After filter-friendly federal Minister Stephen Conroy, the politician perhaps most disliked by geeks around Australia is South Australian Attorney General Michael Atkinson, a long-time opponent of allowing R18+ rated games in Australia. But last week, Atkinson engaged in a heated online exchange with gamers around Australia and laid down a challenge: If you think I’m wrong, run against me at the next election.

Currently, any game exceeding a MA15+ rating is refused classification in Australia and either has to be toned down (i.e. elements of the game involving s-x, violence or drugs are removed) for Australian release, or the game is simply not sold here. Australia is the only developed country without an R18+ classification for games. Ongoing campaigns have been mounted by adult gamers to change this system, but ultimately, it can only be done via a unanimous agreement between all state and territory Attorneys General.

Other AGs have expressed various levels of support and silence on the R18+ rating issue, but Atkinson has been the most vocal and fervent opponent of changing the system — last year he refused to support even a public consultation process on the issue. 

On Wednesday last week, video game blog Kotaku.com.au (part of the Allure Media stable of popular licensed US websites that includes local versions of Defamer, Gizmodo and Lifehackerreported on a letter from Atkinson published on 10 March in the Adelaide Advertiser, in response to a previous letter published by the paper:

It is true that I am opposed to an R18+ category for interactive games, but I am one of at least four Attorneys so opposed.

I welcome a challenge in my electorate of Croydon at the next general election on this issue.

Among my constituents are hundreds of refugees who are trying to find lodgings for the family, gain employment and sponsor relatives from the old country.

Their vote is hardly likely to hinge on the “right” to score gamer points on the computer screen by running down and killing pedestrians on the pavement, r-ping a mother and her two daughters, blowing oneself up in a market, cutting people in half with large calibre shells, injecting drugs to win an athletics event or killing a prostitute to recover the fee one just paid her (Welcome to the world of R18+ computer games).

Those of my constituents who are refugees have been subjected to the practical instead of the virtual suffering that R18+ nerds seek to inflict for their gratification on the computer screen

Kotaku published the letter, with little comment, alongside a lengthy rebuttal from a reader, 57-year-old grandparent and video game enthusiast Terry O’Shanassy.

The next day, Atkinson wrote directly to Kotaku, again challenging his opponents to run against him in the next election:

I have read all the posts on Kotaku about R18+ interactive games. 

I would welcome a challenge in Croydon at the next general election (due in March 2010) about my record on censorship. Any reader who would like to challenge me should write to me c/- 488 Port Road, Welland 5007 and I will send him or her a nomination form to stand for Parliament.

Alas, one cannot stand for Parliament anonymously, so any contenders will have to supply a real name and street address, not a pseudonym and an email address.

The letter predictably prompted a torrent of responses on the site, most to the tune of this comment by reader White_Pointer (albeit with varying degrees of eloquence):

I issue a challenge to Mister Atkinson.

Respond to the letter, point for point, that was written by that 57-year old here: http://www.kotaku.com.au/games/2009/03/atkinson_addresses_r18_rating_kotaku_reader_responds.html and rebutt every single one of those points with rational statements – like the author of that letter did.

Atkinson knows that he’s issuing a ridiculous challenge – I’m not going to give up my job and move interstate to challenge him in an election. And really, that’s not what we want anyway…

On 16 March, Atkinson again wrote to Kotaku , addressing Terry O’Shanassy’s original letter and the individual comments left by their readers. You can read the very lengthy and thorough treatise here, but Kotaku sums it up as such:

Michael Atkinson has admitted he opposes an R18+ category because he doesn’t trust the Classification Board to apply the guidelines “in their plain meaning”… Atkinson claims the Board will stretch the limits of an R18+ category in the same way they currently stretch the limits of the MA15+ category.

Mr Atkinson also argues that:

* He is not the only Attorney-General who opposes the R18+ category
* The vast majority of correspondence he receives on the topic is “anonymous and abusive”
* He is aware the average of Australian gamers is 30 and that there are many games that are “attractive to adult players”
* The number of games refused classification each year is tiny – just 3 out of 903 last year
* He cannot understand why anyone would want to “play games that enable them on-screen to bash, torture, slay, slaughter, r-pe and take drugs”
* The interactive nature of a video game means its violent or sexual content is “worse” than in a film
* The majority of Australians do not want R18+ games to be available in this country

Regardless of whether he is correct or not, the question is: why? Why take on gamers, the people least likely to be swayed on the issue, on their virtual home turf?

A spokesman for the Attorney General’s office tells Crikey:

The Attorney-General made his submissions on the website because he wanted to engage in debate with the gaming community about his stance on R18+ games.

He enjoyed his discussions with members of the gaming community and hopes they now have a better understanding of his concerns about the content in R18+ games.

For his part, Kotaku Australian editor David Wildgoose tells Crikey he is pleased Atkinson decided to engage the site and its readers on the issue.

I was pleasantly surprised, not just because the Minister reads Kotaku but by his willingness to engage directly with gamers on the classification issue … Classification is a topic of keen interest for Kotaku readers and gamers in general. The Minister’s letters have stirred considerable debate and at times the comments have become quite heated. It’s a sign of just how passionate the gamers are about what they overwhelmingly see as a broken system.

But Wildgoose seems doubtful that the exercise has had any great impact on his readers’ views, and tells Crikey  he hasn’t seen any claims that their mind has been changed.

“The vast majority of commenters support an 18+ rating,” he says, however: “there have been a few who have agreed with the Minister.”

Nevertheless, Atkinson’s office says “he will endeavour to engage in debate on the website in the future but says his priorities firmly rest with his commitments to the South Australian Government.”

So far, no gamers have publically accepted Atkinson’s challenge for the seat of Croydon.

Peter Fray

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