My thoughts on the R18+ discussion

Well, I guess Amnesia Month is well and truly over…

I wasn’t going to weigh in to the R18+ issue largely because for a long time I’ve maintained that it didn’t really affect developers, and there was already a well-motivated and very vocal contingent of gamers who had the time and the energy for the fight. I also couldn’t find a way to add anything more to the argument than has already been stated elsewhere.

But now I think I can.

…if the latest surveys about the average gamer being a 32-year-old single male who sits at home and plays games all day are correct, then what I am proposing is not going to have much impact at all.

From Gamespot.

This is the South Australian Attorney General talking about his proposal to get rid of the MA15+ rating if they agree to introduce an R18+ one and the survey he is referring to is, I assume, the iGEA report because there isn’t really any other of its nature out there.

The important part of this statement is the ‘if’ – because his reading of the facts is quite clearly incorrect.  Sure it says that the average age of a gamer is 32, but that’s across both genders; the comment about being single isn’t borne out by the study (see figure 14 which shows the balance in households); and astly, there’s nothing to support the idea of the dominant gamer sitting at home playing games all day – according to the report, the average play session is 1 hour.

So, despite being a huge misreading of the statistics, this comment tells us two very interesting things:

The first is that data is useless in the presentation of a pro R18+ argument. No amount of studies on demographic breakdowns or literature reviews of the harmful effects of games will change anyone’s minds. This is, and always has been, an emotional argument that will not be won by any number of facts.

The second is that it hints at an interesting subtext of ‘I don’t understand why people would want to spend their free time this way’, a subtext that has has actually been explicitly made text by one of the key opponents to the introduction of the R18+ rating: the Australian Christian Lobby.

“It was very clear to me that the great majority of AGs were in a state of bemusement that anyone could want to make or play many of these games and particularly those proposed for an R18+ rating,” Mr Wallace said.

From the ACL Website

I’ve written before (here and here) about how the terms of reference we adopt restrict our ability to think & talk about aspects of game development, as well about how the framing of discussions is frequently dictated by people who don’t play games, who don’t understand how they work, and who don’t understand why anyone would want to engage with it as part of their free time, and this is just another example of that.

But this shouldn’t come as a surprise, right?  And the arguments for and against the introduction of the new rating have been endlessly laid out in every pro and anti R18+ piece ever written.  The same studies are quoted, the same voices are heard, and for every step forward towards revising the classification system, it feels as though two are taken back.

Which is why I haven’t really engaged with the conversation, but the above comments made me realise the silent, almost imperceptible impact, this would have on developers and the long term growth of games as a viable creative industry.

From the outside looking in, if the dominant conversation is about the small subset of  games framed by those defining the conversation as containing gratuitous sex & violence, why should government support games?  As put forward by the vocal and influential ACL, the AGs were bemused why anyone would want to make not only more adult games, but games more generally.  The South Australia AG’s idea to split games down the middle between those for children & those for adults also suggests a lack of awareness of how they are produced & played.  And, in my experience, despite pockets of support and thought, this is far from an isolated position.

But, and I would argue more troublingly, looking from the inside out, the question I have found myself asking recently is – why be part of a community, a creative industry, a culture, which is viewed by the wider community, industry, and culture as at best a non-entity and at worst as actively working to harm children?

The manifest effects of this hostility might not be immediately apparent, but the seemingly endemic negativity, lack of balance, and dismissal as curiousities of the 14 million people who play games as well as those who have, for the same reasons as people paint and write and play music, chosen to commit their creative energies to the medium, can’t help but grind away at the edges of their enthusiasm, potential, and growth.   I know because I have felt it, that we run the risk of losing our best and brightest creative minds to other industries or countries – people who could help games make significant contributions to the economy, could fuel the creation of a vibrant and expansive creative industry, and could add their voices to the vast well of the nation’s cultural capital.

The R18+ rating might not directly influence what we as developers create, but it does influence the conditions in which we work – conditions where the overall message appears to be that our opinions and the choices we have made about how to spend our lives or free time don’t matter, or if they do, they should be actively questioned and scrutinised.

This is why I think the R18+ discussion should matter to developers – because the opponents of it tell us that we don’t, and are, once again, very succesfully defining the parameters of the discussion.

6 thoughts on “My thoughts on the R18+ discussion”

  1. To my mind the R18+ debate is only harming the public perception of games by highlighting the number of obscenely violent games with little redeeming value. It implicitly defines “adult games” as games that would be harmful to minors because of gratuitous sex or gore. Is it any wonder then that outsiders view game-playing adults as over-grown adolescents?

    I am strongly in favour of games that deal with serious adult themes, including violence and sexuality, with sophistication worthy of an adult audience. I don’t, however, see the current debate doing anything but hinder that goal.

    1. I agree completely with your second point, but disagree, I think, with the idea of public perception. The iGEA study referenced, the public conultation, the AG’s followup literature review on games and violence, and the subsequent phone survey all seem to point to the broad public perception – a public made up of 14 million people (68% of the population) – being far more aware of the broad spread of games & content and their suitability for themselves and their children.

      The issue raised by the Attorney General’s comments is that they aren’t part of that 68%, that they don’t understand it, that they don’t want to, and that they are only being exposed to the very vocal contingent who are framing the debate.

  2. True. I fell into the trap of thinking like a minority group and equating “outsiders” and “the public” in a way that just isn’t true.

    But I don’t think we can cast all the blame for the framing of the debate on the ACL. It’s hard for the debate to be about anything but porn and violence when there are so few adult games with clear “literary merit” to proclaim. We are left arguing for adults’ right to consume garbage if they please – a position I assent to but won’t waste my breath defending.

    1. I agree completely.

      From my point of view though, the R18+ debate is part and parcel of the wider perception of games by our cultural and political voices.

      The way we get to those games with literary merit is to allow more people to make games, and for those games to exist in a space of experimentation of form and content. My point here is not that we should support adults’ right to consume garbage, but that in order to reach a stage where creatives feel free to express themselves, we need to give them a space to do that. If those in charge, our nominal leaders, can’t see the benefit of the space creatively or economically, those restrictions will manifest in tangible and intangible ways. I don’t need the government to come out and shower the sector with funding & tax-breaks, but at least a cursory level of respect & research into the economic, cultural, and personal benefits would be nice, rather than them going for easy insults about the way a huge majority of the population choose to spend significant parts of their lives.

      That’s the shift for me, from not-caring to caring – the realisation that it’s bigger than about what people play, it’s about the knock-on effects for what people can make.

  3. I read the whole government advisory report and found it quite interesting. It seems that the vast majority of all age groups seem to play computer games. The R18+ rating I suspect is being pushed by a small group of non game playing religious zealots behind the scenes who think they know what is good for everyone else. Having said that it probably won’t make much of a difference if the R18+ is introduced. If a good game is rated R18+ then the kids will want to play it anyway and most will. The latest Harry Potter movie is rated M but that doesn’t stop parents from taking very young kids to see it.

  4. Well said Paul, I feel your final paragraphs sum it up brilliantly. The context of the R18+ argument is self-nullifyingly redundant. Rather than debating the allowance of extreme content, greater efforts should be made to recognise the breadth of contribution of digital games to modern culture. Blithely opinionated dinosaurs with skewed statistics will be discredited not by hardcore gamers clamouring for extreme content, but by a culturally aware public at ease with the merging of technology and art.

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