Greg Barila

Journalist. Editor. Social Media specialist.

Violent Argument

Should adults have the freedom to play violent video games? SA’s Attorney-General doesn’t think so. Greg Barila reports. 

(This report first appeared in Adelaide's Eastern Courier Messenger).

ANY day of the week in South Australia, if you’re an adult, you can pick up a carton of beer, a packet of cigarettes, a hardcore magazine (if that’s your thing), and a copy of Wolf Creek or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Laws broken? Nil.

Maybe explicit sex and violent cinema aren’t to your taste but many will argue the freedom to choose is the backbone of our free society.

Right now, video gamers throughout Australia claim they are being denied that right - and they’re pointing the finger at SA’s Attorney-General.

The Attorney-General remains unmoved arguing the need to protect children weighs heavier than the wishes of adults to play video games, which no one is arguing can be shockingly realistic and disturbingly violent.

So can the debate move to the next level, or is it game over for an adult’s right to choose the kinds of games they play behind their bedroom doors?

ON September 22, the Sydney lad magazine Zoo Weekly published its annual list of the Top 50 “people we hate”.

Topping the list was the renegade rugby player Sonny Bill Williams, who turned his back on his Australian club for greener fields, and a fatter pay packet, with a club in France.

Also on the list were controversial Federal MP Belinda Neal, ex-footballer Wayne Carey and dumped swimmer Nick D’Arcy.

With the dubious honour of position six was a name most Australians had probably never heard of before, but one many know well now - South Australia’s Attorney-General Michael Atkinson.

The member for Croydon was none too bothered by the poll result.

``I am more unpopular, for instance, than Radovan Karadzic, who is alleged to have killed 8000 people at Potocari and Srebrenica,’’ Mr Atkinson told State
Parliament in October.

``Zoo Weekly, of course, is an erotic magazine, and I am happy to be voted an unpopular or annoying person by readers of an erotic magazine.’’

The poll may have been less than credible, some might say unfair.

But the reasons the Attorney-General made the list in the first place - his stance on the classification of video games - points to a wholly serious and profound
level of discontentment among fans of video games. Why? 

To understand how the tensions were set up, it helps to understand something of Australia’s classification system.

Unlike for films, Australia has no R18+ rating for video games, making the MA15+ rating - covering content for mature audiences 15 years and older - the
highest available level of classification.

Practically, it means games with a high level of violence, sex or drug use cannot be classified - and games refused classification cannot legally be sold, hired,
demonstrated or advertised.

Four games - Shellshock 2: Blood trails, Dark Sector, Fallout 3 and Silent Hill: Homecoming - were banned in Australia in 2008 because of their content. 

Games banned in previous years include Bulletproof, Manhunt, 50 Cent and NARC.

Last March, the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General gave its ``in principle’’ support for a discussion paper - R18+ for computer games - to canvass public views on the matter and pave the way for the possible introduction of an R18+ rating.

About time, Victoria’s Attorney-General Rob Hulls declared.

``It seems inconsistent that in Australia, adults are allowed to view `adult only’ films which have been classified R18+ by the Classification Board, but not computer games with an equivalent high level content,’’ Mr Hulls said.

``At the moment, Australia is out of step with the rest of the developed world on this issue.’‘

The draft paper went to censorship ministers and was to be available to the public on the internet.

But the process was derailed when Mr Atkinson, a long-standing opponent of an R18+ rating, used his veto powers to effectively shelve the discussion paper.

The paper, he said, was not a balanced representation of both sides of the argument.

Because any change to the relevant legislation requires the consensus of every state, territory and Federal Attorney-General, any moves towards an R18+
rating now seemed highly unlikely.

Mr Atkinson outlined his ``carefully considered’’ position -  one, he admits, is even unpopular with his own three game-playing boys - in Parliament in early March, before the meeting of the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General.

``I am concerned about the harm of high-impact (particularly violent) computer games to children,’’ he said.

``Games may pose a far greater problem than other media - particularly films - because their interactive nature could exacerbate their impact.

``The risk of interactivity on players of computer games with highly violent content is increased aggressive behaviour.

``I do not want children to be able to get their hands on R18+ games easily.’‘

Australia remains one of the only developed countries in the world without an R18+ rating.

Mr Atkinson doesn’t care.

``I think the western, industrialised countries that allow R18+ computer games and the extreme violence that goes with them are just so many Gadarene swine going over the cliff,’’ Mr Atkinson told ABC TV’s Stateline programme this month. 

