28&pid=1

When two high profile titles were banned late last year, it rekindled the debate about Australia’s rating system for computer games. As gamers – and the games industry – renew the call for an R rating, Sarah Stokely looks deeper into an industry growing out of its MA15+ short pants.

We’ll never know if cavemen worried about exposing their children to violent cave paintings. But it’s safe to say that concerns about the effects of violence in the media have been with us for far longer than July of this year when Britain’s tabloid press mistakenly linked Rockstar’s Manhunt computer game to the murder of 14 year old Stefan Parkeerah. In fact the incriminating copy of Manhunt which had been seized on by the tabloids belonged to the victim; it was Parkeerah, not his murderer, who was a Manhunt player.

The investigating police were quick to debunk the copycat murder theory, saying there was no evidence to link the game to the slaying.

But the ‘Murder by Playstation’ headlines had already fanned an international controversy that led to Australian authorities banning the game in October.

The media and gamer attention garnered when Manhunt was taken off the market (after being on sale to anyone over the age of 14 for nearly a year without controversy) was compounded by the banning of the latest Leisure Suit Larry game barely a week later.

The bans highlighted an anomaly in our classification system – with a maximum available rating of MA15+, any game which the OFLC rules inappropriate for children under 15 is refused classification, making it illegal to sell,exhibit or rent in Australia.

Games developers, publishers and players are now calling for reform of the child-oriented ratings system. They are concerned that without an R18+ category, our system has no mechanism to accommodate the increasing number of adult-themed games that are hitting the market.

The OFLC
The community desire to protect children from seeing material considered suitable only for adults is enshrined in our rating system for movies, which has two adult-only classifications – R and X. But no such adult rating for games exists in Australia – and we’re the only western country in which this is the case.

As a government review agency, the Office of Film and Literature Classifications’s job is to rate film, games and some publications according to legal guidelines set by the government. These rules can be viewed on the OFLC website (www.oflc.gov.au).

The code and guidelines are agreed by commonwealth, state and territory Censorship Ministers (who is usually the Attorney General). The OFLC must refuse classification to any game that doesn’t fit in the available ratings – which currently only go up to MA15+. Titles that are rated RC (refused classification) are illegal to sell, exhibit or hire in Australia.

I object!
There is one avenue of appeal against an OFLC rating – the Classifications Review Board. It was this board that overturned Manhunt’s original MA15+ rating, refusing it classification and effectively banning it.

The Classifications Review Board can re-rate games at any time if requested by the Attorney General (who can also act on behalf of the relevant state or territory minister). But other interested parties, such as games publishers or community groups, can also request a review – but only within 30 days of the OFLC’s original rating decision.
Games publishers also have the option of editing a game and resubmitting it to the OFLC for a new rating. This was how Grand Theft Auto 3 (originally refused classification) was eventually released in an edited version.

But OFLC director Des Clark highlights the complexity of the classification guidelines when he says that simply editing out a few scenes may not get a game a new rating: ‘The problem is we deal with context and impact, so [you might edit out some material] but the overall impact may mean it doesn’t get a different rating.’

Indeed, sometimes game publishers decide against editing their games to try to get them through the classification system. Vivendi Universal Games ANZ Marketing Director Colin Brown says Vivendi has no plans to edit and resubmit Leisure Suit Larry: MCL because the sheer amount of editing that would be required would have compromised the game play experience.

‘Sexual themes are woven into the very fabric of what the Leisure Suit Larry brand is about,’ he says. ‘VUG feels that, by removing a significant part of the sexual content, the game would be less fun to play.’

The push for R
So who needs to act in order for an R18+ classification to be created? That requires the unanimous agreement of the state and territory Censorship Ministers (a role usually held by the Attorney General) along with the Federal Attorney General.

Whilst neither the OFLC nor the Review Board has the power to create an R classification, both bodies have raised the prospect for debate by the relevant Ministers.

