Filed under: Censorship
In today’s society, virtual media plays a significant part in people’s lives. Currently, 99.7% of Australian households own at least one television (Screen Australia Research Statistics, 2010), while 78% of households have access to a computer (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2009). Video games, a form of virtual media, are simulations where a person interacts with a virtual environment through the use of computers or gaming consoles, and encompass a wide variety of genres (Wikipedia, 2010b). Numerous games depict violent and unlawful acts, including theft, assault, and various forms of death and destruction, explicit content which has been suggested to elicit real life aggression (Anderson et al., 2003; Bushman & Anderson, 2001; Huesmann, 2007).
In Australia, games are classified according to the levels of explicit content they display by the Australian Classification Board, a legislative classification and censorship body (Wikipedia, 2010a). At present, there are four ratings the Board can to video games: General Exhibition (G), Parental Guidance recommended (PG), Recommended for Mature Audiences (M), and Mature Accompanied (MA15+), which is unsuitable for persons under 15. Gaming content determined to exceed an MA15+ rating results in the game being refused classification (RC), making its distribution in Australian illegal. These games are often subsequently edited in order to receive the MA15+ rating.
At present, additional classifications of R18+ and X18+ are only be applied to the mediums of film and literature, making such products legally unavailable for distribution to minors due to high level explicit content. The introduction of an R18+ rating to video games distributed in Australia is in question, and thus far has been disallowed by South Australia’s former Attorney-General Michael Atkinson. This report seeks to critically examine presenting arguments for and against the introduction of an R18+ classification in Australia through the use of the 6 leads of opinion change.
The 6 Leads of Opinion Change
What do you really believe anyway?
A discussion paper from the Attorney-General’s department (2009) released to the public details the numerous arguments both for against the establishment of an R18+ classification in Australia. The negative side’s primary issue is that an R18+ rating would enable an increased amount of explicit content to fall into the hands of minors.
Atkinson revealed in an interview with Peter Mares of ABC radio (2009) that explicit content (i.e. drug abuse, sexual themes, high level violence) dealt with in games currently classified as RC is too extreme for minors, fearing that it could also negatively affect the mentally disordered population. Such content has the potential to increase antisocial and/or aggressive behaviours in youths (Anderson et al., 2003).
This is also the rationale behind the different classifications between films and games. It is reasoned that the interactive nature of video games depicting violent content evokes emotions such as aggression in a way that can not be achieved simply through the viewing of a film.
Classifications are only effective if consumers could distinguish between restricted (R18+) content and unrestricted (MA15+ or lower) content. Due to the questionable nature of the availability and quality of classification information (English or otherwise), concerns were also raised about the levels of understanding presented by non-English speaking citizens and Indigenous communities.
The ability of a parent to monitor what games their children played was also questioned, reflected in Atkinson’s discussion (2009). It was theorised that despite laws preventing minors’ viewing unsuitable films in cinemas, their parents monitored the restriction of unsuitable games in the household. For example, the effectiveness of child locks on gaming consoles and computers is determined by a parent’s awareness of the function; even then, such locks are not completely child-proof.
The Classification Board is widely thought of as lenient with regards to what games are allowed into Australia under an MA15+ rating, causing Atkinson to believe that an R18+ rating could allow processes to be even more relaxed. There is also deemed to be no need to change the existing classifications scheme. There are only a small number of games that are affected by the lack of an R18+ rating, and applied RC classifications are usually compensated for by the production of ‘toned down’ versions, subsequently classified as MA15+.
There are, however, various counter-arguments put forward by the public. The main focus of their arguments is that of principle: even though the content of RC games is unsuitable for access by minors, this does not mean that adult consumers should be prevented too. The average age of a ‘gamer’ was determined to be 30 years, inferring that the number of minors thought to be affected by explicit content is an exaggeration.
David Doe (2009) revealed that, regardless of the presence of an R18+ rating, even high sexual and drug themes are strictly prohibited, receiving an automatic refusal of classification. Adding to that, he states that while unsuitable games are slipping under the radar as being MA15+, an R18+ rating would ensure that such games were properly classified and hence not readily available for distribution among minors.
Evidence has been found that suggests that data supporting the violent game/aggression relationship has very little validity (Ferguson & Kilburn, 2010;). Similar research has also found that violent games (such as shooters) also promote various skills, including spatial abilities, processing, visual memory and processing, and mental rotation (Castel, Pratt, & Drummond, 2005; Feng, Spence, & Pratt, 2007; Ferguson, Cruz, & Rueda, 2008)
Research has shown that the introduction of an R18+ classification would reduce ambiguity of what content is classed as restricted. This would serve to promote technological methods of protection (e.g. child lock), as well as giving parents a better understanding of a game’s suitability (Brand, Borchard & Holmes, 2009). The ambiguity is caused by a contradiction, with MA15+ games referred to as ‘unsuitable’, yet still available to a minor, and is accentuated by the presence of two versions of particular games as a result of an RC rating. An R18+ rating promotes international consistency with other rating schemes, as well as increasing the credibility of Australia’s National Classification Scheme (NCS).
The ambiguity of the MA15+ rating for games is exacerbated by the different classifications for similar films, as well as the increasing association between the media (e.g. DVDs with games as part of the extra content). This lack of cohesion between rating schemes is amplified by the presence of R18+ rated DVDs. Ultimately, it is up to a minor’s parents as to what materials are available to them; the lack of this concept for games is a contradiction in the opposition’s argument.
