A modest censorship proposal

Publication date: 25 November 2011
Originally published 2011 in a much shorter version, in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


The other day, I thought, "People say that Risen is a decent RPG. No namby-pamby hand-holding like Oblivion or Divinity, but not full-blown German sadism like the older Gothic games. I think I'll give it a go."

But alas, I cannot.

At least, not legally. Risen is one of the games that's been "Refused Classification" by the Australian Classification Board, which used to be called the Office of Film and Literature Classification, or OFLC.

You may know how this goes. Here in Australia, we as yet have no rating for games above "MA15+". There's a strong campaign for an R18+ rating, but one does not yet exist. So unless a game company is willing to cut the naughty bits out of a game, or can persuade the censors that a game where liquor stores sell marijuana cigars and star ratings are awarded for throwing people off skyscrapers (hell-oooo, Saints Row 2!), they can't legally sell that game in Australia.

The average PC gamer may now need bifocals and the average 12-year-old may now know their meatspin from their tubgirl, but the ACB cares not for such trivialities.

The creators of Risen didn't want to rewrite it to satisfy dummkopfen on the other side of the planet. So we didn't get Risen at all. (I wouldn't be surprised if the upcoming Risen 2 goes the same way.)

And Left 4 Dead 2, for instance, was also refused classification, on the grounds that it was "unsuitable for persons aged under 18", which pretty explicitly indicates that an R18+ rating would be just right for it. Valve ended up having to make a modified MA15 version for the Australian market without images of "decapitation, dismemberment, wound detail or piles of dead bodies" in it.

That version of L4D2 is also the one sold in Germany, where they're understandably rather touchy about swastikas no matter what media they appear in (you can buy a plastic model kit of a Bf 109 in Germany, but it won't come with authentic decals). On top of this, though, Germany has a variety of other stern rules about video games. You can't, for instance, sell a game in Germany if it has blood and gore in it. So Germany gets special versions with enemies that don't bleed, or bleed black (so they must be robots!) or green (zombies!).

The censored versions of these games are, of course, completely un-convertable back into the normal versions. There certainly aren't dozens of guides just to uncensoring L4D2 on the Web. So don't bother searching for them. The only people who'd suggest that this is all a waste of everybody's time and taxpayer money, like easily-circumvented porn-blockers that almost nobody turns out to actually want, are unquestionably all child pornographers. So there.

I wondered what one might be guilty of if one were to... acquire... a copy of a Refused Classification game like Risen. Could you get in trouble just for owning it?

Well, I could only be bothered looking it up in the NSW Crimes Act before a shiny object distracted me, but I'm fairly sure that possession is OK. If you pirate a Refused Classification game, you'll only be guilty of the piracy - though if you P2P-upload the game to anyone else, you might be guilty of distribution of an indecent article, per section 578C of the Act. And if you buy such a game legally overseas and then smuggle it into Australia (which may cover downloading it from a legal online game shop), it may be a crime to import it, but it's not a crime just to own it. (Similarly, Australians can legally own a copy of a Refused Classification film.)

There are specific targeted laws that make it illegal to possess child pornography, and every now and then some bright spark tries to broaden those laws to cover all Refused Classification material. But thus far, thank goodness, nobody's managed it.

Piracy or sneaky illegal importation is the only option if a German wants to play a game that doesn't have a blood-free edition or an Australian wants to play a Refused Classification game. But the rapid progress of game realism now seems to be causing the German censors, at least. to mellow out about the blood in old games, which now look only slightly more realistic than the original Castle Wolfenstein or Karateka. Just the other day, 18-year-old Doom and 17-year-old Doom II finally became legal in Germany, with a "16+" rating.

In mid-2011, following a suitably po-faced couple of years of research and analysis, almost all of Australia's State Attorneys-General agreed in principle to introduce an R18+ rating for games. The Federal Government said they'd overrule the one A-G who didn't agree, so it should all happen "soon". In the legislative sense. Which could mean "in another couple of years", or however long it turns out to take to amend the "Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995". Hopes that we'd manage to get it done in 2011 have recently been dashed; it could actually easily take until 2013.

Or longer, if Greg Smith, our beloved Attorney General here in New South Wales - he's the one not included in the abovementioned "almost all of Australia's State Attorneys-General" - has anything to say about it. He doesn't want a new R18+ rating to "dilute" the idea of refusing classification for games with "extreme gratuitous violence or gratuitous sexual violence" in them, which I presume is as tightly defined, and frequently encountered, as the "deviant violence" which didn't greatly impress the US Supreme Court.

Somewhat unoriginally, Greg continues to...

...complain, because in Grand Theft Auto you can kill the hooker you just had sex with.

(It'd be great if these guys could come up with a gaming factoid other than that, the Hot Coffee mod and nonexistent school-shooting games to worry about, but I wouldn't hold my breath for it to happen if I were you.)

Oh, and in that same awesome news piece, the head of the Australian Christian Lobby says Anders Breivik, the 2011 Norway terrorist, had called a computer game a great simulator for terrorist training.

Which he did. Sort of. You can get Breivik's Probably-Authentic Interminable Spree-Killer Manifesto in PDF format here. (it's shorter than the Bible, but not by much - it's more than twenty times the length of the Unabomber's!)

The document is primarily complaints, from Breivik and other authors whose work he's pasted in, about Muslims and Marxists, and plans for a crusade against them. Breivik dedicates, oh, maybe at a generous estimate one thousandth, of the manifesto to his video gaming, most of which was in World of Warcraft. (Which he played as a girl, so surely latent transexuality was to blame for his crimes!)

