Finish It! – Mortal Kombat and the missing R18+

The banning of Mortal Kombat in Australia this week is pushing all the right buttons. By ‘refusing classification’ for Mortal Kombat 8, the Classification Board has reignited an already well flambeyed interest in the missing R18+ rating for video games.

Australia’s National Classification System (NCS) is without an R18+ classification for video games, making us as the only Western democracy without an 18+ rating for game content (Brand et al, 2009). Unlike film and television, material that is considered by the Classification Board to be unsuitable for those under the age of 15 cannot be given a rating and is effectively ‘banned’ – it is not illegal to own, but the game is not permitted to be sold or distributed in Australia.

The current classification system forces games publishers to self-censor games that have been ‘refused classification’ (I’m actually quite taken with the deliciously Orwellian and recursive paradox of a classification that refuses classification). The result is that while games like Left4Dead2 and Fallout are subjected to arbitrary changes, games like the Grand Theft Auto series, which are rated for players over the age of 17 or 18 in the US and Europe, are released as MA15+ in Australia. Some elements of the game may be censored but others are not; you might not be able to beat up prostitutes in the Australian version of Grand Theft Auto, but you can still commit vehicular manslaughter on a genocidal level if you want to.

The current situation is a result of the moral panic in the early 1990s over games with violent graphics and sexual themes. Following a Senate inquiry, the Commonwealth, State and Territory ‘Censorship’ Ministers implemented a computer games classification scheme without an R18+ category. Games were considered to be a juvenile medium, sophisticated and technical toys meant for children. Very little research had been conducted on the issue at the time, and there was a good deal of confusion over the “community standards in regard to computer games and their potential impact” (Durkin and Aisbett, 1999). In 2006 the Office of Film and Literature Classification was replaced in its administrative capacity by the Attorney-General’s Department which now oversees the Classification Board and the Classification Review Board – to whom the appeals over classifications are considered.

Mortal Kombat was first published in 1992 and available in Australia in 1993 on the Super Nes and the Sega Megadrive – the vivid 16bit (and later 32bit versions) graphics and hyperviolent ‘finishing moves’ were the center of attention in the United States and Australia. The controversy over Mortal Kombat, and other games, lead directly to the formation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) in the US, a self-regulating system with not only the Adult (18+) category, but a Mature (17+) rating as well as Teen (13-16) and Everyone (10+) classifications. The rise of consoles like the Super NES meant that Mortal Kombat and other gamers were emerging from the arcades and entering the living rooms of many families for the first time. The sophistication of the graphics of these systems, for their time, contributed to media fuelled fears and moral panics about the potential for negative effects of playing games. The uproar this week is evidence of the continued “distrust” of new media (Brand and Finn, 2009) and until a new entertainment media technology – something like holograms or Matrix style direct neural interfaces – video games are going to persist in the tradition of paper back novels, comic books, movies and television, that is the technology attracting the most misunderstanding and fear of the day. After all we are still have the video games are not art debate.

Before an R18+ classification can be introduced, the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General must arrive at a consensus on the issue, but the AG’s have been dragging their heels on the matter since 2006 (probably too busy playing Mafia Wars and Farmville on their Facebook profiles). Both the research and the public consultation on the issue show overwhelming support for the inclusion of an R18+. We know that the average Australian gamer is over 30 and almost as likely to be female as male (Brand (2009) indicates that 43% of gamers are now female) and more than 88% percent of Australian households have a device for playing games (Brand et al 2008).

The Attorney-General’s Department published a discussion papers on the NCS and called for public submissions on the issue in 2009. When submissions closed in February 2010 the department received more that 59,000 responses, but opponents to the R18 in and outside of the government cried foul as many of these submissions were collected from the retailer EB Games and the ‘Grow Up Australia’ organisation. More than 98% percent of the submissions supported the introduction of an R18+ classification, but it’s not an electorally significant issue (it just pisses gamers off) so the results was sidelined .

What counts as ‘realistic’ violence is also highly contested. The Classification Board typically refers to the ‘impact’ that games may have, yet these rulings are not based on evidence or on playing the games (as far as I am aware the games are demonstrated for the Board) but on a perception of ‘community standards’. From the Classification Board’s report on MK:

“Despite the exaggerated conceptual nature of the fatalities and their context within a fighting game set in a fantasy realm, impact is heightened by the use of graphics which are realistically rendered and very detailed. In the opinion of the Board, the game contains violence that exceeds strong in impact and is unsuitable for a minor to see or play.”