Moral arguments are considered to be notwithstanding, as many of them are circumstantial and based on one’s point of view, while being contradicted by double standards (e.g. violence is acceptable in sport, though not video games). Finally, an R18+ rating would benefit suppliers, retailers and copyright owners, as it would decrease the illegal importation and download of games otherwise classified as RC. The ambiguity of the RC rating (prone to misinterpretation as ‘unsuitable for minors’ rather that just ‘unsuitable’) would also be reduced.
How well based is the opinion?
The opinion of those opposed to the introduction of an R18+ rating is grounded in formal research which has revealed there to be a correlation between violent/explicit content video-games and negative emotions (i.e. aggression). There is clear evidence of the Classification Board’s lenience, while common sense similarly dictates that those who do not understand classifications are at a higher risk of exposure to unsuitable content.
Counter-arguments logically theorise that having an R18+ rating would account for an improvement in protection technology and understanding of the classifications. This gives consumers less reason to obtain the material illegally, and effectively protects minors, as explicit content would be harder to obtain first hand. It is argued that it would be logical to better aid parents in protecting their children with unambiguous information, rather than restricting one’s freedoms and prohibiting adults from making their own decisions altogether. Research has also found that certain types of unsuitable games aid a gamer, rather than causing psychological stress.
How good are the data?
Numerous flaws have been found in the methodology of studies focusing on game-induced aggression (Ferguson, 2007a; Ferguson, 2007b). Such limitations include limited sample sizes (insufficient power), and the lack of clinically validated measures. Other studies do not match violent and non-violent games on confounding dimensions (e.g. frustration, game difficulty, and excitement); reported aggression could easily be attributed to one losing a game, rather than depicted violence. King and Delfabbro (2010) propose that while violent acts can be committed by those who admit to playing violent games (a selection effect), it could be that innately aggressive people choose to expose themselves to similar events (an exposure effect). No long-term negative social effects have been presented, and observable effects decrease as a function of age, revealing no significant effects for those aged over 10.
On the other hand, supporting evidence is similarly scant, mainly due to the one-sided nature of the argument and a publication bias; there is a lack of research to provide the evidence, rather than a lack of evidence alone. However, of the research that has been conducted, reliable results have found flaws in opposing research’s data, as well as some research highlighting some numerous advantages of violent games. Overall, this means that the data are relatively good, though not as well researched as it needs to be.
Do the current data really contradict either side’s beliefs?
The data presented by aggression research studies do not necessarily contradict the opinions presented by those in favour of an R18+ rating. Such a contradiction is because that while they want the inclusion of the rating in the NCS, they don’t advocate exposure of the material to minors. This is evident in that they want explicit content to be properly rated, resulting in the reduction of its availability to minors. As a result, any opposing data is not significant enough to generate opinion change.
The current data also largely contradict the argument put forward by those opposed to the rating. Not only does the data render previous research into game-induced aggression defunct, but there are numerous other contradictions to be considered. Due to exposure being a matter of choice, there is no evidence to suggest that minors would be at a greater risk as a result of introducing the rating. As Atkinson mentions in his interview, a problem is that the Classification Board wrongly classifies games, though the inclusion of an R18+ would negate this, contradicting the “no need for change” argument.
If such evidence is not enough to elicit opinion change, what would be sufficient?
At present, none of the research conducted thus far is grounds for saying that there is a link between violent games and aggressive emotions; though neither is it grounds for saying that there isn’t. Hot cognitive approaches to the issue dictate that neither side is willing to change their opinion due to motivational and emotional influences. However, those in favour of the inclusion of the rating have logically taken their opposition’s arguments into consideration and provided adequate counter-arguments, demonstrating a more cold cognitive approach.
This would indicate that both sides require irrefutable evidence supporting the other’s argument before they are willing to consider changing their own opinions. As such, sufficient data are deemed to be free of all limitations, presented in a clear, concise way. An ideal data set would present a convincing argument that doesn’t require them to completely change their previous opinion, while allowing them to observe the true results of the research without bias.
Is it worth finding out about, or merely a case of “why not”?
The data supporting both arguments are worth further investigation, as neither party has considered the relative costs. Retainment of the current system, while offering protection of minors from RC content, intrudes on the moral rights of adults (i.e. the choice to see, hear and read what they want), and negatively impacts retailers and copyright owners through the illegal acquiring of such content. On the other hand, adults and retailers are benefited by the rating, though it potentially exposes minors to highly explicit content. Further research into both sides of the argument would serve to provide substantial evidence as to how tolerable a cost is, as well as its impact on the community.
Contraire to popular belief, the “It must be in the middle heuristic” never properly applies to a context with two opposing sides/stories. As was demonstrated, the argument for the inclusion of an R18+ rating was much more logically grounded, providing acceptable rebuttals to each of the opposition’s key issues. It could be said that people like Atkinson are succumbing to the overconfidence effect, as they are dismissing opposing arguments without removing bias and rationally considering each possibility. It is this effect coupled with a hot cognition approach and the failure to fully account for the costs that has shown the argument against an R18+ rating to be ineffectual. However, there is invariably some truth in the research that supports opinions of both sides regardless of the logic behind them, thus future research should be directed at establishing the extent to which this research can be used as grounds for effectively presenting arguments for this issue.
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Attorney-General’s Department (2009). Should the Australian National Classification Scheme include an R18+ classification category for computer games? Retrieved October 1, 2010, from http://www.ag.gov.au/gamesclassification
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