Six months ago, gamers were rightfully vindicated by the introduction of an R18+ rating for videogames in Australia. It represented the end of a ridiculous, protracted wagging of the dog by an obstinate minority. Adult gamers would finally be treated like adults, it was reasoned. And for a while at least, that appeared to be the case.
In June, adult Australian gamers saw the release of what is the first truly important R18+ title, The Last of Us. The game justified the change to the ratings system, allowing a correct balance between the need to inform parents about videogame content, and the rights of adults to access media.
Last week, however, two games were refused classification in Australia: Saints Row IV and State of Decay. This has come as a surprise to many gamers who expected R18+ to be a much more permissive category.
In the discussion of an R18+ rating for video games it was often suggested that Australia was the only developed nation without an adult rating for video games. But this is not entirely true.
Strange situations in censorship occur all over the world. When looking at censorship in other countries one quickly sees that the state of things is far more complex than any politicised slogan would have us believe.
Australia differs from the global standard in two key areas.
The first is that Australia has a unified ratings system. The ratings for film and videogames are administered by the same organisation, the Classification Board, and are exactly parallel, with the same symbols, colours, and meanings. In this at least, Australia is progressive. Such a system provides more transparent information for parents and caregivers – ostensibly the purpose of a rating label system.
Secondly, all ratings are mandatory. While most countries require film ratings by law, videogame ratings are often voluntary.
Videogames in Australia were unrated until 1991, when Senator Margaret Reynolds cried "Think of the children!" in outrage at the graphic rape scenes allegedly featured in Sega's Night Trap. That such scenes didn't even exist was no match for a well-intentioned moral panic and before long games were rated in the same manner as movies. However, an exception was made that games could not be rated higher than MA (then called AO, for Adults Only), as the interactive nature of videogames supposedly made them higher in impact.
No actual studies appear to support this contention, yet it formed the basis for the consistent blocking of the R rating in Australia. Games must be treated more harshly as they can potentially do more damage, opponents cried. Yet what studies have been done (including one by the US Secret Service) not only demonstrate that videogames are not a causal factor in teen violence, but that correlations are lower for videogames than for other media, specifically film and books. The greatest media or entertainment correlation for school violence in young adults is an interest in poetry.
Unsurprisingly, New Zealand's system shares many outward similarities with the Australian system, and its censorship board is still called the OFLC (Office of Film and Literature Classification), like Australia's used to be.
Like Australia, and despite its name, the OFLC covers both film and games. Free from the moral panic caused by Night Trap in the early ‘90s, however, New Zealand has maintained a rational approach to game ratings, and has consistently had an R18 rating for both videogames and films.
There are three categories of ratings: unrestricted, restricted, and "objectionable". The last one means "banned".
These categories are colour coded. Unrestricted content is green for G, and yellow for PG and M, which are equivalent to Australian ratings. In fact they usually are Australian ratings: content that is unrestricted in Australia does not require a New Zealand rating, and can display Australian labels. This means New Zealand essentially outsources most of its ratings grunt work to the Australian Classification Board.
Restricted categories are another matter, and receive red labels based on New Zealand-specific ratings. There's a vast amount of granularity to the system, with restricted categories at 13, 15, 16, and 18. There's an awkward overlap between the Restricted 13 and unrestricted M rating, but that's to be expected when two ratings systems are cobbled together. Finally, there’s the somewhat nondescript "Restricted", which is defined as "Restricted to a particular class of persons, or for particular purposes, or both." This is intended for very specific purposes, for example, allowing universities to screen films that would otherwise be banned.
Japan has two separate organisations for its classification. The Computer Entertainment Rating Organisation, or CERO, exists to rate videogames, while Eirin is the body responsible for rating films. CERO was originally set up by the games industry, but is now independent.
Censorship in Japan is an interesting subject, and could easily be an entire article all by itself. The country combines a rather freely exhibited sexuality, especially with regard to fetishistic material, with a strangely puritanical censorship regime that seems to date from the late 1940s. This may in fact be the case. Apocryphally, the restrictions on "obscene material" were set in place with the surrender of Japan at the end of World War II, but what scant evidence can be found on the subject undermines this statement rather than confirms it.
In movies, games, and photographs, genitalia is obscured with a pixellated "mosaic". Even pubic hair can require a mosaic, though that requirement changes over time. This is because there's a loose definition of "obscenity" that seems to be shifting back and forth, and may or may not include pubic hair. This leads to a baffling situation where exceptionally hardcore fetish activities such as bestiality or urination can have a mosaic over only the genitals, clearly following the letter of the law, rather than the spirit.
