Smooth the lines on the face of an old enemy… A sane case against R18+

As promised…

First, I’m mid-twenties, an atheist, and a fairly avid gamer.  Apart from being conservative (and I sincerely apologise for basically everything the conservatives have said and done since Reagan; we haven’t had a good 20 years due to libertarianism and the Christian Right), I fit the same demographic as most of the people advocating for R18+ video games classification.

Instead of bringing the argument for censorship down to ‘Think of the Children!’ or tenuous appeals to dodgy science, I think the case for censorship can be adequately justified by asking whether Australian society has a legitimate interest in protecting itself from extremely violent games.

Some theory is needed to get there.  Basically all of government action (or passive action, in the case of R18+ classification) comes down to balancing the rights of the individual against the interests of society.  Only libertarians and anarchists disagree with this, but they’re hardly the most rational groups of people.

Richard Dagger writes extremely eloquently about this balancing act.

The challenge is to bring the claims of the individual and community into balance.  To meet this challenge is to find and support forms of community that promote not simply individuality, but the kind of public-spirited individuality that recognizes how much it owes to others and strives to discharge this debt.  [Source: Richard Dagger, ‘Individualism and the Claims of Community’, in Contemporary Debates in Political Philosophy ed. Christiano and Christman]

This balancing act is made more difficult by popular notions of entitlement.  Censorship, for example, is invariably seen as, prima facie, a violation of individual rights (usually right to free speech).  This notion of entitlement ignores that we necessary have limitations on individual rights.

Those who support the slippery slope argument warn that the consequence of limiting speech is the inevitable slide into censorship and tyranny. Such arguments assume that we can be on or off the slope. In fact, no such choice exists: we are necessarily on the slope whether we like it or not, and the task is always to decide how far up or down we choose to go, not whether we should step off the slope altogether. [Source: ‘Freedom of Speech‘, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

The question at play here is whether society has an interest in protecting itself against simulations of extreme violence (especially simulations of extreme violence against women).  With a video game, you’re not merely an audience to the simulation of violence; the gamer is an active participant.  It becomes easier to justify censorship when its noted that this simulation is for enjoyment.  Of course society has an interest in discouraging violence.  Making the same violence that we’re trying to discourage into the subject matter of entertainment is not consistent with that interest.  It’s not a case of whether or not the simulations encourage people to act out in real life; it’s that, as a society, we do not condone gratuitous violence and do not think that it is appropriate to simulate.

That’s legitimate and rational.  It doesn’t require any appeal to religious authority and doesn’t require moral panic.  It’s derived from and, as such, is consistent with other values we have as a society.  It is therefore up to the advocates to show why an exception to our values should be made to permit retailers to sell these games.

‘But!’ you might cry, ‘The games are already available due to the internet or due to the inconsistent way the classifications are used at the moment!’

Neither of these are reasons to allow retailers to sell them.  The difficulties posed by the Internet relating to extremely problematic material is a much broader issue.  ‘I can launder money really easily over the internet; therefore, money laundry should be legalised’ isn’t a rational argument.

The inconsistencies in the way classifications are applied is similarly not a reason in favour of the new classification.  As part of the review, I hope the application process will be analysed to make it more consistent.  That some games are getting weird classifications is not, in itself, a reason to introduce a new classification.

The best argument in favour of R18+ classification has been the analogy to films: ‘We have lots of films which are R18+; why can’t we have R18+ games?’

I think it comes back to the role the consumer plays.  When you’re watching a film, you are not an active participant of the violence being represented.  In other words, the representation in the film is not really a simulation of inflicting violence.

Where I think R18+ advocates might have a better case is the simulation of sex in games.  There are certain forms of sexuality which, in films, causes an R18+ rating but, due to the lack of classification, gets released as an MA15+ game.  This, I think, has more to do with our almost toxic cultural narrative about sex and less to do with video game classification.  It’s one place where I think my fellow conservatives are 100% incorrect: we have a society which considers the expression of intimacy more taboo than violence.  Children’s movies can now have characters touch each other in anger but not in affection.  Go Team Conservative.

Tonight, make it magnificent… R18+ video games debate might be impoverished on both sides

In response to my last post, Penmonicus pointed me in the direction of this post by Mark Serrels on Kotaku.  I’d previously argued that Serrels doesn’t provide a reason in favour of the games, only a complaint that it’s somehow unfair that the games aren’t available for sale.  In the article linked by Penmonicus, Serrels again doesn’t make an argument in favour of the games, but makes a much more worrying claim:

When someone, in the face of overwhelming evidence, refuses to adjust his or her opinions, you have to ask yourself – is this really a discussion? Or is it something else entirely – something far more insidious. A discussion involves both sides listening to one another, and responding in kind. From what I’ve seen, those on the other side of this ‘discussion’ have done a whole lot of talking, but they clearly haven’t been listening to a word we’ve been saying. How could they be?  [Source: Mark Serrels, ‘R18+: Rationality is Dead’]

I agree with him entirely, but he’s not talking about the R18+ advocates: he’s talking about the ‘pro-censorship’ side.  He’s talking about my side.

Hunting around the more prominent advocates of the status quo, I find it difficult to disagree with him.  Looking through the various arguments for introducing the new classification, his comments also seem to hold true (one forum I found even claimed I was part of the Christian lobby.  Just so we’re all clear: I’m an atheist.  Atheists sometimes disagree with each other.  It happens).