A 1999 report commissioned by the OFLC pointed out inconsistencies in the classification regime’s lack of an R rating for games: ‘Games that contain themes or other content which may warrant restriction to adults only are not currently permitted, even though comparable content in other media is permitted. It appears anomalous, and without scientific basis, to treat one medium as different from others in this respect.’

In 2001, in the report on its decision to refuse classification to GTA 3, the Review Board said the availability of an R rating would have seen the game released for adult consumption. It concluded: ‘Perhaps the Ministers responsible would give consideration to an R rating for computer games, as is available in films and videotapes, so that adults may see and hear and play what they want – legally.’

The report noted that anecdotal evidence pointed to the banning of GTA3 as leading to a flourishing black market for the game.

That same year, the OFLC commissioned an independent report to assess community feelings towards the games rating system. The review was conducted by Dr Jeffrey Brand, director of the Centre for New Media Research and Education at Bond University.

Brand has been researching computer games since 2000, but says his personal interest in games dates back to ‘grad school in the 80s’. A self confessed lover of ‘digital sandbox’ sims who also enjoyed Grand Theft Auto 3 and Vice City, Brand says his research aims ‘to produce objective studies that show that computer games, like other mediums such as movies, contain and reflect our world.’

Brand says the object of his research is to try to bridge the gap between the ‘uncritical and euphoric’ views of gamers and the ‘religious or anti-media moralists’ who are pessimistic about the gaming medium.

This in turn he hopes will pave the way for universal classification of media across film, literature and computer games, something only present in Australia to a limited degree.

Brand’s report for the OFLC in 2001 tabled public responses to the issue of games classification. It included representations from 372 individuals and community groups, including a petition signed by over 600 gamers calling for an R18+ rating.

There was ‘majority’ public support for the R rating, says Brand, including support from a surprising quarter, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

The Ministers accepted the Brand report recommendation that the ratings categories be simplified by making movie and game ratings the same; but they rejected the recommendation for an R18+ rating for games.

The last time the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General (SCAG) considered the R issue was in 2002, when it was opposed by then Attorney General Daryl Williams, along with one of the state ministers.

New pressures
So what’s changed since 2002? Legally, nothing. But in that time, the games industry has grown, and arguably, it has begun growing up.

The first generation of kids who grew
up playing with Commodore 64s and Ataris are grown up now – and they are still gaming. The often quoted research from the US-based Entertainment Software Association puts the average age of a gamer at between 18 and 29 years of age.

Rockstar’s success with the GTA franchise – which has shipped 32 million units – is proof that the adult gamer is a valuable target market. No stranger to edgy themes and controversy, the creators of the GTA and Manhunt say they’re not pushing the envelope of adult content for publicity, but rather ‘the demographic shift in the gaming public’s age cries out for appropriate content.’

Last year, the global game software market was worth US$462 million, and with blockbuster games like Halo 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas breaking sales records this year, that figure is set to grow.

And as the gaming industry grows, we can expect to see even more games targetting the adult gamer dollar, says Brand. ‘That’s the reason we’re getting more games refused classification.’

Vince Desi of Postal developers Running With Scissors agrees. ‘The fact is many gamers are older now and so sex has to become part of new game content.’

Pressure for an R18+ rating will increase as more adult games hit the market.

Vivendi’s Brown says the core gamer audience is in their mid-20s. ‘Given that, under the current system, all games need to be acceptable to a 15 year old in Australia, this runs a risk that the content of many games does not address the needs and interests of the older gamer. As such, there is a valid case for the industry to review the requirement for an R rating.’

Tell me more
Some of the debate over games ratings surrounds the lack of research into the gaming demographic and community standards towards games in Australia. Both of these issues will have some light shed on them by new research due out early next year.

The OFLC has just begun including game content in its community research forums. The results of the first OFLC focus groups to include games will be publicly available in March.

But OFLC director Des Clark said the research won’t shed light on community attitudes towards a possible R18+ rating because the focus groups could only be shown games which fit the current classification framework.