Japan also has very different attitudes to sexual activities that would be anathema to movie and especially video game makers in the West. It has long been claimed by videogame supporters that the oft-referenced "rape games" do not exist. The fact is that they do, at least in Japan. There are a large number of "dating simulators" where consent is at best irrelevant, and there is at least one game that features detailed interactive 3D realtime rape of crying underaged (by the laws of most Western countries) girls. From September 2009 such games were banned in Japan, in large part due to distaste from Western politicians.
In Western countries, where a game glorifying crime, racial violence and drug use is acceptable, but can find itself suddenly banned due to a brief and hidden act of consensual sex (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas' “Hot Coffee” scandal), even the creation of such a product is unthinkable.
It's also interesting to note that Japan has no specific law prohibiting possession of child pornography, and yet the country appears to have very low incidence of child sexual abuse. Additionally, as sexually explicit materials, including movies and videogames, have become increasingly available to younger consumers, sex crimes have steadily reduced.
It must be acknowledged that the incidence of sexual assault and other crimes is not the same as the reporting rate, but it remains an interesting counter to conventional beliefs that exposure to pornography increases perversion.
The United States is probably the most relevant, interesting and controversial ratings system outside of Australia. There are two ratings scales, one for games and one for movies. The Electronic Software Ratings Board (ESRB), an industry body comprised of publishers and retailers, operates a voluntary game rating system.
ESRB ratings present an unusual scale at the more mature end: M is restricted to ages 17+, while AO is restricted to ages 18+. This difference of only a year makes for some ambiguity. In practice, violent games get M ratings, and AO is reserved for those with explicit sexual content.
The term "restricted" has to be understood very loosely here. In the US almost any attempt to actually block the sale of games or movies is immediately struck down on a First Amendment basis. ESRB ratings are viewed as a guide for parents and little more.
But all is not well in the land of the free. While US constitutional law prevents censorship by the government, the market effectively censors itself.
Since 2000, the retail giant Walmart has refused to stock AO-rated games. Walmart accounts for 25 per cent of all game sales in the US, and as a result has an incredible amount of influence on the financial viability of any title. Going to market with an AO rating would therefore be financially suicidal for most titles, and changes must be made to such games to bring them inside the M rating.
Famously, Walmart’s sense of moral decency doesn’t appear to extend to the firearms aisle.
But there is a larger issue here. While titles rated above M could possibly be sold for the PC using digital distribution — and there is a small but potentially lucrative market in doing so – titles for consoles have a bigger problem: the console manufacturers themselves will not allow them.
Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft have all gone on record saying they will not allow AO rated titles on their consoles. This throws up significant difficulties for an industry and a medium desperate to be accepted as capable of maturity. In the US, console manufacturers want their products to be seen as family-friendly.
Outside the US, these same companies don’t have the same scruples. Games rated 18 by the European PEGI system are allowed onto consoles without any question or comment from these same manufacturers. It would appear that the Big Three are merely pandering to local peculiarities, rather than having any ironclad principles on the issue of appropriate content.
Most of Europe, including the UK, subscribes to the PEGI system for videogame ratings — a voluntary system nearly universal across the European Union. There are two exceptions, in Germany, to be discussed separately, and Portugal, which tweaks the ages while leaving the bulk of the system unchanged.
PEGI is a self-regulation ratings system, but with strict and clear guidelines and codes for each rating. Enforcement of the ratings is contractual with the PEGI organisation itself. The PEGI system is clear and easily readable, with obvious ages used as the rating, instead of the rather vague and relative terms such as "Mature" used elsewhere.
Film is significantly more complicated. The systems for film classification in Europe differ country by country.
Britain has the British Board of Film Classification, which provides stickers that roughly parallel the Australian and New Zealand systems. The BBFC might be considered quite liberal however, and while occasionally it requires cuts to content, it almost never bans a film. France's Ministry of Culture provides a "visa" for films to gain theatrical release, administered by the Commission De Classification Cinématographique. France follows much of Europe in rating sexual content very liberally. American Beauty, for example, was given our equivalent of a G rating, while The Exorcist received the equivalent of a PG rating.
Denmark is especially liberal. Censorship in all forms is outright banned: the country's constitution says, "Censorship and other preventive measures shall never again be introduced."
That’s not to say nothing is banned. In 2010 EA Sports’ MMA was banned, falling afoul of laws prohibiting, of all things, the advertising of energy drinks.
