Refused Classification: Politics and Rape Culture

Like anyone remotely interested in gaming, I’ve followed the discussion around the refusal of classification of Saint’s Row IV in Australia. The story has, predictably, received widespread coverage (especially in Australia), with the most thorough being IGN (but also see elsewhere, elsewhere, elsewhere, and elsewhere). It’s worth reading into the precise reason why the game was refused classification, which I won’t repeat here. There has also been a flurry of half-baked internet discussions, so I have decided to withdraw from the social media fray and develop a more reasoned position.

I’ll say up front that I support the refusal of classification, because I don’t think that this particular depiction of sexual violence is appropriate for public consumption. I know a lot of people disagree, with varying degrees of vitriol, and equally varying degrees of due consideration. As a side note, I think that the publisher made a bad call in submitting the game for classification in its current form and should have half-expected this response. A similar object in Destroy All Humans is completely different, although I admit there is an argument for comparability. The “it’s just a joke” defence is patently insupportable: surely everyone got told at six years old that it’s only a joke if everyone finds it funny, and I’m pretty sure the victims of sexual violence would probably not find this funny. Hell, I don’t find it particularly funny, and I’m on record as having a great deal of fun with Saint’s Row, so I’m not a wowser.

Saint’s Row IV: Satire like a sledgehammer

The real issue is not the content, or even the status of games in society: it’s about politics. This is not the “this government sucks” type of politics, and those who have used this as yet another trumped-up stick to beat Julia Gillard are even more misguided than the “just-jokers”. It is true that the Office for Film and Literature Classification was dissolved in 2006, and the Attorney-General’s Department now provides administrative support to the Australian Classification Board (ACB). However, according to Commonwealth legislation, the ACB is a statutory body independent from government and appointed through a broad consultative process as per our representative democracy. So this is no more “government censorship” than it is a decision of the government of the day.

The ACB is a socio-political agent empowered to make decisions as to whether or not content is suitable and should be available to members of society at any given age. It is endowed with that power by the Government, but it is not of the government: the difference is important. Behind much of the debate about the Saint’s Row IV classification is actually a hidden agenda about whether or not we want an agent who has that power, and whether or not we want to give that kind of control away. So really, it’s all about political ideology, which is largely hidden from the arguments. So let’s talk about the real issue.

Most of the objections to this decision take the form of “I will decide what I can and can’t watch”, and “Stop treating us like children”. The implication here is that there should be no limits on what is made available for public consumption and that individuals should have the freedom to basically do what they want. This is a form of political libertarianism, which places the liberty of the individual first and foremost and believes in a restricted role for government. Basically, the belief is that government should not interfere in the lives of individuals, and this ideology has gained a lot of traction in the past decade. (See the Libertarian Party’s motto – minimum government, maximum freedom – as well as The Tea Party, and a well-informed critique.)

Source: The Williamson County Libertarian Party: http://www.txwclp.org/2013/02/two-views-of-libertarianism/

However, this blunt form of armchair libertarianism is singularly uninformed. If we say we shouldn’t draw the line anywhere, then we argue for the availability of all kinds of material which most reasonable people would agree should be considered objectionable. For example, most of us agree that snuff films, rape training games, and child pornography are fundamentally objectionable and should be illegal. Unless we think that every single individual will regulate their own (and their child’s) behaviour with regard to such material, the simplest method is to give the power to someone to make those decisions for us, and either trust in the process by which that power is granted or become politically active enough to influence the process.

So if we agree that some material (however extreme) should be restricted, then it’s a matter of deciding where the line should be drawn (and I’ve seen at least one good example of such a discussion). I happen to believe that the line should be drawn to exclude the content that Saint’s Row IV proposed. This is because rape is a serious issue in our society: in particular, there is still an influential perspective that denies the seriousness of the matter, blames rape victims, and seeks to exonerate rapists. This happens, in the real world. If these attitudes are present in and supported by cultural products that normalise and legitimate them, then I think those cultural products (no matter how much we want to defend them generally) should be controlled and restricted from public consumption until the attitudes become untenable in public discourse.

Saint’s Row the Third: Pushing the envelope

If someone can convince me that the material in Saint’s Row IV is not a “glamorisation of sexual violence”, please let me know. And if a game is actually able to deal with matters of sexual violence in a sensitive and sophisticated fashion, we will know that game culture (and humanity more broadly) has come a long way. I sincerely hope that one day, rape culture will be a thing of the past, and perhaps this kind of game content may be considered as appropriate entertainment. But by then we will probably have grown out of it anyway.

Chad Habel

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