I remember being nineteen-years-old, eagerly waiting for the new South Park game to finish installing on my Xbox 360. I’d been a fan of South Park since childhood, but wasn’t really allowed to watch it. So now as an adult, I was thrilled when I heard they were making a game based on the show. But then I discovered they had censored a bunch of scenes for the Australian release. That was really my first time noticing how strict the classification system in Australia was. So, what is the games classification system in Australia? And why is it stricter than in the rest of the world? This post explores the history of the games classification system in Australia, and why the R18+ rating is still letting gamers down.
The history of the games classification system in Australia is a tumultuous one. The classification laws are based on The British Idea of Obscenity, established in 1868. The premise of this law was, “the intention of the publication was irrelevant. If any part of a work contravened the act, then the entire work had to be outlawed.” Does this sound familiar? That’s because these laws are the foundation for how Australia stil looks at censorship now.
Did you know that the reason the R18+ classification didn’t come through for so long was because of one person? The archaic nature of our system dictates every state attorney general has to agree to any changes. And Michael Atkinson was firmly against R18+ games. He believed there was no need for adults to play games with, “depraved sex, gore and cruelty”, and he was, “baffled and worried” that R18+ advocates were asking for games with, “more cruel sex and extreme violence!’”
The main takeaway from this, is that he knows very little about games or gamers at all. The Last of Us, for example, is an R18+ game with no more violence than an MA15+ film and no ‘cruel sex’ in sight. More so, this game also won countless awards for its gripping storytelling and incredible acting.
He eventually stepped down a year later, and promptly the R18+ classification came in. However, it did not have the effect many hoped for. Harrison Polites discussed this in his article titled, Why R18+ ratings are still a losing game. He points out that less than six month after the R18+ rating came in, the classification board did, “the one thing an R18+ rating was supposed to prevent: banning the sale of certain video games.”
A common argument for the harsh classification of games, is you are an active participant, unlike in films. Many argue that actions taken in game, can cause the player to replicate those actions in real life. The funniest thing about these claims, are that multiple studies have said that this connection is false, with the APA’s Media Psychology Vision even requesting officials and reporters stop making this suggestion.
A big no-no in the Australian Classification Boards eyes is drugs in video games, especially if they do positive things for the player (regardless of context). This is because it could allegedly encourage people to do drugs. In 2018, the game We Happy Few was refused classification. This was due to a pill called “Joy” featuring in the game. The in game context eventually got it the R18+ rating, however it was then banned AGAIN with the release of its second DLC. Alex Walker in an article on Kotaku, states that, “games cannot be rated in Australia if [drug] use is “detailed or realistic”,” and points out that if the drugs are an, “incentive or reward, then it doesn’t matter if it’s a fake drug.”
This harsh censorship does not extend to films. Addictions.com issued that the drug-centic film Pineapple Express, “influenced a countless number of aspiring marijuana smokers to try the drug after having watched the movie.” The Media Research Centre backs this up. They point out the message this film sends is not quite the anti-drug message director Judd Apatow aimed for. It’s more likely to be, “Get high with friends. Have a crazy adventure, end up a little bloodied and battered, and not face any real consequences”.Pineapple Express wasn’t banned in Australia
WHY IT’S LETTING US DOWN
Now let’s dive further into specifically the R18+ level of classification. Media given this rating in Australia may contain, “elements such as sex scenes and drug use that are high in impact” and that, “some material classified R18+ may be offensive to sections of the adult community”. If this is compared to the USA’s classification board, the ESRB, the Australian descriptions are so vague it’s comical.
The ESRB describes their 18+ rating as, “Content suitable only for adults ages 18 and up. May include prologued scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual content and/or gambling with real currency”. They then go on to further explain each section of this and what it entails in drop-down menus on their website. Whereas in Australia, who is to say what is “high in impact”? High in impact to one person will be incredibly different to the next person. The ESRB breaks down every component in their classification, allowing for a far better way for individuals to be fully aware what is in the media they are absorbing.
The R18+ classification in Australia fails in it’s purpose – to protect legitimate games from censorship or bans. This is due to the incredibly outdated system around these classifications. Polites summarizes this very well, stating that even back in 2012 the way games were classified is, “downright confusing.” He further points out that, “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”.
We are probably still a little a while away from a coherent classification system for games here in Australia. The main reason being that an unanimous agreement must occur to make any change to the laws. Due to many still believing the dangers video games pose to people (especially children), this will be a while off happening. Even U.S. President Donald Trump publicly attributed, “gruesome and grisly video games” to recent mass shootings. This confirmation bias is harmful and misleading, and sadly, ignores the real issues, especially regarding instances of violence.
While the censorship of South Park: The Stick of Truth didn’t take all that much away from the game, it was annoying. It was basically just someone else telling me what I can and can’t handle, even as an adult. And as Matt Stone pointed out in an interview around the Stick of Truth censorship, “what we had in the game, we could have shown […] on TV pretty easily.”
If you enjoyed this post, make sure to check out our post on Lootboxes or Toxicity in Multiplayer Gaming, for more discussion pieces.
SOURCES:  https://www.kotaku.com.au/2019/08/dont-blame-the-classification-board-for-dayz-blame-the-government/  http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/96194-Michael-Atkinson-Once-Again-Dismisses-Gamers  https://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/business-spectator/news-story/why-r18-ratings-are-still-a-losing-game/587b36e3a4e6f24269c5c552a0f97443  https://www.9news.com.au/technology/day-z-we-happy-few-red-dead-redemption-2-video-game-censorship-australia-banned-titles/235b99fb-2ad3-4378-b783-f79e4350e652  https://www.kotaku.com.au/2019/08/we-happy-few-has-been-banned-again/  https://www.addictions.com/blog/glorifying-drug-use-top-10-drug-addiction-movies/  https://www.mrc.org/articles/pineapple-express-marijuana-cautionary-tale  https://www.classification.gov.au/classification-ratings/what-do-ratings-mean#M  https://www.esrb.org/ratings-guide/  https://www.polygon.com/2019/8/5/20754784/el-paso-dayton-mass-shootings-trump-video-games  https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2014/mar/07/south-park-matt-stone-trey-parker-stick-of-truth-video-game