Dan Golding: The game is to be banned from sale – even after the introduction of a long-awaited ‘adults-only’ category. It’s the latest casualty of a censorship-happy country
In Australia, media classification is a tool of a conservative culture. That’s the lesson coming out of yesterday’s decision by the Classification Board to award a “refused classification” rating to the videogame Saints Row 4 – thereby making it illegal to sell in the country.
The decision, according to the Board’s media release, was made due to “interactive, visual depictions of implied sexual violence which are not justified by context”, as well as “elements of illicit or proscribed drug use related to incentives or rewards.” That such depictions get videogames banned isn’t new or surprising; the classification system has always seen sexual violence and “rewarded” drug use as the cardinal sins of the gaming world, as refused classification for Grand Theft Auto 3 and Fallout 3 have illustrated in the past.
What is new, however, is that Saints Row 4 is to be banned from sale since the introduction of a long-awaited “adults-only” category.
Australia has a long and storied history of banning videogames from sale, but it was often assumed that this was largely to do with the absence of an R18+ classification for videogames. Without it, anything judged to be of higher impact than MA15+ (material considered unsuitable for exhibition by persons under the age of 15) was refused classification – a situation dating to the early 1990s.
This was so hotly contested for so long that the R18+ category came in the public eye to stand in for other debates that Australia wasn’t having – like the desire for cultural acceptance of videogames, and for widespread reform of a faulty and disjointed classification system. But now that Saints Row 4 has been refused classification under the new and supposedly improved system, we can add a little nuance to these thoughts.
Australia’s censorship regime has historically been deeply conservative, and in many respects has lagged behind global standards. When an R classification for film was introduced in 1971, it was too late for many groundbreaking international films of the 1960s to be seen – Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) and Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), for example, were screened locally with heavy cuts. When it came time to classify videogames in the early 1990s, politicians again took the conservative path, demurring the question of an adults-only rating to future parliaments while other nations forged ahead.
Accordingly, when the 20-year long campaign to introduce an R18+ classification for videogames succeeded, it did so deep in conservative territory. After years of unsuccessfully arguing that the central reason to introduce an R18+ classification for videogames was that, as the classification code states, “adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want,” some advocates took a new tack.
Without an R18+ category, the argument went, videogames were being siphoned into an expanded MA15+ category, leaving adults-only material in the hands of 15-year-olds. There is some sense to this argument, but the way it came to steer the political agenda meant that by the time the R18+ category was introduced, it was acutely informed by the notion of protection, rather than by the liberty of consenting adults. Again, a conservative framework won out.
In some ways, the R18+ has been a relaxation of censorship. Seventeen videogames have been classified as R18+ since the new category was introduced in January, though whether all 17 would have been refused classification under the old system is a question we’ll never know the answer to.
Ultimately, though, the R18+ rating has become yet another symbol of the conservative nature of Australian media classification. We can see the fruits of this in Saints Row 4’s ban. It is a tool for a conservative culture – and the ongoing practice of refusing classification despite the presence of an adults-only rating is our proof.