ONE YEAR ON: Has R18+ changed anything?

ONE YEAR ON: Has R18+ changed anything?
Image: Marco Arment/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Image: Marco Arment/Flickr (Creative Commons)

At 12:01 am on January 1 last year, Australian gamers rejoiced. After years of petitions, campaigning, and continuous opposition from South Australia’s then-Attorney General Michael Atkinson; Australia – except for Queensland, who had to wait until February 15 – finally had an adults-only rating for video games.

And in just one year, the classification regime has managed to excite, baffle and anger gamers. Mortal Kombat was finally allowed to come to Australia and Grand Theft Auto V wasn’t asked to be censored by the Classification Board, while some questioned why Fable Anniversary received the rating over a minor issue. But shit hit the fan when Saints Row IV was given a refused classification – all because of drug use in a side mission and an anal probe gun.

So, has R18+ really changed anything?

Welcome to Australia, Mortal Kombat

In 2013, 34 games were given an R18+ classification. The first to receive the adults-only rating was Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge for the Wii U. Other titles that were rated R18+ include Grand Theft Auto VRyse: Son of Rome, The Walking Dead Season 2, Spartacus LegendsGod of War: AscensionFar Cry 3: Blood DragonMetro: Last Light, and The Last of Us.

Previously refused classified games were also allowed to be re-evaluated – provided that they use a loophole in Australian Classification Law. Games that have already been classified must wait two years before they can recontest (after appeals). However, if the developer makes some modifications or adds DLC content to the original game, then it is considered a new game that has to be classified.

This is what happened to Mortal Kombat. The game was previously given a refused classification rating back in 2011, citing the “over 60 fatalities which contain explicit depictions of dismemberment, decapitation, disembowelment and other brutal forms of slaughter.” However, once the new adults-only rating came into force, the developers were able to ‘unban’ the game as Mortal Kombat: Komplete Edition – which included all the DLC content released for the game – was given an R18+ rating.

However, it appears that Mortal Kombat is only game that has jumped at the chance to get the original uncensored version re-evaluated by the Classification Board. The only other developer that has expressed an interest is Valve Software. They have said in the past that they are exploring ways to see if they can get an uncensored version of Left 4 Dead 2 to Australians. However, they haven’t made any more announcements since the initial forum post.

Banned because of an anal probe

It was a matter of time when the Classification Board would give out its first Refused Classification rating to a video game – effectively banning it from the country. And that occurred on June 25, when Volition’s Saints Row IV became the first title to receive the dreaded RC rating under the new system. A day later, Microsoft Studios’ State of Decay joined them.

The Classification Board said that it banned Saints Row IV because of “interactive, visual depictions of implied sexual violence which are not justified by context” – which was later revealed to be an anal probe gun called the “Rectifier Probe” – and the “elements of illicit or proscribed drug use related to incentives or rewards” in a side mission where players could take “alien narcotics” to gain superpowers for themselves and an ally. Drug use as a reward would also be the reason why State of Decay was banned – the game depicted illicit drugs being used for health or stamina recovery.

Volition later appealed the decision, only to have the Classification Review Board to give it a refused classification as well. However, unlike the Classification Board, the Review Board banned the game because of the drug references and not because of the anal probe gun.

In the end, both games were modified to meet the restrictions under Australian Classification Law. Saint Row IV completely removed the side quest from the Australian edition, while State of Decay renamed all drugs without affecting gameplay – similar to Fallout 3’s morphine incident in 2008.

A few months later, it was revealed that the upcoming South Park: The Stick of Truth was forced to modify its contents to meet an R18+ classification. It was given a refused classification rating twice – under the name Codename for depicting a kid getting an anal probe by aliens and an interactive abortion scene with wire and a vacuum device.

While Ubisoft has assured that the modifications won’t detract from the story, it confirmed that three mini games were removed and the scenes replaced with a crying koala with text explaining the events.

Should this be R18?

Being an ‘adults-only’ rating, you would have thought that it would be clear what sort of games would fit in this category. Well, you would be wrong.

Atelier Totori Plus: The Adventurer of Arland for the PS Vita was the first to receive a questionable R18+ rating. The game is essentially a port of a PS3 game Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland, with added dungeons, some new artwork and new boss battles. However, the PS3 version received a PG rating. The Classification Board cited “references to sexual violence” for their reason why it gave an R18+ rating. However, as Aussie-Gamer noted, those “references” were also in the PG-rated PS3 version of the game.

The other game that got a questionable R18+ rating was Fable Anniversary. The game was a HD remaster of the first title in the Fable series and its expansion Fable: The Lost Chapters. However, the original games received an M and MA rating respectively. According to the Classification Board, the game was given an R18+ rating for “sexual activity related to incentives and rewards”.

They based this on the brothel in Darkwood Bordello – where players could be rewarded for pairing up with a certain number of prostitutes as a man, or receive 1000 gold for having sex with a male NPC dressed as a woman. According to Player Attack, the Classification Board accepted that the violence and adult themes could be accommodated with a lower M rating – which was what Microsoft wanted to release the game under – but it was the rewards for sex that pushed it into R18+ territory.

The system is still broken

One thing is for certain: our classification laws is in dire need for reform

While it has put us on par with the rest of the world, introducing an adults-only video game rating hasn’t fixed the fundamental problems with our classification system for video games – including the unnecessary censorship.

Video game classification does have a purpose: to inform people and make them aware of what is in the game, especially for parents so they don’t purchase something that is inappropriate. It is not meant to limit entertainment options to the average gamer – who is 32 years old – because of fears that children may get their hands on it and become sociopaths.

Yes, of course, there are certain things that should be banned from sale – such as pedophilia and games that heavily detail the instructions on performing a crime – but to ban a game because of a sci-fi gimmick like an anal probe?

In the end, the unnecessary censorship of video games will affect local distributors. In the age where gamers are increasingly going online to purchase games – especially to take advantage of cheaper prices from European distributors – what would stop a gamer from just simply importing the uncensored version to Australia?

While selling and distributing refused classified material in Australia is illegal, importing it from overseas to Australia is a legal grey area, because it all depends on your state or territory since they are the ones that enforce classification law. The alternative is simply pirate the uncensored version of the game.

So, how can we improve it? Some are calling for a self-regulating ratings system similar to the European PEGI and American ESRB ratings system. Others, like South Australia’s Attorney-General John Rau, want a more restrictive classification system that plainly categorises games between adults-only and child-friendly. The Australian Law Commission also had their say on the issue, suggesting that we should replace it with a platform-neutral approach (one system for video games, films and television programmes) and require the classification of games that might be MA15+ or higher, that will have a significant Australian audience, and is distributed on a commercial basis.

One thing is for certain: our classification laws is in dire need for reform. Having an adults-only rating is a step in the right direction – the government finally recognises that gamers aren’t just children. However, we need to find a balance that informs parents, doesn’t treat the large majority of gamers like idiots or children, and still allow developers the freedom of creative expression without the risk of censorship.

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