``I’m pleased that Australia has a principle, sensible stand against this extreme violence, I’m happy for Australia to stand alone and international gamers can  laugh at us all they like.’‘
Australia’s gaming industry doesn’t see the funny side.

Online, a furious campaign is raging, with hundreds of commentators and gamers lambasting Mr Atkinson’s stance, which they claim denies them the basic right to make free choices.

``I can’t believe that it comes down to this - one man with the absolute power to veto the clear demands of 90 per cent of the Australia population because of a minority personal belief and a whim. What a BS system we have,’’ one gamer wrote.

Another wrote; ``What is the point of representatives that don’t represent - this guy makes me angrier than any game ever could!’‘

Gaming fan Scott wrote: ``What a joke! I’m so sick of these moralists telling me what I can’t see or do. What absolute arrogance, to stymie a public debate just because he thinks he knows better than everyone else.’’

The gaming community argues Mr Atkinson’s position is misguided because it disadvantages typical gamers, which some research suggests are not the children the Attorney-General wants to protect.

They point to a new national survey prepared for the Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia by Queensland’s Bond University.

The survey, which collected information from more than 1600 households and almost 5000 people, found the average age of gamers, was not 9 or 17 but 30, up from 28 in 2007. 

It also found 91 per cent of adults - both gamers and non-gamers - supported an R18+ rating for video games.

But Mr Atkinson said protecting children was more important, adding there were ``plenty’’ of games available to adults, without restricted content.

``I believe the protection of children outweighs the minority who want access to very violent and sexually explicit video games.

``Once games showing extreme violence, sexual abuse and criminal activity are in homes there is little way of keeping them from children in that home.’‘

So what are the potential impacts of violent games on children?

Elizabeth Handsley is a Professor of Law at Flinders University and a spokesperson for the parents information organisation Young Media Australia.

``We think there’s clear enough evidence that violent media and especially violent computer games have an adverse impact on people’s attitudes to violence,’’  Prof Handsley says.

``The picture that emerges is, well, three things about violent media; one is that it can lead people to be more likely to act aggressively themselves; secondly  that it can make them more accepting of aggression and violence in other people, so desensitizes them to violence and third that it can foster a sort of mean and scary view of the world and so affect people’s confidence in going out into the world.’‘

But if restrictions can protect children from unsavoury or damaging content in film, TV and magazines, why should video games be any different?

Because they are different, Prof Handsley argues.

``There’s no illogic in my mind about distinguishing between different media because different media provide a different experience and have a different impact
on the person that’s consuming them.

``You get arguments about Harry Potter and the idea that Harry Potter are children’s books, therefore all the movies should be rated PG.

``Now, there’s a difference between reading a scary story on a page and seeing it emblazoned in full colour with very loud sound in a darkened room on a huge screen.’‘

She denied bans were useless because children could access banned material online.

``I find it hard to imagine say a seven-year-old going on the internet to find an ultra violent game, an 11-year-old maybe, but we’re interested in the seven-year-
olds that may stick something on if it’s just sort of around the house or around a friend’s house.

``Once these things are legitimately available in hard copy in people’s living rooms and studies that makes it more easily available to much younger children.’‘

Adult gamers say they won’t let the ban stop them getting access to the games they want to play and warn it could encourage piracy and hurt the local economy, as consumers shift their spending offshore.

And it’s big business. Australians spend about $1.3 billion a year on games.

``My money will be going overseas where my right as an adult to play the games that I wish is not censored,’’ gaming fan Marc told a forum.

``Imports all the way. Released quicker and cheaper,’’ another gamer wrote.

Game retailers confirmed increased piracy and online sales were having an impact.

``Without a doubt,’’ GameTraders national marketing manager Chad Polley said.

``People are more likely to pirate something so they can get the overseas version.’‘

Game City owner John Carbone said it was hard to calculate the amount of revenue lost to online retailers like ebay ``but my gut feeling is it could be 20 per cent’‘.

``It’s hurting quite a lot of small businesses.’‘

Mr Carbone conceded some banned games were so violent they would ``curl your hair; you wouldn’t even know it’s a video game’‘.

``But I still believe they should bring in an R18+ rating and let the adult make their own decision.’‘

Soon, Australians will have the chance to say so. This month in Brisbane, the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General finally agreed to release its discussion paper on the issue, after Mr Atkinson received assurances the paper would be revised for balance.

It is due to be published online by the end of the year.

But how will it play?

For gamers, it may be the equivalent of winning through to the next level.

Their critics will remind them that in most games, somebody wins but someone always loses.