From the looks of it, it appears that we’ve got two sides of a debate where neither of the participants are saying anything intellectually interesting.

For the record, I think most of the arguments put up by the pro-censorship crowd are rubbish.  ShootStraight, for example, takes out most of the low-hanging fruit here.  Take out most of the pundits pleading with us to think of the children, to look at all this evidence they’ve cherry-picked about violent video games turning children into psychopaths, &c., &c., and the pro-censorship side hasn’t said very much.  To be fair, I haven’t put up much of a positive case for censorship either.

At the same time, if you ignore the ‘How dare anybody tell me I can’t do something?!  HULK SMASH!’ posts from the pro-R18+ side, you’ve effectively ignored 99.99% of their arguments.  The 0.01% remaining is confusing guff.

For example, in the above-linked post by Serrels, he says:

There are claims that “vested commercial interests” are attempting to force an R18+ rating through with “propaganda”. There is next to no commercial gain here – Australia is a tiny market, and a miniscule amount of games are refused classification. In the grand scheme of things video game publishers couldn’t really care less whether an R18+ rating is passed or not – in fact, before the matter was raised again last December, publishers had informally agreed to stop pushing for one. Why? Because it doesn’t affect their business in any significant way.  [Ibid.]

Because, of course, publishers are the only ones with a commercial interest.  On The Drum, Greg Barnes pleads with us not to ‘potentially limit [the] economic potential [of R18+ games] if [they] cannot be classified in a particular jurisdiction‘.

There’s nothing rational about the R18+ advocates’ case.  If ShootStraight believes my argument reduces to merely ‘I feel’ statements (and I agree but don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing), then R18+ advocates’ arguments reduce to an unsubstantiated ‘I have a right to access everything’.  As Sherrel says: ‘This is not a discussion, this is not a debate – if it was it would have ended years ago, rationally.’

[Note: As I said to Penmonicus, I’ll compose a positive argument in favour of censorship and post it here tomorrow.]

I did not take to analysis so I had to make up my mind… R18+ video games still fail to be justified

There’s quite a good post on ABC’s The Drum about the impact of violent video games on the behaviour of young people. Lo and behold, there isn’t much evidence supporting the ‘but think of the children’ argument. Colour me shocked.

At the same time, advocates of R18+ video game classifications are still refusing to provide any argument in their favour.  Greg Barnes (the same guy who still can’t come up with a model for an Australian Republic) has this to say about the issue.

[N]o censorship regime can hope to ban video games and therefore to refuse to sign off on a national scheme that provides certainty for the video game industry, suppliers and users is simply a case of putting religious fervour before reality. [Source: Greg Barnes, ‘Video game opposition pointless’, The Drum]

I was a bit startled to read that.  As an atheist, I’m fairly sure I don’t have any religious reasons why I think R18+ video games are a bad idea.

Despite this, Barnes drops the word ‘Christian’ as often as he grammatically can to show why R18+ games should be sold in Australia.  Australia should sell the games because Christians are naive.  Riiiiiight.

Every teenager knows how to access violent games. That’s the beauty if you are a libertarian or the curse if you are a prohibitionist, of the Internet. Anything can be downloaded. Not only that, but there is plenty of opportunity to smuggle into the country pirated copies or even burnt copies of violent video games. In other words, the porous borders of the world of technology will find their way with concomitant ease around fulminating censors like Mr Clark and his fellow lobbyists.  [Ibid.]

Because ‘You can already get it on the internet’ is justification for so many things, like weapons manuals and recipes for explosives.  Personally, I think it’s a great thing that I don’t have a local 4Chan vendor in the main street of town.  Just because somebody can download this rubbish doesn’t mean somebody ought to be permitted to sell it.

But this is my favourite part:

Justice Minister Brendan O’Connor wants to use the July meeting of the nation’s Attorneys-General to agree to a proposal which will see an 18+ rating for video games. It is a proposal that has been around for almost a decade. Currently the highest rating is MA 15+.

This means that makers of games edit material to ensure it comes within that rating, even though it might contain extreme violence. As O’Connor said last December, the absence of an adults only 18+ rating means he is “concerned that there are dozens and dozens of games in this country that are currently accessible to 15-year-olds that are not accessible to minors in the United States, United Kingdom and Europe.”  [Ibid.]

Imagine the game is ‘Spot’s First Blood Bath‘.  It is, in every way shape and form, identical to Spot’s Big Red Ball except the final page is Spot massacring his neighbourhood in a gorefest.  The Australian government says, ‘You can sell that here but you have to remove the final page.’  According to the reasoning of the above quote, the restricted material is available to minors even though it’s been censored.  Does that make sense to anybody who can read without moving their lips?  What part of the word ‘edit’ doesn’t he understand?  The restricted material has been removed, now 15-year olds can’t access it.  They’re not accessing restricted material.

To me, the argument comes down to whether we want to live in a society where torture-porn is easily accessible.  It’s rarely noted by advocates that it’s not uncommon for the material to be extremely misogynistic in its violence.  If there were some artistic or cultural reason for allowing the material, I’d could even bring myself to support it.

But nobody’s raising these arguments.  Personally, I can’t think of any arguments for it and so I think we’re better off without them.

Instead, advocates are just claiming the opposition is ‘pointless’ and assuming that the pointlessness entails legality.  The debate remains adolescent.