Do violent video games cause aggression? Actually, gamers and conservatives have both got it wrong: we just don't know. It's time for the debate over video games classification to grow up, writes Mark Fletcher.
Last Friday, the Australian Law Reform Commission released an issues paper for the National Classification Scheme Review. The review will cover:
"The classification of publications, films and computer games under the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 (Cth) (Classification Act), the ALRC will also examine schs 5 and 7 of the Broadcasting Services Act and the need for a classification framework that accommodates online content."
The review comes after the Attorney-General’s public consultation regarding R18+ computer games — and after the Government’s abysmal attempt to set up a mandatory web filter.
The issues at play are complex and subtle. What is the difference between classification and censorship? Does our classification system reflect modern attitudes regarding sexuality? Should society glorify graphic (often misogynistic) violence as entertainment? Can new media content be treated the same way as old media content?
Like most complex and subtle debates, this one has been hijacked by those who cry the loudest. Instead of exploring broader issues, we are bogged in a discussion of whether Australia should have an R18+ classification for video games (MA15+ is the highest rating for games; if it’s too "adult", it’s refused classification). Not that it’s much of a discussion: we have a choice between "Won’t somebody please think of the children?" and "If I can’t see more boobs in games, my civil liberties — nay, human rights — are violated!"
A lot of the debate has traded shots over the scientific evidence connecting violent video games (VVG) to aggressive behaviour. Lyle Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby wrote that "academic literature … shows the link between violent interactive video games and aggressive behaviour". Contrariwise, Mark Serrels of Kotaku asserted that a "government literature review of all relevant research has shown that games are no more harmful than any other medium in that regard. All credible research has shown this. All literature reviews on the issue have confirmed this."
The Attorney-General’s November 2010 report on the issue makes it clear that they’re both wrong:
"Significant harmful effects from VVGs have not been persuasively proven or disproven. There is some consensus that VVGs may be harmful to certain populations, such as people with aggressive and psychotic personality traits. Overall, most studies have consistently shown a small statistical effect of VVG exposure on aggressive behaviour, but there are problems with these findings that reduce their policy relevance."
Note that this report came out before both parties claimed the evidence supported their views. Unironically, Serrels followed up his claims about "all relevant research" with this:
"If you make a point, which is subsequently made redundant through evidence, you must abandon that argument. That is simple logic. So why do we continually have to repel the same arguments? How can you call this a discussion? This is not rational. This is something else entirely."
Ha. It’s funny because he doesn’t realise that he’s just as guilty.
Advocates raise other arguments. The website r18games.com.au lists four reasons to support R18+ video games classification:
1. It restricts freedom of choice.
2. It encourages piracy.
3. It places adult material in the hands of children.
4. Some companies are gaming the system to sell more stock in New Zealand…
It’s not exactly a series of knockdown arguments. We already acknowledge that "freedom of choice" isn’t an unfettered right. The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service lets us know where we stand regarding some of our choices.
Piracy is caused by people circumventing classifications, which is not a reason to change the law. Anti-money laundering laws encourage people to circumvent those laws and yet we don’t see protest websites defending white collar crime.
Because Australian Classification Board rates some games as MA15+ which receive a R18+ classification overseas, it’s argued that an Australian 15-year olds access adult content. The "misuse" of the MA15+ classification indicates inconsistency applying the framework, rather than a reason to permit R18+ games.
And (4) is just grasping at straws.
The ACL doesn’t fare better. Apart from relying on the scientific evidence, they assert that children are somehow at risk if R18+ games are sold in shops, and that there are sinister corporations pushing for change. They don’t seem to be relying on argument; their stock-in-trade is outrage and indignation.
And so it goes: conservatives flailing in moral panic as gamers parade their seemingly indefatigable and adolescent sense of entitlement.
And it’s coming at a cost. By focusing on the frankly trivial issue of R18+ games, we are missing out on much more relevant debates about the classification of entertainment. It wasn’t that long ago that a prime minister famously declared that non-sexualised pictures of naked children were "absolutely revolting" and had no artistic merit. Could a robust classification scheme provide artists with a safety-net against politicians on soapboxes or is art too difficult for bureaucrats to classify?
Australia also has a long-overdue debate on its attitudes towards sexuality. Because mainstream conservatives have absolutely refused to engage, we have the insane situation where, under a PG rating, mild violence can be depicted but sexual activity can only be implied. Apparently, a teenager is old enough to see a woman get stabbed, but isn’t old enough to see her enjoy sex.
In response, conservatives decry the violence depicted rather than question whether they are promoting healthy, rational views about sexuality. In fairness, public sexuality rarely gets beyond the question of pornography which has a plethora of different problems. Even New Matilda’s discussion about classification has been confined to the pragmatics of determining X-rated films and billboards mentioning sex. Nevertheless, a classification framework which freaks out about loving, consensual sex but is happy to let graphic violence into the family home does not appear to reflect community values and priorities.
These are the kinds of debates the Classification Review should be facilitating. We could have them if the mainstream media were not distracted by a mediocre, vapid bun fight over video games.