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Only Speaking Professionally | Incensed

Forgive my indulgence, but today I’m all about my slice of the world.

Australia hasn’t had an adults only classification for very long. R18+ was introduced here January 2013, and since then only a handful of games have received the classification. Mark Serrels over at Kotaku Australia recently wrote a very extensive and incisive exploration of the political side of the classification struggle, which I recommend you read if you’re not up with Australia’s classification system.

But all that’s background stuff.

South Park: The Stick Of Truth was released to quite a warm critical reception. Our own resident South Park tragic Simon Squire gave the game a 9/10. But the game wasn’t the same worldwide. Europe and Australia received cut versions, based on feedback from respective classification boards. The details are a little hazy, but Britain’s PEGI system seems to be saying it would have accepted an uncut version. In Australia, though, it’s a lot more clear-cut.

South Park: The Stick Of Truth was refused classification on September 19 in Australia. A second, cut version was submitted and again refused on November 7. Another, further cut version was submitted and finally accepted into the R18+ category on November 21. The criteria under which the game was refused classification had to do with depictions of sexual violence, child sexual abuse, and very high impact and offensive depictions of thematic content.

Namely, Randy and the New Kid getting anal probed on a space ship, which were deemed to be sexual violence, and scenes in an abortion clinic, which were the very high impact thematic content.

I understand that anal probing can be interpreted as sexual violence. And sexual violence isn’t good. In fact, it’s pretty bad. And when it’s against kids, you’d better believe I’m going to be grumpy. But when it can be displayed on TV under an MA15+ rating, yet has to be removed completely for a video game, I’m getting a sense of double standards.

Another sequence that apparently got removed involved an abortion scene. Now, as far as I know, abortions are still legal in pretty much all of Australia (although some bloody idiots are trying to get rid of that too). The act itself isn’t really deemed immoral under Australian law, so this part of the decision is up to the personal values of the minority on the classification board who find abortion immoral, which is interesting. While what is in The Stick Of Truth is somewhat… anatomically incorrect… I don’t particularly see the difference between it and similar scenes within the TV series.

I’m not saying the content viewed in context is or is not appropriate – that’s entirely beside the point here. What I am saying is that there is a clear double standard between what is depicted in TV and video games.

It comes down to the word “interactive”.

At what point does a viewer become active? Literary theory has treated readers as active participants for a long while now. Part of that whole postmodern thing. You read something, you internalise and interpret it, and that is participation. But where is the line between “active” and “interactive”?

Are choose your own adventure books “interactive”? Are visual novels “interactive”? Are point and click adventures “interactive”? Are first person shooters “interactive”? At what point does a text become interactive? In all of the above you interact with systems to influence narrative outcome and character action. You can even take it one step further and suggest that the way you individually visualise a scene you’ve read in a novel as you read it is a form of influence over narrative and character.

So why are we judging the video game medium based on an arbitrary and non-unique feature that has not been effectively described in academic, philosophical, legal, or pragmatic terms?

Some psychologists have suggested that the interactivity of video games can influence the way material is internalised and interpreted. I won’t debate their findings – I’m no psychologist. But others have found that there is no heightened impact too. It’s a conflict of studies, and we’re all waiting in the wings.

I do think it’s good to be safe, especially when children are involved. I think that rating systems are great, and, when implemented and enforced correctly (that’s a WHOLE other issue), they provide a necessary societal good. Freedom of expression is great, but not all art is harmless, and those who are unable to interact with problematic material in a reasonable way should be protected.

But I question whether essentially identical material should be treated differently by classification boards based entirely on the medium in which they exist.

And while we’re talking about the Australian Classification Board…

Plants Vs. Zombies Garden Warfare got an M rating.

Yep, apparently it’s as violent as Prometheus (alien birth scene anyone?), or the Pirates of the Caribbean films (skeleton pirates), or Die Hard 4.0 (Bruce Willis’ “acting”). While none of those are particularly violent, it’s a little silly to put them on the same level as Garden Warfare’s herbicide.

I can appreciate that the members of the classification board that are rating these games may not be the most familiar with the medium. And I understand that there is room for interpretation. But when Plants Vs. Zombies Garden Warfare is getting an M rating? That’s a little bonkers.

I don’t expect perfection, but I’d appreciate at least a little bit of consistency people.

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