The game South Park: The Stick of Truth (pictured) will be released in Australia on March 6. Well, except for the scene in which aliens use an anal probe on several of the game’s characters. For its Australian release that scene has been replaced by text and a still image of a crying koala.
It might not be immediately obvious to everyone why a game’s developers would replace several minutes of extra-terrestrial arse investigation with what amounts to a short erotic novella and an image of a koala, but then not everyone knows as much about the Australian Classification Board as they probably should.
The history of ACB and gaming in this country is contentious but overplayed. Others might call its a saga of oppressive and even vindictive censorship. The truth is, as ever, probably somewhere in the middle. Until 2013 Australia had a maximum possible rating for video games of MA15+, and a large number of reports from the ACB to game developers included the same note:
“In the Board’s view this game warrants an ‘RC’ classification in accordance with item 1(d) of the computer games table of the National Classification Code.”
Item 1(d) states that games that are unsuitable for minors to play or see others play will be refused classification. While this is fair enough in a world where the only way to stop 16-year-old kids playing a game is to ban it completely, what wasn’t fair enough was the existence of that world in the first place.
So on January 1 last year an R18+ classification was introduced for video games in Australia. This really should have been a win-win. In theory, it placed another barrier between minors and things that minors shouldn’t see, while developers no longer had to fear the ACB’s axe just because people who had no business playing their games might be confronted by their content. The board’s description of the new rating — “Some material classified R18+ may be offensive to sections of the adult community … content is of ‘high impact’ for viewers” — sounded encouraging. Finally games that were made for adults could be enjoyed in full by adult audiences.
Or so it seemed. As The Stick of Truth has demonstrated, there is lot of leeway given to games that receive the board’s shiny new R18+ stamp, but the line in the sand seems to be rigorously enforced, oddly clear and extremely arbitrary: it’s anal probing.
In the first year of the new classification system the original versions of two mainstream games — South Park: The Stick of Truth and Saint’s Row IV — were refused classification due to scenes or elements that involve what the board coyly refers to in its original judgment on The Stick of Truth as “having an oversized, phallic probe thrust into [the] buttocks”. Both were later classified with the offending elements removed or altered.
There’s several things to note here. Firstly, no one would argue that either of these games are breaking new ground on the “games as art” frontier. They are both exercises in the absurd — one is aimed at audiences who are either fans of South Park’s unique brand of humour, and the other allows you to fire other people into the air by penetrating them with a projectile “dildo cannon”. On the basis of these and numerous other elements, they deserve an R18+ classification.
Secondly, there is not necessarily a problem with the board refusing classification to all games that include interactive sexual violence (the official reason for refusing the original versions of both The Stick of Truth and Saint’s Row), but there seems to be an unsettling element of subjective and random judgement at play here.
In Grand Theft Auto V (2013), for instance, it is possible to pay a prostitute for sex and then kill her in literally any manner you can imagine once she gets out of your car, not to mention the staggering number of ways it is possible to kill thousands of people (sex workers or otherwise) for your own amusement. Far Cry 3 (2012) follows the exploits of a young protagonist as he gathers enough guns and drugs (another traditional bugbear of the ACB) to take over a couple of islands, at which point you can choose to abandon your friends and become king of the island, which is all fine until you sleep with your queen and she stabs you in the heart. In the original Bioshock, (2007) the entire game revolves around whether or not you will choose to harvest young girls’ useful bodily fluids with a giant syringe causing them to die.
All these games are darker in overall tone and harder hitting than either of these latest titles that were refused classification. All received the highest possible classification (Far Cry and Bioshock were released before the introduction of R18+ and were rated MA15+) as was appropriate, but were also released in their original form, as the creator of the game intended, to be judged by the player rather than a board that tells adults what they can and cannot cope with playing.