Michael Atkinson thinks computer games are different.

The South Australian Attorney General presented his arguments against an R18+ classification for video games to the Gamespot video gaming web site. His arguments can be divided into those in favour of censorship generally, and those that argue that computer games are special, and need to have a higher level of censorship than other media. 

His argument for the different status of games as compared to film is essentially that because the experience of playing a computer game is more interactive, it is more harmful to view the same material by virtue of it being a game. He offers no evidence to support this assertion, other than noting that his children sometimes get very involved in games they play. He associates R18+ with perverted sex, criminal activity, and extreme violence, but ignores that many award winning, widely acclaimed and viewed films are rated R18+. Computer games are, as shown by many studies and accepted even by Atkinson, now consumed by more adults than children. And adults have the right to consume material intended for adults. He also ignores that games have been refused classification in Australia for reasons that have nothing to do with sex or violence, and depict only non-violent crime (graffiti tagging, in the case of Mark Ecko's Getting Up, refused classification in 2006), a level of censorship that might rightly be regarded as ridiculous if applied to film in Australia, and certainly is not applied to our most widely available media such as free to air television. Of course, he knows he is being misleading here -- later in his letter he lists the reasons for classification, and among them are coarse language and "(controversial) themes." 

The argument that only a small number of games are affected, because only a small number have been rejected for classification, is no argument at all. What it demonstrates is the chilling effect of censorship laws. Games that are unlikely to be approved in Australia are cut before being presented to the board, or never presented to the board at all. The real danger of censorship is the works that do not get made at all, or that are made but never presented to the Australian public. 

Mr Atkinson states that "In cinemas, the age of moviegoers can be regulated, and at the video store people must provide ID to hire R18+ videos. Once electronic games are in the home, access to them cannot be policed and the games are easily accessible to children." He seems completely oblivious to the existence of R18+ DVDs, which of course can be freely purchased by adults and taken to their homes. And ignoring the obvious idea that, should an R18+ category for games be introduced, stores that sell games can check ID, just as news agents that sell R18+ magazines do, and just as the same video stores that provide most of the game rental market already do. Of course R18+ film material is available within a format that comes into the home — and of course, families do find ways to police such material. It is easier to control the use of computer games (that require a specific console to play, most often) than it is to control the viewing of DVDs. The policing of R18+ games presents far less of an issue than the policing of R18+ DVDs, which is generally unproblematic. And that Atkinson presents something so easily dismissed as a serious argument at all can be explained only by either a deep ignorance of something as basic as DVD purchase, or contempt to voters understanding of the issues. 

A similarly poor argument is Atkinson pointing out that many quality games enjoyed by adults would not merit an R18+ rating. This is of course true, but irrelevant. Simply because I may enjoy a film aimed at a general audience, does not mean I may not also want to view films aimed exclusively at adults, and the same applies to games. The existence of Pixar films, enjoyable by both children and adults, is not a justification to ban the R18+ films of Quentin Tarantino — but Atkinson contends that, when it comes to the computer game equivalents, it should be. 

Atkinson also tries to use the existence of classification for advertising, films, and books as a justification for the classification of computer games, but this is a deceptive argument. He is the one arguing that games are different — if games were classified in the same way as films, they would have an R18+ rating as films do. 

But the most revealing aspect of his argument is that he frequently refers to "children or vulnerable adults". He is using the argument that he is protecting children, by making his poor arguments about access to games in the home, but it is clear that even he does not really swallow this argument as justification for his policy. He knows that to justify his position, he must justify censoring adults. "Vulnerable" adults are as much a target of his censorship efforts as children, and by talking of "vulnerable" adults, he seeks to censor all adults by appeal to a hypothetical weakest among us. And this is how the call to censorship always goes, to justify taking away our rights by claiming to protect the weakest. Atkinson does not even bother to deny that he seeks to restrict adult liberty, he only claims to believe the sacrifice of our rights is justified by the desire to protect these hypothetical weakest of us.

Mr Atkinson claims support from other State Attorneys-General, yet he is the sole one holding back the public release of a paper on the issue, a paper that Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls said made "persuasive arguments" for an adults only game classification. Perhaps he is not the only one, but he certainly does not seem to have the broad support of his colleagues. And the only group that supports him that he is prepared to name is Young Media Australia, an organisation that supports appropriate media for children -- which makes it clear that supporters of Atkinson's view are those that share his contention that adult consumption of computer games should be determined by what is appropriate for children, not what is appropriate for adults. 

Finally, it is worth noting that Mr Atkinson refers to the Office of Film and Literature Classication, a body that no longer exists as such, the Classification Board being incorporated into the Attorney Generals Dept in 2006. There is no excuse for mistakes about the basic details of the system by an Attorney General making decisions about its future.

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