As reported by The SMH this week, Australia’s state and federal Attorneys-General will consider introducing an R18+ rating for the video game industry when they meet next month. Australia does not currently have an R rating for games, so games containing explicit s-x or violence must be suitable for 15-year-olds – or face an effective blacklisting by the Classification Board.

The industry has long campaigned for an overhaul of game classification laws, but under the Howard government the former Attorney-General Philip Ruddock steadfastly ignored the issue (Any change to the classification laws requires unanimous support from all state and federal As-G.)

The prevailing reason why Australia urgently needs to overhaul its game classification system is not that it differs from that of films, television and music, which the Classification Board’s own research shows confuses most consumers. Nor is it the fact that Australia, as the Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia’s (IEAA) website states, is “the only developed democracy in the world” without an adult rating for games.

It is the reality that politicians have used the issue to exploit our inconsistent and unstable classification system, where games are arbitrarily banned for political reasons – not their content.

In 2006, Australia was the only country to ban Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure under the extraordinary grounds that it “promotes crime”. Perhaps ironically, the game takes place in a futuristic society where players can use graffiti to speak out against a totalitarian government.

Following pressure from Philip Ruddock, Getting Up’s original MA15+ rating was overturned and the game banned. Why? Because it “promotes the crime of graffiti” and includes biographies of real-life graffiti artists. Yet a month earlier, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, which features illegal street racing, was classified G.

At the time, Ruddock was engaged in a public tirade against graffiti. The outlawing of Getting Up demonstrates the influence politicians have over our classification system. When Ruddock made his “material advocating terrorism” bill law last year, he strengthened the Howard government’s grip on censorship of books, films and games by broadly allowing the Board to ban material “promoting” terrorism – be it a game where you play as an anti-state crusader, or a book or film mildly praising the IRA.

The conservative ideology of the Howard era has had a further regressive impact on game legislation. When justifying a ban on the graphic shooting game Soldier of Fortune last year (later overturned), Ruddock claimed it “features violence that…is unsuitable for a minor to see or play”. In doing so, he exposed the assumption by which games are judged: that they are primarily for children. But Australian gamers aren’t just nerdy teenagers any more: an IEAA study shows the average gamer is now 28 years old.

Ruddock’s rhetoric is often used by conservatives to dismiss an R rating – since adopting it will expose kiddies to simulated s-x and mind-warping violence. Of course, it’s true some games like Soldier of Fortune feature graphic violence that no child should witness – including hyper-realistic gore. But explicit films meant only for adult viewers are not banned should a child wander into the cinema or find a copy on DVD – so why are games?

There is currently no evidence to suggest that violent games, because of their interactive nature, are more likely to incite violent behaviour in children than other media. And an R rating will not give rise to a tsunami of s-x, violence and perversion on store shelves – only 10 games have been banned since 2001.

The only real reason for Australia’s As-G to reject the rating next month is for the convenience of exploiting the law for political ends. And if the Rudd government is serious about ending the culture wars of the Howard era, it will correct this glaring error in Australia’s media censorship regulations.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey