The debate over an R18+ classification for video games in Australia has been the most pervasive public discussion on video games of the past decade, yet it has never really been about classification.

Yesterday, amended legislation introducing an R18+ classification for video games was introduced to federal Parliament. Despite being immediately referred to an inquiry, it represented the beginning of the end for a debate that has framed public discussion of video games in Australia since 1995.

There is still emotion in this debate, but there is also a lot of fatigue. The online Australian video game community has matured in concurrence with the debate, as its timeframe mirrors that of the introduction of the internet. Equally, many local video gaming publications have found in the R18+ issue a rite of passage of sorts: actual journalism to be done, politicians to be interviewed, legislation to cover, and press conferences to attend.

Yet since its inception, the classification debate has been layered in rhetoric. It has rarely been about classification, or censorship, or policy. Instead, the debate has had a knack for worming its way into largely pre-existing discourses. It is no coincidence that the rhetoric of those who built the classification system in 1995 and the rhetoric of those who seek to change it in 2012 is consistent: it is the rhetoric of protecting children from inappropriate content. That this has come full circle over the course of 17 years is an indication of just how strange and circular this debate is.

Originally, the discourse of the classification debate was barefaced. Those who supported the introduction of an R18+ rating did so because its absence was a perceived black mark over the medium of the video game — their medium. It was a structural, governmental, legal indication that there was something wrong with video games, that they could not be trusted with the same rules as other media. It made people angry.

This defensiveness, although it sometimes manifested itself in an immature, gut reaction, was largely accurate in pinpointing the motives of the legislators of the era. The Hansard reports for the introduction of the classification system reveal that the politicians at the time viewed video games with a deep suspicion. Peter McGuarun, MP, for instance, claimed that, “It is one thing to watch a violent video; it is another thing altogether to be involved in the violence.” Meanwhile, Janice Crosi, a Parliamentary Secretary at the time, extensively detailed Custer’s Revenge, a then-12-year-old video game that involved a crudely simulated r-pe of a Native American woman.

Instinctually, it seemed quite clear that this was a debate over whether video games meant anything to society other than money and taxes. It has, for better or worse, over time been tied up with other, similar policy debates about video games in Australia for this reason. However, instinctual defensiveness is not a productive lobbying strategy, and while the basic creative rights of the medium were championed there seemed to be little positive governmental response.

Perhaps the defining rhetorical move of this whole issue, then, and of the public discussion of video games in Australia, was to shift the emphasis away from the qualities and rights of video games and their players and towards the insufficiencies of the classification system itself. There came a point late in the past decade when various pro-R18+ groups and their spokespeople began to argue that the lack of such a classification meant that many video games were being inappropriately shoehorned into the MA15+ category.

This was not empty rhetoric — the statistics and research is there to support this claim, and even cursory, anecdotal evidence would suggest that there is some truth there. Nonetheless, the shift to this mode of reasoning was a deliberate and careful step.

It was a clever move, from a lobbying position. Arguing for intangible rights, like artistic expression or freedom from censorship is a difficult thing to do. It is doubly difficult when that censorship is performed on moral, and not overtly political grounds. When Tony Jones read a description of Fallout 3 on ABC TV’s Q&A in 2008, the audience responded with awkward laughter — as you would, when you are told a member of the audience is in support of a game that allows you to “self-inject intravenous drugs to make you kill more people”.

It is much easier to instead agree with the moral panickers. It is easier to agree that these video games are inappropriate, and by virtue of an ineffective classification system, are finding their way into the hands of minors.