Parliament has passed legislation allowing the introduction of an R18+ classification for video games. Federal Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare (whose default position has been to oversee the legislation since his predecessor, Brendan O’Connor, was moved up within cabinet) tweeted the news was “a big win for gamers”.

This is a strange way to put it, though not particularly surprising or unusual. Many people will no doubt approach this moment in the same light: this is, after all, what many gamers of many stripes in Australia have been pushing around, arguing for, and complaining about for close to two decades. The passed legislation enabling an R18+ rating is a relief in many respects.

However, several points make calling it a “big win for gamers” hard to swallow:

1) The scale of the practical problem for gamers presented by the lack of an R18+ is overestimated. A quick search of the national classification database reveals that since 1995, there are 82 entries for Refused Classification video games. Several of these are duplicates for one reason or another — the real number is probably closer to 70, if not fewer (in contrast, the same search turns up over more than for games classified at MA15+ alone).

The vast majority of these are games that I’m sure no one is losing sleep about not being able to play: names such as Gals Panic 3Texas Table Dance and Immoral Cumbat crop up frequently. For the most part, it was only in recent years that widely anticipated video games were commonly Refused Classification. The examples here are obvious: Left 4 Dead 2, Mortal Kombat and The Witcher 2. But before these games, the big Refused Classification games were usually isolated cases: Phantasmagoria (1995), Grand Theft Auto III (2001, eventually reclassified), and Manhunt (2003). I’m far from suggesting that an R18+ isn’t a good move, but a “big win”?

The scale of the problem suggests otherwise. Jason Clare, in his press release, and more recently on his Twitter account, has taken to calling the R18+ legislation a “reform”. Which is exactly what it is, and certainly much more accurate than “big win”.

2) It’s still unclear as to whether this might constitute something we could describe as a “win” for gamers. “Win” is language that’s close to hand for this issue, as it’s a gaming term and is used by political hacks to describe a positive outcome for an interest group. The federal court’s ruling that Optus couldn’t rebroadcast football matches online was “a big win for sports bodies“. Apple’s use of Siri, the voice recognition iPhone program, was “a big win for Nuance,” Siri’s designers.

The difference here is that these “big wins” have some sort of tangible outcome (usually, money). The tangible outcome in the “big win for gamers” with the R18+ is less clear. As I’ve previously argued, to “win” the debate over an R18+ legislation, some ground was given to protect the children-type arguments. We can debate the specifics all we want, but it’s clear that sharpening the tools — not relaxing them — was a prime motivation in introducing an R18+ classification.

Let’s look at Clare’s press release:

“These are important reforms over 10 years in the making,” Mr Clare said. “The R 18+ category will inform consumers, parents and retailers about which games are not suitable for minors to play, and will prevent minors from purchasing unsuitable material.

“The reforms also mean that adults are able to choose what games they play within the bounds of the law.”

The dangers of “mature” video games are still clearly at the forefront of this issue. The implementation of the classification remains open and very much at the hands of the classification board, but it seems to me that if political rhetoric is anything to go by — and it might not be a good indication, admittedly — then some kinds of video games will continue to be refused classification, even with an R18+ rating.

The same range of video games under a more precise set of classification seems like a very possible outcome.

Peter Fray

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