New research is also on the horizon from games industry group the IEAA (Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia), which will commission an independent survey early next year to gain information about the demographics of the Australian game player.

IEAA CEO Beverley Jenkin expects the research will help further the group’s campaign for an R rating by confirming local game registration statistics and overseas studies which say that typical gamers are adults, not children.

‘There is a perception that computer and video games are only for children, but more than 70 percent of video game players are over 18,’ she said.

Where R our rights?
So with two games recently banned in Australia, is there a freedom of speech issue here? Should gamers be rising up and demanding their right to watch pixellated shagging butts in Leisure Suit Larry?

James Matson, one of the co-ordinators of newly formed gamer lobby group Australian Adult Gamers, says there’s no better time for gamers to do exactly that.

‘The AAG has sprung from a ground fertile with discussion thanks in part to [Manhunt and Leisure Suit Larry: MCL]. Awareness is higher than ever that Australia is sorely lacking in an adequate rating system for an industry becoming the equal of film.’

‘With the average age of gamers reaching well beyond under 18s, it’s time the government took the issue seriously and brought a mature classification system into effect.’

The AAG plans to organise letter writing and petitions to government calling for an R18+ classification on the grounds that it would accommodate the needs of the growing adult gamer market, while more effectively restricting children from purchasing adult games, he says.

Games industry group the IEAA (Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia) echoes the call for a change to the law. ‘Australia is the only industrialised western economy without an R18+ classification for computer and video games,’ says CEO Beverly Jenkin.

‘Whilst the protection of children is important, adults civil rights should not be eroded.’

The inconsistency between film and game ratings is ‘a farce,’ she says. ‘Films and publications can be rated R or X for ‘high impact’, but computer and video games described as such are banned.’

The IEAA, which represents 15 of the top game platform holders and publishers, including Electronic Arts, Vivendi, Sony Computer Entertainment, Nintendo and recent joinee Nokia, is also seeking a common set of classification markings across all media.

Also supporting the call for an R classification is GTA publisher Rockstar: ‘Consistent ratings system will be easier for parents to understand and will increase their ability to make informed choices about the type of games that are suitable for their children.’

Anything Goes?
Some critics of the computer game industry, such as the Australian Family Association, are concerned that by creating an R rating, even more violent games will be produced.

But researcher and R rating advocate Jeffrey Brand argues that the introduction of an R rating would mean the vast majority of adult games would be classified R rather than being banned, reducing their ‘forbidden fruit’ appeal.

All of the games companies interviewed for this article were emphatic that they develop games for ‘mature’ or ‘adult’ audiences.

‘We simply try and make the games as fresh, innovative and compelling as possible,’ say the Rockstar crew. ‘The older consumers who play this game fully understand that the game represents cutting-edge, fictional, interactive entertainment and nothing more.’

Ubisoft, publishers of the game Playboy: The Mansion, recently managed to get the game classified MA15+, with a warning about strong sexual content. Owen Hughes from Ubisoft sees the core of the ratings issue as revolving around choice: ‘The most common argument surrounding comparisons between the two mediums is that gaming is interactive and movies are passive. We now live in the twenty first century. Every single entertainment option available to us is interactive and based on choice – we choose to read a newspaper; we choose to watch or replay a scene in a movie; we choose to perform an action in a video game. Ever since the first person chose to walk out of a cinema rather than be forced to watch something they didn’t like, it all falls upon the desires of the consumer as to how they interact with the entertainment choices available to them.’

There have even been a number of high profile game developers who have chosen to draw the line themselves. For example, Peter Molyneux has said that when Big Blue Box was making Fable they decided to remove the ability to kill children, because some playtesters were massacring kids.

Vivendi’s Brown says it’s not a sensible business decision to develop a game that will be refused classification in any key markets.

‘At this moment we are going through the process with one of our key releases for 2005 – Scarface – to ensure that it meets all the local requirements. Given the current rating system in Australia, this may lead to some revisions being made but no decision has been taken at this time.’

