Follow the whole debacle down the rabbit hole
by Rocco Rinaldo
©2013 Rocco Rinaldo
(Ed: Welcome our newest contributor Rocco Rinaldo, who joins as our opinionated writer. First up, he looks at Australia’s newly implemented R18+ classification and the news surrounding Saints Row IV over the last few months building up to its release)
When the Australian Classification Board (ACB) refused to classify Saints Row IV, debate surrounding censorship, appropriateness and the false hope of the R18+ classification in Australia sparked up again.
Here are my 2 cents.
If you thought the R18+ classification would automatically let you play any game created no matter how obscene or graphic, you were wrong and you should feel bad.
Deep Silver screwed up by choosing cheap laughs over a considered approach to mature content, underestimating the importance of incorporating adult material in a relevant and context specific way.
Their out of place alien drugs and anal probes only serve to illustrate that the R18+ classification is not designed to censor out everything, but rather to filter out explicit content that just doesn’t make sense. In conjunction with this – and perhaps more worrying – is that Deep Silver has locked Australia out from playing online with the rest of the world.
This is a travesty that sets an unsettling precedent in gaming.
This is the reason people should be angry – not because they can’t shoot smack and probe NPCs. The saga that has surrounded the release of Saint Row IV in Australia is reminiscent of the controversy that surrounded the release of Fallout 3 back in 2008. Back then there was no R18+ classification and Bethesda had to edit the game to remove an animation portraying intravenous drug use.
Saints Row IV finds itself tracing the same territory but in the era of an R18+ classification, so why then was it refused classification at first submission? Simply put, because it featured content that fell outside of the acceptable limits of the new R18+ classification.
This is the problem with the response to this controversy, gamers forgot one thing – an R18+ classification isn’t a blank cheque for as much violence and sex as you can cram into a game.
It’s a rating standard and there are rules like every other rating standard.
Things can and still will be banned and Saints Row IV is just the first title to experience this. Where Saints Row IV failed was by presenting drug use and sexual violence in the game without context, and it’s context that more often than not makes the difference between being allowed or being banned.
Because let’s face it, Saints Row IV isn’t the first game to feature sexual references or drug use and the ratings board isn’t some tyrannical organisation hell bent on pushing some conservative agenda or obsessed with treating adults like children.
It is a government body trying to administer a gigantic task in a consistent way and the best tool it has to do this is by moderating adult content in a manner that examines whether the content is out of place in the game.
It is about motivation and internal consistency, the question of whether it makes sense to have a gangster forcibly probe another person in the same way that it makes sense that an outlaw would steal a car(but more on this later).
To explain why Saints Row IV was banned I think a little history is in order.
In its original form, Saints Row IV was refused classification by the ACB because of its portrayal of illicit drug use for reward and “visual depictions of implied sexual violence which are not justified by context”. These elements of the game fall outside of the new Australian Guidelines for Classification of Computer Games.
Outrage followed and Deep Silver submitted an edited version of the game that passed with an MA 15+ rating similar to Saints Row The Third. That’s enough history, so back to why Saints Row IV got it wrong. Sex has never been a problem for the gaming industry.
Take for example God of War, each game has featured either an interactive sex mini-game or a sexually provocative cut scene. Sexual violence on the other hand is problematic for films and games alike. If we look at another R18+ game, Metro Last Light, the classification sticker says two words: “sexual violence”.
There is no mention of the horror themes or extreme violence, only an explicit reference to one scene where an NPC is almost raped.
The player is not involved in the sexual violence, more a witness and intervener to the situation. Compare this to the uncut version of Saints Row IV where the player can actively force an NPC onto the end of a sex toy (by ramming it into them) and then launch them from the sex toy.
This looks a lot like aggravated sexual assault, and in my opinion it’s not at all surprising that the classification guidelines wouldn’t allow this in games, especially when devoid of any context. Now, the biggest arguments raised against these guidelines are that “it’s all a joke, people shouldn’t take it so seriously and we’re all adults, we can make up our own minds about context and what’s right and wrong.” These are stupid arguments for the following reasons.
One, what’s considered a joke for some can be highly offensive to others. That’s not to say there’s no place for humour or innuendo in games, but the thing that makes these things great is the context inherent in the game and not forcibly applied by the player.
Secondly, we aren’t all adults.
R18+ classification or not kids will still manage to get their hands on this game. This isn’t a think-of-the-children argument, it’s an acknowledgement of the role the classification board plays in Australia. The ACB is responsible for deciding what is and isn’t appropriate.
They are aware of the implications of allowing sex and drugs into media and more often then not they are happy to do it. But they are also aware of the risks of allowing content into a game that presents ambiguity, so they look to context as the guiding principle when making a judgement call.
Where a game fails to make a good case for appropriate context it gets banned because the cons of allowing that into the game outweigh the pros. To this many people will ask, what about violence? And to them I reply, violence has a context, it fits within the schema of the game, and it fits with the motivations of the character.
Where does aggravated sexual assault fit in with the motivations of the leader of the Third Street Saints? Why does the fearless leader and in Saints Row IV leader of the free world get the motivation or contextual cue to go around violating people’s anuses?
Let’s take it back to Metro or even Tomb Raider, both feature scenes involving a high suggestion of sexual violence but both do so in a context that fits with the game and does not advocate or encourage the practice.
