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Cheers - AE

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Playing games

ZOMBIES!! Over there! Quick, kill 'em, kill 'em. We're allowed now, or at least we will be soon.

I wasn't planning to blog much over the next day or two but I'm going to make the time because of a rather unusual event: nothing less than a proposed reduction in the nanny state. Or, since we're talking about computer games, Australia's lack of an R18+ classification and the vocal minority who insist that we shouldn't have one, perhaps the religiously inspired moral arbiter state might be a better term. But however you want to describe it the bottom line is that it looks as if it's about to change and there'll be a little, though only a little, less nannying when it does.
On 25 May 2011, the Minister for Justice, the Hon Brendan O’Connor MP, issued a media release announcing draft Guidelines for the Classification of Computer Games for the information of the public.
Under the Classification (Films, Publications and Computer Games) Act 1995 (Cth) Commonwealth, State and Territory classification Ministers may approve guidelines by agreement to assist the Classification Board (the Board) apply criteria in the Code. Under the Classification Act, computer games are to be classified in accordance with the Code and the guidelines. If an R 18+ category is introduced, guidelines would assist the Board in applying this classification.
Separate guidelines for computer games have been drafted because of compelling research evidence indicating that interactivity may increase the impact of the classifiable elements in computer games (compared with films).
That's the good news. The bad is that there is still wiggle room in which the government and the Board can manoeuvre to concede other people's freedom to the religious minority that shrieks that violent games must be banned for the chiiiiiiiiiiiiiiildren and that even scary games designed and marketed for adults should look like this.

Maybe not quite like this.

Now there are a couple of caveats here, so we shouldn't get too excited. First there is the use of the phrase "if an R18+ category is introduced" suggesting that it's not a certainty, although personally I feel it's pretty likely that it will happen. Second is the decision to believe in research (exactly what research isn't specified) that says interactivity "may" - another one of those could, might, may instances - increase the impact on players of sex, drugs, violence and all the other stuff the wowsers are worried about rather than research that says that in fact the opposite could/might/may be true. I'm not saying one lot of researchers are right and the others are wrong but I am saying that the government appear to have picked a side which, coincidentally I'm sure, appeals to the nannies, paternalists and other self-righteous pricks, and that greater impartiality would have been more appropriate.

Then there's the fact that once again South Australia seems to be playing silly buggers and wants the new category not as an addition to the current lineup but as a replacement for MA15+. So much for the new(ish) SA Attorney General being a more enlightened type when it comes to censorship. Still, in fairness to John Rau his concern that a lot of adult games are actually being sold as MA15+ here in Oz precisely because there hasn't been an R18+ category. Take Alien vs Predator, for example, it's an 18 in the UK and most countries, but only MA15+ here. Daft? Yes, it is daft that we have violent games being given a classification intended for less adult titles because there's no other option, but isn't it just as daft to want to reverse the situation so that games which really aren't that violent have to get lumped in with the all the alien-slaying zombie shoot 'em ups? I suppose that with Adelaide also being known as the City of Churches there's probably a significant religious vote for the local politicians to worry about. However, when something like 90% of the country thinks an 18 category is well overdue you'd expect the religious Righteous to be in a minority even in the City of Churches - just because there are a lot of churches it doesn't mean everybody goes.* Fortunately there is nothing in the proposed new guidelines about removing MA15+ and it doesn't look like happening.

Finally there are the guidelines themselves (here in PDF and here in DOC for those interested) and I have to say that there is still some cause for concern over a couple of sentences. First in the code (my bold):
The Code

Under the Code, classification decisions are to give effect, as far as possible, to the following principles:
(a) adults should be able to read, hear, see and play what they want;
(b) minors should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them;
(c) everyone should be protected from exposure to unsolicited material that they find offensive;
(d) the need to take account of community concerns about: (i) depictions that condone or incite violence, particularly sexual violence; and (ii) the portrayal of persons in a demeaning manner.
Oh dear, the right not to be offended rears its ugly head again, though as usual it's not applied to the vast number of things that offend me. And nor should it unless you want to deprive millions of people of soap operas, soccer and manufactured pop music. I'm particularly offended by this pernicious belief, unsolicited examples of which I get every time I turn on the TV or open a newspaper, of various busybodies that I can't be allowed to make my own mind up and need protection from myself. That last clause suggests more of the same and could presumably be used to ban games which depict, say, overweight and brightly coloured people with aerials on their heads and a vocabulary of their own name plus five other words as being ravening zombies to be decapitated by a shotgun blast to the head. As we all know you don't need to find one to complain - you just need to find someone else who's prepared to complain on their behalf. Better to ditch the approach of worrying what may offend and demean people and just point out that computer and games console comes with an off switch.

More worrying is the bit about "community concerns", especially when taken with this section on the R18+ category itslef.

Violence is permitted except where it offends against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults to the extent that it should not be classified.
Is it just me or does this sound like a sop to the Helen Lovejoys who'd probably like Scrabble to be restricted or for the letters S, E and X removed from every set? Australians would be allowed to buy adult games but only ones which don't offend the standards of morality (as defined by the Classification Board no doubt) which are accepted by reasonable (presumably also defined by the Board) adults and don't cause any community concerns (I expect defined by the Board and anyone who can drum up a few thousand signatures of people who want to express their outrage). There's also a bit that says that sex in games must only be simulated and that real sex is forbidden, though I'm not sure why anyone would think that's even necessary - wouldn't it void the warranty?

So all in all I'd say there'd still be some room for the finger waggers, prodnoses, nannies and disapproving busybodies to get in the way of other people's lives on the thinnest of pretexts, and therefore still room for improvement. I'd like to see a voluntary code where games makers simply put the content on the box and the kind of age group they've aimed it at, and beyond that leaving it up to parents to do some parenting and retailers to be sensible about it when someone 4 foot high asks in a piping voice for a copy of Naked Zombie Orgy Death Shotgun 3. At the least the draft proposal could make it plain to the tiny but noisy minority that what responsible adults choose to buy to entertain themselves with is nothing to do with anyone else, and they could do that by going back to that code and removing half:
The Code
Under the Code, classification decisions are to give effect, as far as possible, to the following principles:
(a) adults should be able to read, hear, see and play what they want;
(b) minors should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them;
(c) that's it, now as long as you all play nice you can knock yourselves out.
I realise that of both my readers at least half are not resident in Australia (hi Mum) but if the proposal affects anyone reading this and you agree that the having game classifications should be about providing information to consumers, not about providing the means for small numbers of noisy wowsers to have censored anything they personally dislike, then you might like to know that the Commonwealth government have set up a short survey asking simply if you support the R18+ addition and/or the draft guidelines along with any comments you may have. It closes on the 22nd June, so why not get a copy from the proposal from links above, look it over then pop along and leave them some feedback?

* I'm not sure why so many of the people who get upset about people playing games with zombies in also happen to venerate someone who's supposed to have risen from the dead. Even the approval of Catholic bishops in Australia for R18+ is qualified by the statement that they'd still prefer it wasn't available at all.
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