There are some stranger examples, though. In 2002, Greece attempted to stop online gambling by banning public use of machines intended for “gaming”. However, the law was so broad and poorly drafted that it included any portable videogame as well. Not only that, but actual enforcement of the law led to a raid on a LAN café, where patrons were caught engaging in such wicked debauchery as online chess. There was no evidence of anyone gambling, alas, and the embarrassing situation meant the whole law was shelved.
While the rest of the EU uses the PEGI system, Germany goes it alone, and has a videogame rating system that among first-world countries is only rivaled in severity by Australia. Like Japan, Germany still feels the effects of World War II, and references to Adolf Hitler or depictions of the Swastika are strictly verboten.
Germany has something unique — an “Index of Bad Things”, maintained by the impressively named Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien, the Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons. The Index, as it's colloquially known, is a listing of materials deemed, per title, harmful to young persons.
A range of game titles appear on the Index, such as Postal 2, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Dead Rising, Duke Nukem 3D, F.E.A.R., Max Payne, most of the Resident Evil games, most of the Quake games, and of course almost every Mortal Kombat.
The point is not to block sales to adults but, as ever, to protect children. Opponents of the system say it's censorship anyway, as games on the register must not be advertised or sold openly, and can only be bought by mail-order, and with some difficulty. Essentially, being on the Index is a financial death sentence for a game.
Almost all of the movies, and a few of the games that are on the Index are there for violent content. Germany's censorship law specifically prevents material that "glorifies violence" while, like the rest of Europe, there's very little problem with depictions of sex or nudity. It’s in stark contrast to the US and Australia, where violent games are all right as long as everyone agrees to keep their unmentionables to themselves.
In China, things are a little different. The PC games market in China is significant, worth over six billion dollars. It’s also a unique one. With PCs themselves priced out of the reach of most Chinese citizens, the market is largely dominated by short term leasing at Internet cafes and LAN cafes around the country. Game companies must adjust accordingly. Subscriptions in China to most games are charged at an hourly rate, not monthly.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Chinese market is also heavily censored. While most countries censor for violence, or for sex or nudity, China most often censors for political reasons, or social ones. A widely publicised example is World of Warcraft. The popular MMO has faced heavy censorship for a variety of things under frequently conflicting and vague guidelines. Some of the terms that have come up include promoting a "harmonious society" and "national cultural information security". But whatever the reason, the end result is usually odd to Western sensibilities. For example, the undead are not allowed to be skeletal, and the corpses of player-characters that have died in-game must be replaced with gravestones.
Other games have been hit even harder than World of Warcraft. Several games, including Football Manager 2005, have been banned for listing Tibet or Taiwan as countries, instead of as territories of the People's Republic.
Among other potential infractions are "damaging the nation's glory" and "disturbing social order". World War II strategy game Hearts of Iron was banned for "distorting history" because it accurately showed the sovereignty of various regions during the period.
But what makes China particularly interesting is not so much the PC games scene. It's the console games market. There isn't one. Until late last year, all videogame consoles were banned outright throughout China. All consoles except the Nintendo DS handheld, for some reason. Communist Party officials were concerned about youth wasting their time with videogames rather than being productive citizens. While the ban has been lifted, none of the Big Three have announced plans to expand into the Chinese market at this time.
Venezuela’s censorship stands head and shoulders above all other countries listed so far. In late 2009, the Venezuelan government under the late Hugo Chavez took aim at high-and-increasing robbery and violence statistics, and decided something needed to be done. Ignoring grinding poverty, double digit inflation and endemic corruption, the obvious culprit was videogames. Statements from the government indicated that games were being made that required the player to assassinate Chavez, and moves were made to draft a law outlawing this "poison". The law was successfully passed, and retailers face a potential three- to five-year stint in prison for selling violent games.
THERE AND BACK AGAIN
The introduction of an R18+ rating in Australia was as important as it was overdue, but events in recent weeks make it clear that it’s not a panacea to controversy. The recent Refused Classification decisions on both Saints Row IV and State of Decay clearly demonstrate that there is still a distinction being made between videogames and films. Some portion of the “blame” for these games failing to make the R18+ grade must also be directed to each game’s publisher, who is responsible for the submission, presentation, and contextualisation of any potentially offensive material to the Board.
It’s likely that the new R18+ rating for videogames is currently like a new leather shoe for the Classification Board. It’ll take some time and use before it becomes comfortable. But at least Australia is moving forward, even if it’s not yet in full stride.