By choosing to allow players to violate NPCs in a sexual way for no other reason than cheap laughs, Deep Silver have not only made a lazy design choice but failed to understand something fundamental about humour and game play – it’s all about the context.
Drug use is also an issue in Saints Row IV, being cited as the other major reason for the refusal of classification. Drugs are not new to video games and many games these days feature some sort of drug or alcohol use. Again, where Saints Row IV fell down was the use of drugs for pure gain.
The guidelines don’t appreciate this.
In fact, they specifically state that drugs may be used in game but not for reward or incentive. This again goes to the issue of context in video games, without some sort of indication that drugs are bad they will never be accepted in the media by classification boards.
What people have to remember is that these boards are government bodies and the last thing they want to do is encourage criminal behavior that people can get away with. Drugs fall into this strange category of being illegal and subject to criminal sanctions but they are still something that many people engage in and are often never penalized for.
Thus drugs are subjected to a stricter criterion for inclusion in games than violence. Violence is allowed in almost all forms because violence by its nature always illustrates some sort of cause and effect. You commit violence on others to progress and as a result they commit violence towards you and you suffer.
This is the case with violence portrayed in both realistic and fantastical ways. Drugs on the other hand have more scope for a subjective presentation and they can plausibly be portrayed as something that is purely beneficial. The government doesn’t like this, it goes against policy, but the guidelines still allow for drug use within video games.
Saints Row IV screwed up by making drugs look great. There’s no addiction, no coming down, no selling your soul for a hit ala Requiem for a Dream. There is no reality. Without this, something as controversial as drug use will never be allowed into interactive media. Therefore, for people to call the government out as treating us as children for not allowing us to shoot alien heroin in video games that have an R18+ classification is ludicrous and only serves to illustrate the lack of comprehension that these people have about the issue.
The truly funny thing about this situation is that the ESRB synopsis for GTA V contains a shopping list of drug use (cocaine and cannabis), sexual reference, a reference to necrophilia, exposed male genitalia, strip clubs, prostitutes, a torture scene, the F bomb, C bomb, racial slurs and it still managed to gain an R18+ classification in Australia in its original form.
So it’s obviously not a question of the degree of profanity but the way in which it is included in the game.
Clearly, so long as there is context you can get away with an awful lot. Deep Silver didn’t leave Australian fans of Saints Row completely in the lurch. In response to the refusal of classification they filed an appeal and once this failed they resubmitted a modified version of the game to the board with the offending content removed.
This version has passed and has been given an MA15+ classification although its release date has been pushed from the 23rd of August to the 12th of September. However, since the game has been modified people with an Australian copy can only play against others with the same modified version of the game. In other words, Australia is now shut off from the rest of the world.
We won’t even be able to play with people in New Zealand.
Deep Silver might also attempt another gambit to reintroduce the banned content to Australia versions of the game through DLC. This could circumnavigate the ACB, as currently DLC is not screened in the same way that games are. If the publisher is successful the banned mission and weapon might appear in the game.
However, with this game’s high profile it’s now possible that the ACB will seek to review future DLC to prevent this.
If you ask me, attempting to do this just proves that the publisher hasn’t learned its lesson and to attempt to reintroduce the content via a loophole would only incense the ACB and possibly lead to a crack down on all DLC.
Ratings issues aside, I think blocking the game from interacting with other versions is a bad move especially in light of what GTA V is attempting to do with multiplayer. Granted Saints Row IV isn’t as ambitious with its multiplayer as GTA V, it does set a worrying precedent.
A large part of online play is the collaboration between people from different parts of the world, especially when user generated content is a real possibility. I am not the sort of gamer who’s going to sit around spending hours making levels and skins and racetracks, but there are people all over the world that will and I want the option to be able to experience their creations.
This is the reason why people should feel cheated about Saints Row IV.
The rating is something that shouldn’t shock people – the R18+ wasn’t going to let everything pass into Australia, that wasn’t its intention. But it probably also wasn’t the intention of the ACB to encourage Australia’s isolation from the rest of the gaming world. This was a choice by the creators of this game. They are the ones that have locked Australia away like some sort of naughty child disallowed from playing with the rest of their friends.
It raises a few questions for me.
Firstly why didn’t they just lock the content out of online play all over the world, the weapon was special DLC to begin with and it is not unusual for games to remove certain weapons from online play.
The optional loyalty mission could have been replaced by something specific to multiplayer or just simply removed from multiplayer. Deep Silver seems to have had options but they chose to cut Australia because it was easier.
Gamers should be angry with Saints Row IV.
The classification is one thing, but it’s not like you can’t go elsewhere for adult content in games. As someone who really enjoyed Saints Row The Third, I’m sure that there’ll be no shortage of adult humour and extreme sexual references in this latest installment, but to be blocked from playing with friends overseas is outrageous.
This leads me to my final thought on the matter, what will other companies do if faced with the same issue in the future? Can you imagine a Call of Duty or Battlefield installment locked down to one country? What if the next StarCraft Expansion is refused classification? Can you imagine the implications if Australians couldn’t play and compete on the world stage?
I hope this trend doesn’t continue; I hope that publishers keep making adult games but with an understanding of the importance of context and how it will be the reason why their game will rise or fall at the Ratings Board and I hope that publishers don’t lock us under the stairs if their game has to be modified.