Friday, 25 July 2008

Censorship Fallout

As yet another high profile game fails to meet the censor's stringent requirements, us gamers are left to befoul the most draconian censorship platform of games in the developed world. It's beyond a joke that Australia doesn't have an R 18+ rating for games, it stems from a complete misunderstanding of the medium as an entertainment source. The average age of a gamer in Australia in 2006 was 28 years old, and over half of gamers are over 18. This is fairly consistent with trends from elsewhere. Over 88% of Australians support an R rating for games. These are telling factors, yet there are still hurdles to overcome: namely attorney generals who have no clue about modern culture. The desire to protect children is one thing, to cut off the majority of the market in order to protect children is another.

Protecting children
On the show Q&A, a member of the audience asked a question about why we don't have an R rating. One thing that amazed me is how often the response is that it's about protecting children. "I have kids who play games" came up more than once. It's completely missing the whole point of the debate. The R rating is a means of restricting children from playing the game. To give certain games an R rating would remove it from the hands of children, much like doing so with films does so, much like making alcohol restricted removes it from the hands of children. Of course it's not perfect and kids still watch R rated films, just as kids still drink and smoke. The problem here is consistency, if parents can determine what is best for their children in terms of films, why can't they do the same with games?

The next point in the line of protecting children (keep in mind that R ratings are for adults only) is that interactive media is so much worse than films or books. And what evidence is there to support this? Turns out there is none. The studies on this field are scarce. But from the studies there are, there is nothing to suggest that violent games have any more effect than television. What is different about clicking a button to make violence happen than watching it? Most of the time, we don't passively watch films. If the film is engaging, we are actively taking part. Same goes for a good book. Games are no different to any other media in this respect, making minor choices in the direction of the media surely couldn't make it stand out.

The final point seems to be the idea of harm minimisation in society in general. And I agree with this point. If a particular medium causes enough social harm which greatly outweighs it's benefit then it shouldn't be allowed for sale. This goes for drugs including alcohol, gambling, extreme media like snuff or rape films. If there is a severe negative impact which is detrimental to society then it should be reviewed. So lets examine games under a critical eye:
  • Gaming is becoming more and more a social medium. Anti-social behaviour is one of the biggest factors people cite in the need to censor games.
  • Violent crimes in recent years has gone down. While correlation does not equate to causation, if there were a link between violent games and violent behaviour, then as game sales rise, then a trend showing the opposite shouldn't be there.
Now there are plenty of social ills that are legal. Alcohol is a great example, and while I love to suck down a few (or few dozen) drinks in a night, I can accept that it's both detrimental to society as a whole and to me as an individual. Now there are those who can handle a drink and those who can't. Those who become placid when drunk and those who become aggressive. But to remove alcohol from our society would unfairly punish those who do the right thing when drunk. And as prohibition taught the world, people are going to get their hands on alcohol regardless of it's legality. And by creating a black market, it brings organised crime. Likewise outlawing certain games is only going to bring about piracy. We live in a global society, all interconnected via the internet. Trying to restrict access is only going to mean that all control is forfeited, then ratings become absolutely useless.

Democracy can show it's flaws at times, the fallibility or ignorance of individual politicians on matters they have authority over is astounding. The bureaucrats who write the guidelines are sometimes so ignorant of the legislation they pass that even the most hardened supporter of the democratic process would be disillusioned. Gaming is a new medium, and while we now have a generation that grew up with games, it's original place as a niche market means that there is a generation gap between those who saw it's conception and the mainstream entertainment source we have now. As it's acceptance as a valid form of entertainment is kept at bay by ignorant commentators using the art form as a scape goat, the doubt in peoples minds is constantly part of the media spotlight.

A ratings system only works if it's consistent, and in Australia we don't have consistent guidelines. What good reason is there that sex can be shown in M rated films (and sometimes even PG) but the slight bit of sex in a game makes it unusable? Same goes for drugs. Fallout 3 was banned because it references the drug morphine, yet we can see the effects of drugs in M rated films and television. Some of the violence in games is deplorable, yet it's given an MA rating where the equivalent film would be rated R. Is this because it's interactive games are meant to be worse? It's those inconsistencies that make ratings irrelevant. It's those inconsistencies that confuse parents. For adults like myself, the rating is already irrelevant. It doesn't matter to me in the slightest if a movie is G or R, just like it doesn't matter for a game. I'm not a parent.

And that's the core issue in the end. As much as we want to protect children from harm, which is a noble aim, the bottom line is that entertainment mediums are there for everyone. Just like films such as Pulp Fiction or Hostel, there are games that cater for that adult audience. Having parents allowing their children to play a game like Grand Theft Auto would be around the same level as letting them watch something like Saw. But children aren't the only users of the medium. It's up to parents to protect their children from harm, and society as a whole shouldn't be deprived of the freedom of choice because of a few bad parents. What point is a ratings system if the government doesn't trust the population to use it properly?

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