On the same day it considers banning facebook for children, the Australian Federal Government has agreed a deal to implement an “R18+” category for computer games. This category brings computer games into line with videos, and has long been sought by the game industry – the alternative method used by the censorship board in Australia has been to refuse very violent games a rating (as happened with, I think, Grand Theft Auto) or to get the company to reduce their content to M15+ level. The game industry has long seen this as a commercial problem, since it introduces considerable uncertainty into Australian business models.

Australia doesn’t have a censorship policy that’s particularly friendly to “creative” industries, in my opinion – the government can be quite ferocious in its censorship if it sees community concern (or a chance at votes) connected to an issue, and particularly where children are involved the censorship rules can be ridiculous. The most famous example of this is the Bill Henson furore. The sometimes political nature of government actions can be seen in the way this deal is reported: the federal government has stitched up a deal with all the states except New South Wales (NSW), which has a long-standing fringe-right religious party and movement that has strong views on censorship, and which the (quite new) Liberal party[1] probably wants to court support from. Also, the NSW state Liberal party has a bit of a history of extreme-right christian shenanigans, and probably doesn’t want to upset that particular apple cart. In any case, the deal is going ahead without the agreement of the country’s most populous[3] state, which may lead to the ludicrous situation in which R18+ games can be bought in any part of Australia except … Sydney! Brilliant.

Still, it’s an advance on the current situation, where game companies have to second guess the whims of the censorship board because there is no category beyond M15+ that they can put their games into. This isn’t to say they won’t still be denied a rating (this has happened to a few movies in history, and famously a pair of movie critics were almost gaoled for playing one of those movies, I seem to recall). But It’s a lot easier to release a game in Australia that was designed for an overseas market if you have an R18+ category than if you don’t. Hopefully this will lead to more diversity of computer games – and more violence!

Incidentally, I should add that I’m not opposed at all to this type of censorship system, though I don’t like the part where some movies are refused a rating – there should be a new category of “Don’t watch this” for such movies, and people view them at own risk. But censorship-as-labeling seems a fundamentally sensible idea and, Metal Militias’ historical rage against Tipper-stickers aside, I think it helps rather than harms the ability of the community to judge what it wants to watch and indeed, gives some ability to identify what our own standards are. There is, of course, a bigger debate on free speech between Australians (or antipodeans generally) and Brits on the one side (who generally seem to see all “freedoms” as contingent to some extent) and Americans on the other (who seem to have elevated “freedom” to the level of a false Idol). I of course find the antipodean approach best, but I think that sometimes Australian governments of all political stripes can be too conservative and restrictive when it comes to free speech, and could do with a few drops of American medicine. So this is a good step forward, in my view.

fn1: As Australians never tire of observing, our “conservative” party is called the “Liberal Party,” because we’re in the Southern Hemisphere and we’re backwards[2]

fn2: Which isn’t to say there isn’t some value to this nomenclature; a great many US “liberals” would probably be considered too conservative for the Australian Liberal Party.

fn3: And possibly most politically corrupt, to boot[4]

fn4: Though I’ve never lived in Queensland, so I could be wrong about this.