I’m installing Mass Effect 2 as I type this out (which thanks to checking delays will mean I will have been playing for about two days, but that’s besides the point), but that’s not really what I want to talk about right now. To be frank, the rest of the Wirebot staff can go on and on about their impressions of the game or the hype or whatever. I mean, sure, I’ll be submitting my review later, but… look, I’m getting side-tracked. What I’m saying is, something awesome happened when I went to pick up my copy of the game at my local EB.

I got carded.

Maybe this’ll be more exciting for Australians than for you Yanks or you Poms, or for people in any other reasonable country where this kind of stuff is more regular. But I’m not kidding when I say this is something I have never seen before happen in my lifetime. A shop attendant actually checking to see if the person who was buying a piece of media was old enough to buy that piece of media. Amazing! Mind-blowing stuff! And maybe it’s something that’ll let me segueway neatly into a discussion about the whole Australian R18+ ratings thing that I’ve been meaning to write about but haven’t for about a month now. Or possibly it was just to check if I was the person who had actually preordered the game, but whatever, I’ll use it as a segueway instead.

Let’s start from the beginning. Australia is said to be a mythical land of badasses, full of incredibly manly men and women who can strangle crocodiles with their own limbs and then drink a beer while simultaneously surfing a tsunami on the remains of said crocodile. Despite this, however, the Australian Classification Board’s position for some time has been that there is no such thing as an R18+ rating for videogames. What this means is that games deemed unsuitable for the MA15+ rating, the strongest rating currently available for videogames, are Refused Classification; that is to say, they can’t be sold in Australia. Strangely enough, this isn’t true for films and DVDs, both of which have R18+ ratings for content deemed suitable for people 18 and over.

So what’s the effect of this? Well, simply put, a lot of games freely available overseas – Manhunt, Marc Ecko’s Getting Up, and Reservoir Dogs to name a few – are unable to be sold on Australian soil, at least without extensive modification in order to be shoe-horned into the MA15+ rating. This hit Australian shores pretty badly last year with two highly anticipated games, Left 4 Dead 2 and Aliens vs Predator temporarily refused classification by the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC). The zombie-killing co-operative gore-fest that is L4D2 was toned down by Valve for resubmission and eventual retail release, but Rebellion, the developers of AvP have publically stated that “we will not be releasing a sanitised or cut down version [of Aliens vs Predator] for territories where adults are not considered by their governments to be able to make their own entertainment choices”. (They didn’t need to, either, because AvP was reclassified MA15+ on appeal).

Harsh! And the question is, is that true? Does Australia’s lack of an R18+ rating mean that our government doesn’t think we’re able to make our own entertainment choices? Let’s take a look at the national-level legislation, the Classifications Code. And the first thing that pops out is…

(a) adults should be able to read, hear, and see what they want

Interesting, don’t you think? It’s pretty clear that the goal of the Code is exactly what Rebellion is talking about; to let adults make their own damn entertainment choices. But then why isn’t there an R18+ rating now? Is it the Government’s fault, the Classification Board’s fault, or some moralistic problem inherent in Australian society? No, no, and no. The Government hasn’t legislated against videogames and likely never will. The Classifications Board is working with what they’ve got; certainly AvP isn’t suitable for children under the age of 18, but there’s simply no category to allow for adult gamers. And there’s no mass media crusade against violence in videogames, unlike in, say, Germany.

Pause for a second. Let’s go back to when (nationwide) video game ratings were introduced into legislation – those long-forgotten days of, uh, 1995. Back then, let’s face it, videogames were considered little more than toys for children. In fact, that’s still largely the perception today. Nevermind the fact that the average age of gamers in Australia is 30, according to the Interactive Australia 2009 report; ‘videogames are for kids’ is how society looks at it. In any case, back in 1995, since videogames were only for children there’s no way they’d ever need that R18+ rating that films and DVDs have, right? And so no R18+ rating exists for videogames.

So now it’s 2009. Combined graphical and technological improvement, not to mention ridiculous amounts of innovation and a rapidly maturing development sector means that videogames can display both shocking amounts of violence and deal with more adult themes such as drugs and sex – you know, what movies have been able to show for decades. And some of this stuff simply doesn’t fit in the MA15+ category at all! Whatever are we to do? Well, there’s this R18+ rating I heard about, films and movies get it, I bet we could just modify the legislation a little…

Roadblock. Now, there’s some complex legalese involved here, but the gist of it is that in order for the Classification legislation to be modified, all six of the Australian State’s (not Territories, for those counting) Attorney-Generals need to agree to the changes. And all of them do! All except one… South Australian Attorney-General Michael Atkinson.

The Honourable Mr Atkinson is vehemently opposed to the introduction of an R18+ rating scheme, based primarily on the idea that increased availability of R18+ games (with all the restrictions that that entails) would make it easy for minors to access this illicit content – ignoring the fact that R18+ DVDs of violence and pornography are already available, doing the exact same thing. Ignoring the fact that my 12 year old brother could probably find and pirate damn near anything on the planet if you gave him enough time.

“This is a question of a small number of very zealous gamers trying to impose their will on society” said Mr Atkinson to ABC Television in 2009, entirely oblivious to irony. “…You don’t need to be playing a game in which you impale, decapitate and dismember people”. Certainly nobody needs to be playing videogames. But then again, I don’t think Mr Atkinson needs to read books or to sleep under a roof – or to be dictating what adult Australians can and cannot play. He did, after all, note in a letter that “I think you will find that this issue has little traction with my constituents who are more concerned with real-life issues than home entertainment in imaginary worlds”. In other words, he’s not representing the public on this issue; he’s representing his own incredibly conservative views.

It seems unlikely that Mr Atkinson will ever change his views on this issue, despite all attempts by individuals and industry lobbyists. And if he never changes his mind, the only possible way to introduce an R18+ rating will be if Mr Atkinson dies, retires, or loses his seat at the next election. While a political party, Gamers 4 Croydon is attempting to unseat Mr Atkinson, it is realistically somewhat doubtful that they will succeed - although, obviously, I wish them all the best. So what now?

The Federal Government of Australia released a discussion paper about a month and a half ago on the for and against of an R18+ rating for Australia. This is basically a big official way to ‘consult the public’ on whether or not they actually think an R18+ rating is necessary or not, and an easy way to counter Atkinson’s claims that R18+ supporters are either “a small number” or “zealots”. Depending on the results of the public discussion, Atkinson’s absurdist logic and blatant hypocrisy will be revealed for what it is; his own personal moral crusade. Whether it will achieve anything concrete beyond that is doubtful; short of calling a referendum to change the Constitution (a move that will not happen), there is no way to get around the requirements of unanimous consent to change the legislation to introduce an R18+ rating.

Anyway, that’s the situation in Australia. How are videogames going in your neck of the woods?

PS: If you got bored by all the writing, you can just watch this YouTube video which will explain everything in a marginally more amusing way. And my friend made it, so that’s another reason to watch it. Go on… click the button…