Let’s explore that confusing statement a little. What is “realistic rendering” if not detail (assuming the statement isn’t tautological). If “realistic” is a reference to the blood and gore produced by the finishing move, then why add “very detailed”? It’s doubtful that realism in this instance refers to the representation of activity in the game as it adheres to the laws of gravity, physics and biology – the game’s mechanics – because there is very little ‘reality’ in the Mortal Kombat; the humans leap, kick, shoot energy waves from their body in highly stylistic and ‘unrealistic’ ways well beyond what any human could achieve. Most of the actions in the game are not at all physically possible, including the dismemberment, disembowelment and decapitation (the three D’s of Mortal Kombat’s gameplay) objected to in the classification report – and the adults the game is intended for can distinguish this.

I’m also going to assume that even those aged between 10 and 15 would be able to make this judgement. As a parent I certainly wouldn’t want my children to be playing games like MK (again it is made for adults) but I’d have more issues if they attempted to play games like Grand Theft Auto, which are rated MA15+. I do, however, remember playing my first games as a minor – games like Wolfenstein 3D and the notorious Leisure Suit Larry series – and how much I enjoyed them (and the extensive time I put into playing them with my friends) so this is a tough call to make.

More worryingly embedded in the statement by the Review Board is the suggestion that by participating in the act of gameplay that a ‘real’ effect is occurring on, or to the player. This would include desensitising the player to ‘actual’ violence, or making them more likely to commit acts of violence and be aggressive outside of the game? Is the reference to “realistic rendering” a suggestion that the representation and viewing of the fantasy violence is as ‘real’ for a young audience as ‘watching an actual violent assault on a physical person? If the realism, referred to, is not the preparation or readying for a ‘real’ act (via its affect) then it’s ‘impact’ is interpreted be a occurring as an effect on the player’s brain, meaning the rendering of the act is as ‘real’, or as ‘actual’ as a physical violent assault.

A substantial literature review on the impact of playing violent video games on aggression was published by the Attorney-Genera’s Department in September 2010, which summarises research into the effects of violent games on aggression as being contested and inconclusive. The report concluded that while some evidence showed some short-term effects on levels of aggression, games with cartoonish violence had just as much an effect of video games with ‘realistic’ violence and there was little evidence on any effect in the long term (Attorney-General’s Department, 2010).

If there is no consensus on the ‘effects’ of playing video games, the Classification Board’s findings is an interpretation of the history of classification and the application of ‘community standards’ that as already mentioned is based on fear, paranoia and confusion. This interpretation leaves very little room for the review board and the majority of games released should be ‘refused classification’. If games like Bulletstorm, where the rendering of blood spatter, gore, ballistics (also not realistic) of the effects is vivid, colourful, and highly detailed, are permitted a rating then so should Mortal Kombat.

Two possibilities remain, either the banning of the MK indicates the board are not doing there job properly – (Bulletstorm got Fox news all hot and bothered) or, and this my cynical optimism showing through, MK is a historically significant game and perhaps the Classification Board is using MK to send a message to the Attorney Generals to get their act into gear and find the missing R18+ classification down the back of the couch so that everyone can back on with doing their jobs properly and Australian gamers can get back to enjoy the entertainment designed for them.

Earlier this week The Escapist’s video series Extra Credit called out Electronic Arts (EA) marketing campaigns for orchestrating duplicitious and immature market strategies for violent games, like the fake Dante’s Inferno protests and the Your-Mum-Won’t-Llike-It approach to Dead Space 2, effectively marketing games meant for adults to minors. Ultimately the banning of MK is good news for the game’s publisher in Australia, Warner Brothers; the games publishers are likely to succeed on appeal and they benefit from the increased publicity for the game. I’m very interested to read the Classification Review Board’s decision one the appeal.

If the ban is uphel the result is going to make the game highly a downloaded commodity (by adults and minors alike) and imported by the very adult market the game is intended for. Rather than spend our times kicking this issue about every time the Classification Board flexes its censorious clout, we should be paying far more attention to a helping parents figure out what games are suitable to play with a internationally standardised content rating system and working on developing public information about healthy approaches to playing games. The issue should no longer be content, but context.

Durkin, Kevin and Aisbett, Kate, 1999. Computer Games and Australian Today, Officel of Film and Literature Classification, Sydney.

Brand, Jeffrey, Borchard, Jill, and Holmes, Kym, 2008. Interactive Austrlia 2009, Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia, available:
http://www.igea.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/IA9-Interactive-Australia-2009-Full-Report.pdf accessed March 3, 2011.

Brand, Jeffrey, Borchard, Jill, and Holmes, Kym, 2009. Case Study: Australia’s Compter Games Audiences and Restrive Ratings Syste,m, Communications & Strategies, no. 73., p. 67.

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