Kombating Censorship in Australia

 
 

With the upcoming release of Mortal Kombat in Australia heralding the reform of what used to be the strictest system of games classification in the world, Rory Michael O’Sullivan looks at the long struggle it’s taken for adult oriented games to be legally sold in the country


For Australian gamers it’s been a long exhausting battle, but it appears that a new dawn has finally broken as the R18+ games rating is introduced by the Australian censorship authority. The new rating was introduced back in January and subsequently awarded to Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge. The authority declined to comment as to whether or not the game would have been banned under the old ratings system.

However, it was the resubmission of a game with a legacy more deeply entwined with video game censorship than any other which would finally prove the effectiveness of the new system. Mortal Kombat: Komplete Edition, a game previously banned from distribution in Australia, has been awarded the R18+ rating and is now available on Australian shelves.

Mortal Kombat is a series famed for its graphic depiction of intensely bloody violence. The original game, released in 1992, caused uproar as what was previously considered to be a child-orientated medium known for cartoonish characters suddenly featured high fidelity characters ripping the heads (still attached to a dangling spine) off one another. Cheat Code Central put it best when they said “Mortal Kombat had enough gore to simultaneously offend a nation and change gaming forever”.

As a response to the appearance of ultra-violence in video games the United States established the ESRB, an independent body which rated games content for public consumption. Similar bodies were set up across the globe and in general they applied a classification system based on that used by the film industry. Up until 2013 in Australia gaming was still officially seen as a children’s endeavour and the highest rating available was R15+.

With surveys showing that 68% of gamers are over the age of 18, limiting the thematic content to what is suitable for 15 year olds is severely damaging for what has become one of the world’s largest entertainment mediums. It also meant that content which young teens may not have the capacity to appreciate was occasionally awarded a rating which may not match the material. A prime example is the designation of an R15+ rating for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a game which courted controversy with its infamous scene of a terrorist massacre in an airport. The player guns down a crowd of civilians at an airport only to have their participation revealed as unnecessary. While this is a powerful scene showing the brutality of military action in a way no other medium is capable, it is debatable whether or not this game was suitable for quite such a young audience.

Mortal Kombat‘s approval for general consumption is a symbolic act and one that underlines the government’s commitment to change. It brings the law into line with the fact that the average gamer is 30 years old, and marks a move from an old fashioned line of thought to a modern approach to how Australian adults are entitled to entertain themselves. The changeover was such a contentious issue it involved the forming of a minor political party and the removal of a politician from office.

Attorney General Michael Atkinson was widely regarded as the face of gaming censorship in Australia. He was the only Attorney General who opposed the introduction of the R18+ movement, and since unanimous voting by all Attorney Generals was required to amend the ratings system he was able to single-handedly block its approval.

Atkinson’s staunch opposition to an adult rating for video games flew directly in the face of the spirit of the National Classification Code of Australia which stated “Adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want”. This view wound up being his undoing. Gamers 4 Croydon launched as a political party whose primary goal was to remove Atkinson from office and replace him with the final vote necessary to bring R18+ to reality. That vote came in the form of John Rau who approved the legislation and gave Australian gamers what they’d spent years asking for.

Ironically the introduction of the R18+ category can be seen as further protection for children. An American study by the Entertainment Software Association found that 85% of parents are aware of the ESRB ratings system. Of those parents 98% feel that the ratings system is helpful in choosing games for their children. Over 70% of parents believe the parental control features on consoles are useful. These features interact directly with the classification system applied to a game. Clearly classification systems work. They inform parents and protect children while enabling adults to view and interact with content that is age appropriate for them. Introducing an adult rating for video games underlines for parents that all games are not toys. It brings their attention to the fact that not every game is suitable for children and gives them guidance and encouragement to monitor the video game content their children are consuming.

The approval of Mortal Kombat proves that games previously rejected under the old system can now be catered for. R18+ has opened the gateway to Australian gamers experiencing more thematically diverse gaming without having to resort to illegal downloads or suffer the cost of importing. It shows a fitting sense of synchronicity that Mortal Kombat, a game often credited with the genesis of classification systems for games, continued in its heritage as the first concrete example that the new laws have brought about change. Not a bad legacy for the little gore fighter that could.

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