One of the most anticipated titles for 2009, Left 4 Dead 2, was a source of controversy in Australian video gaming circles recently after being refused classification by the Classification Board, an independent body responsible for the rating of media in Australia. As it currently stands, the highest rating available for video games is MA15+.

Games that don’t meet this requirement are either banned from sale, never to be released or, more commonly, edited/”toned down” to meet the standards required. The latter path was chosen by the developers of Left 4 Dead 2, Valve, who eventually managed to secure a MA15+ rating with an edited version of the game. The question is, however, why does Australia lack an R18+ classification for video games in the first place?

The answer? Michael Atkinson, South Australian Attorney General and his vehement opposition to the introduction of an R18+ rating. He has long advocated that his position is safeguarding children from exposure to violence through video games. Such a quest would be considered noble, were this 20 years ago and gaming was almost exclusively marketed to children. Gone are the days when thinking of the “average gamer” would conjure an image of an adolescent male hunkered down in front of a screen.

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Today’s average gamer is 30 and almost as likely to be female as male (according to the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association).

Australia remains one of the few first world countries to lack an 18+ classification. Japan, the US and the majority of Europe all have individual systems in place to cater for today’s gaming market. This oversight flies in the face of the National Classification Code, which states that “adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want.”

In fact, Victorian Deputy Premier and Attorney General Rob Hulls has stated that he considers the current legislation to be “out of step” with other first world countries. “It seems inconsistent that in Australia, adults are allowed to view ‘adult only’ films which have been classified R18+ by the Classification Board, but not computer games with an equivalent high-level content” he said via statement.

The truly strange thing is, though, that the introduction of an R18+ rating would probably do a better job at protecting minors than the current system or Mr Atkinson’s antiquated beliefs. Currently, many games that would attract an R18+ rating in other countries are deemed suitable for 15-year-olds in Australia. Isn’t that exactly what Mr Atkinson is hoping to avoid?

There are several measures that can be taken — many of them already in place — to prevent younger people getting access to restricted games. Retailers can refuse to sell restricted games to anyone they believe is under age that can’t produce ID. Developers already prominently display ratings on games, keeping consumer awareness high. Consoles such as the Xbox 360 have parental control options available, enabling parents to control what ratings their children have access to.

But most importantly, parents should be involved in the games their children play, as to better understand the content.

Australia has to get with the times. Gaming is a media juggernaut (earning $1.96 billion in Australia in 2008) that attracts a broader range of users than ever before. By restricting a large portion of the gaming market, we become victims of media censorship. I’m fairly certain the National Classification Code doesn’t say “adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want … so long as it’s what we want you to see.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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