Interestingly, not all game publishers we interviewed agree that classifications should be uniform for movies and games.

‘Games are interactive. They are a different medium and so they should have a unique rating system,’ said Vince Desi of Running with Scissors.

Desi has been famously critical of Australia’s games classification system since his game Postal was banned here. ‘I like Australia, I love Australian people, especially your women, but I have no fuckin’ idea what your government is thinking when it comes to censorship,’ he says. ‘I do appreciate your support against terrorism.’

Round one
The government has considered the R rating issue several times before.

In 2001 when the Brand report recommended an R18+ rating be introduced, two
ministers opposed it including then Attorney General Daryl Williams.

The R rating was put back on the agenda after the Manhunt ban in September, when Victoria’s Attorney General Robert Hulls said the Bracks government would push for an R rating.

When Atomic magazine contacted Philip Ruddock’s office in November to enquire about the progress of Hull’s proposal, a spokesperson said no such proposal had reached the Attorney General’s office.

The Victorian government may be waiting until it has all its ducks in a row – as it will need all state and territory censorship ministers onside for the proposal to succeed – the Attorney General will need to be on board as well.
While the state and territory governments are dominated by Labor, will the Liberal Attorney General follow in the path of his predecessor Daryl Williams and veto an R rating?

In August, when announcing he’d called for a review of the classification of Manhunt, Ruddock issued a public statement saying ‘The Government takes the issue of violence in films, computer games and publications very seriously. We will continue to ensure games with violent content are banned in this country or strictly regulated in a manner that supports informed decision-making by consumers, particularly parents.’

While his remarks certainly would indicate a conservative approach to games classification, the door remains open to negotiation according to a spokesperson from the Attorney General’s office.

While the government was satisfied with the current games rating system, should the states and territories reach unanimous support for the R rating, the Attorney General would look at the issue again, she said.

All those against?
A number of community concerns about computer games have contributed to ministers opposing the R18+ rating, according to Des Clark, director of the OFLC.

Typically the concerns were around the interactive nature of games and the inconclusive nature of research into their effects, he said.

But concerns about the interactive nature of games are something which OFLC report author Dr Jeffrey Brand rejects. ‘There is no evidence – government supported or otherwise – to back that.’ He said the research on the effect of games was divided evenly between those who found it harmful and those who deemed it positive.

Another concern voiced about adult games was the likelihood of them falling into the hands of children.

But GTA publisher Rockstar argues against discriminating between forms of entertainment that are widely available and sold through the same retail channels: ‘Especially when a game costs significantly more than a DVD and is therefore more cost prohibitive to juveniles.’

One group that supports censorship of violent video games is conservative lobby group the Australian Family Association, which last year called for a ban on Manhunt.

Muehlenberg told Atomic he was concerned at the graphic nature and often sexually explicit material already legally available, and said a focus on the classification system wasn’t a total solution.

‘We certainly support the concept of guidelines. But so many kids are downloading games from the internet and bypassing the system.’

Parents would probably not approve of the games their kids were playing if they were aware of the content, said Muehlenberg. ‘I hate to say it, but probably the majority of parents aren’t aware.’

Muehlenberg thought the new classification guidelines for games were problematic because of the subjective nature of criteria such as ‘level of impact’.

Make a difference
What are your thoughts about games classification in Australia? Join the discussion on www.atomicmpc.com.au, and if you want to make your voice heard put pen to paper and get the message out. Petitions are good, but, individual letters to the politicians who can make the decision to create an R18+ classification are even better.

Politicians to contact:
Federal Attorney General Philip Ruddock: Ag@Ag.gov.au
NSW bob.debus@debus.minister.nsw.gov.au
VIC rob.hulls@parliament.vic.gov.au
QLD Rod Welford attorney@ministerial.qld.gov.au
SA Michael Atkinson agd@agd.sa.gov.au
WA jim–mcginty@dpc.wa.gov.au
Tas judy.jackson@justice.tas.gov.au
NT peter.toyne@nt.gov.au

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