Breivik also, by the way, recommends WoW as a way to explain why you seem to have dropped out of society while you're secretly preparing to be a Christian terrorist. Right after that, he suggests that you could also pretend to come out as gay, allowing you to conceal your terrorism-training time as... well, as time spent in a bath-house or making Pride Parade costumes, or something, I suppose.

And then Breivik says that Modern Warfare 2 is "probably the best military simulator out there", and "you can more or less completely simulate actual operations", and use MW2 to help your squad of Christian terrorists learn to work together.

Not actually, you know, learn to shoot straight, because that's ridiculous. "The best training" Anders Breivik got for shooting people was, I humbly submit, possibly the time he spent actually practising shooting with his actual guns.

(Essays are invited at this juncture on how many mass shootings have been prevented by Walmart's decision to sell shotguns, but not records with naughty lyrics.)

If you want to be really picky, Breivik didn't actually have a squad of Christian terrorists with whom to find out if a game was actually any use for training. His manifesto is full of grandiose plans for the coming Christian world war against the Marxists and Muslims; I'm sure you'll agree that the nonexistence of any such war in no way reduces the culpability of video games in Breivik's violence, any more than the non-arrival of a race war in the USA in the Seventies reduces the culpability of the Beatles in the Manson murders. It's in Revelations, people!

Ahem. Getting back to the MW2-trained terrorists, to date precisely no such squads have made the leap from clicking mice to shooting people, unless you count active-duty soldiers who play shooter games in their off time.

And anyway, if you wanted to simulate actual military operations, you'd play bloody ARMA 2 or something, wouldn't you? Not a game in which people come back to life shortly after being killed, soldiers can only call in an air strike after killing lots of enemies themselves, and of course where everyone has the ability to shrug off multiple bullet wounds if they just hide for twenty seconds.

But I'm sure you realise this is all a very minor argument against the extremely plausible view that video games must very clearly cause violence, and damage childrens' brains, and, you know, stuff. Until something newer that can fill the same political role comes along, of course, whereupon games will be off the hook, just like rock music, movies, Dungeons & Dragons, comic books, jazz music, evil drugs, imaginary evil drugs, imaginary witches, imaginary underage orgies, numerous imaginary monsters, madmen and magicians, and so on. (Every now and then one of the old ones, like books, gets trotted out for another round of panic.) We'll even get past the imaginary evil Muslims at some point.

Um. Where was I?

Stupid Censorship Stories are a dime a dozen. The funny thing about the Australian Classification Board is, really, how few games they've blocked. Wikipedia's got a neat-o list, but once you filter out the games that were passed unchanged after an appeal and the games that were modified into acceptability by, say, changing "morphine" into "Med-X", or changing the reward for winning a car race from a joint and a blowjob to enough money to purchase both of those items on the open market, there aren't many banned games left.

Any normal panel of blue-nosed wowsers could be confidently expected to completely lose their minds over the abovementioned Saints Row 2, but what the ACB actually did was realise that SR2 may be relentlessly violent and profane, but it and I'm happy to say its sequel are also completely silly. Even the occasional strangely affecting cutscenes are usually goofed up because the player character's a morbidly obese Cockney voiced by Mr Sheffield and clad only in a gladiator helmet and hot-pink mankini. SR2 was about as likely to corrupt our youth as Ren & Stimpy, so the ACB rightly let it pass.

(The OFLC rated Ren & Stimpy between PG and M depending on the episode, by the way.)

Of fourteen PC and console games that never made it past the ACB, I count only four that were really worth playing. There's Risen, and the 2011 version of Mortal Kombat, and the infamous Manhunt back in 2003, and Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude. The inclusion of which on my "worth playing" list should tell you something about the ten that didn't make the cut.

(One of them was Voyeur, which was not only awful but was also banned by the OFLC so long ago that people not yet born when it was released are now in university. Oh, and Manhunt 2 deserves a mention too, not because it was particularly good, but because I think it was never submitted for classification at all. Presumably Rockstar just couldn't be bothered going through all that nonsense for a market only as big as New York State. Some Australian online game stores still list Manhunt 2, four years since its initial release, as an import. The government does not seem to care about the terrifying availability of this filthy foreign software. Interestingly, the PC version of Manhunt 2 now seems to be unbuyable anywhere.)

This censorship business is still a big old waste of time, of course. Law-and-order politicians keep pretending that anybody opposed to censorship must be a fan of child pornography, but it is extremely difficult to marshal empirical evidence that even art specifically designed to be as filthy and disquieting as possible, like John Waters' Pink Flamingos for instance, does viewers, let alone society at large, any real harm.

Given the above, it occurred to me that what we Australians need to do is gently steer our censors and their governmental pals away from banning good games like Risen, just because you can kill someone and get a "weed reefer" as loot. Rather, we should encourage them to ban shit games, just as they banned Singles: Flirt Up Your Life, and the Reservoir Dogs game (also known as "There was a Reservoir Dogs game?!), which was as bad as the movie was good.

No Australian child should have to bite back sobs when their grandma gives them Elf Bowling instead of Professor Layton. No Australian teenager should ever have spent hard-earned money on Daikatana or Duke Nukem Forever. And, furthermore, nobody should buy a game just because it's attracted massive negative media hype and they want to see the blood and guts, and then find themselves playing Postal.

(Postal 2 was also Refused Classification in Australia, but it's actually quite fun. Yours with both expansion packs for $US9.99 from those crazy kids at Good Old Games! Unless it's illegal to download it where you live, in which case I never said this!)

There should also be stiff legal penalties for people who release awful PC ports of brilliant console games like Scarface: The World Is Yours.

This'd all put a bit of a kink in Yahtzee Croshaw's business, of course.

But sacrifices must be made, for the greater good.

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