Wednesday, 3 July 2013

R18+: Why are we running in place?

For a long time, it looked like us Aussies were just going to have to deal with it. Reservoir Dogs, Left For Dead 2, Blitz: The League and a slew of other games have all been refused classification or censored in Australia for reasons ranging from violence, drug use, and sexual themes.

The most likely explination – and where I think most of us disgruntled young adults pointed the finger – was the lack of an R18+ rating on video games. A hangover from the view of video games being toys for kids that resonated through our culture.

Now, trying to stop Under 18s from getting their hands on certain games certainly isn't something I'm against. Classification systems are a great way for parents to make informed decisions about what their kids are exposed to – no one is arguing about that. If anything, classification is a much more desirable alternative to censorship, not an enforcer of it.

So, back when I heard the news of an R18+ rating becoming effective in Australia, myself and many other gamers across the country were damn well pleased. At the time, the comment about the new classification not altering what would and would not be censored didn't hit me as hard as it should have – I knew it would have some effect, but perhaps naively thought of it as more of an insurance policy against letting the more... morally liberal... titles through, and that for the vast majority of games, it wouldn't apply.

But as news hit last week of both Saints Row IV – a game which looks to be a slightly more coherent episode of Itchy & Scratchy – and State of Decay being banned, even under the R18+ rating, made me wonder if we've really gained any ground at all.

The reasons given are much the same as before: drug use and violence. Now, to claim that video games and films are the same discredits both mediums, but surely some carry over in terms of what constitutes what sort of rating (or refusal) should carry over, right?

Nope, because while Australian fifteen year-olds can happily watch Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish fill their veins up with heroin in the superb Candy, (Originally rated R, but re-rated MA), fully-fledged adults can't play games where they take prescription medications.

It isn't lost on me that, as I write this, The Last of Us is sitting snugly in my PS3's disc-drive, a game that includes stabbing people in the neck as they plead with you, and which accomplishes leveling up through taking un-named pills. There is a lot of setting people on fire, too.

So, why was one title let through while two others were banned? It comes down to what is being viewed as “art”.

A big problem is that video games still remain ambiguous as to whether or not they are “art” in the eyes of many. The “is it or isn't it art?” debate is one that I really don't care to entertain, but I think my position on the subject is quite clear – like films, literature, graphic novels, music, and any other medium you can think of, video games are a creative outlet. Joy, sorrow, humour and horror are but a fraction of what creators release into their chosen mediums.

Binaries on whether a game's approach of these subjects is artistic or not is a practice that, if applied to other mediums, may have seen some of the greatest works of our time censored and buried.

I'm not about to throw my hands up and say that Saints Row IV is as poignant as Inferno, and you shouldn't either, but to rank these pieces on arbitrary merit like that misses the point completely, and maybe that is part of the problem, too. While Metal Gear Solid 2 taught me about the horrors of war, censorship (go figure...) and displayed brilliant meta-commentary on video game sequels, Timesplitters let me sit back and laugh; both responses as valid as the other.

The bottom line is that until Australia treats video games as a medium for art and entertainment and not a complex toy, we are still going to be treated like we can't make our own choices about what we expose ourselves to, and that we are "wrong" for wanting to experience these fictional words.

I'm mad about that, and I'm sure anyone reading this is, too. But it isn't just that. It isn't just that Australia is getting watered-down, edited versions of some of these games, or that some aren't making it here at all.

What is really making me mad is that R18+ is essentially a relabeling of the more extreme MA15+ titles. What is really making me mad is that we aren't moving forward.

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