Game Buzz is a new weekly opinion column designed to take an irreverent look at one of the biggest news stories to break in the past week. Every Friday evening we'll be bringing you another slice of reaction to topical gaming news, and inviting you to agree, disagree, shout assent, vent rage, scream and complain to you heart's delight. This week we take a look at Michael Atkinson's recent comments about 'threatening' gamers and the nature of 'interactive media'.
The perpetual struggle of Australian gamers continued to roll slowly onwards this week with chief antagonist - South Australian Attorney General Michael Atkinson - labelling gamers as dangerous, violent and accusing them of loitering with intent.
"I feel that my family and I are more at risk from gamers than we are from the outlaw motorcycle gangs who also hate me and are running a candidate against me," Mr. Atkinson said on ABC TV's Good Game. "The outlaw motorcycle gangs haven't been hanging around my doorstop at 2am. A gamer has."
The attorney general has also alluded in interview to threatening letters posted through his letterbox, abuse in the streets, and bile-laden emails that brand him a paedophile for standing in the way of an R18 adult classification for video gaming in Australia. Although that last is undeniably a childish knee-jerk reaction, it's hard to imagine the biker gangs he whom he refers simply passing over a floridly written, expletive-heavy note in the early hours of the morning. If you had any of them on your doorstep, you'd probably be facing glass projectiles, chains and a fire or two.
It should be noted that this isolated incident is practically a year old, and that with election week coming up Down Under it's no real surprise that this has been trotted out and wildly embellished. Of course, Atkinson's stance on the whole issue revolves around a series of seemingly-altruistic contradictions, that it's all to do with protecting children and 'vulnerable adults', that the MA15+ rating encourages developers to be responsible and modify their content appropriately, and it all sounds like he (and, allegedly, a few other unnamed classification ministers that either don't exist or are too nervous to come forward) is the last bastion of cultural sanity standing against a ravening horde of debauched gluttons for a bit of sensationalism.
The entire issue is, of course, a ludicrous business. The introduction of the R18+ rating would not mean an end to censorship but would lead to a greater sense of awareness from retailers down to parents. The ‘protect the children’ argument is a deeply flawed one, but then again so is its response. 'It should be a parental issue' is an idealistic, but naive statement to make, cultural education is far more complex than that, but this is as good a place as any to start. As David Doe of Gamers4Croydon - the pro-R18+ political group that intends to run against Atkinson for the Croydon seat (the Australian one, not the gun-filled London suburb) – states in the same clip, this isn't about trying to squeeze more violence into video games, this is about 'labelling it appropriately so that people buying games [...] understand the type of content that's in them'. The problem lies not with the games themselves, but with cultural education.
To be honest, the pedantic tennis-match that is the R18+ argument is a pretty boring one and one that is in serious danger of becoming a media circus of baboon-esque shit flinging. The more interesting debate is that revolving around the nature of gaming as an interactive artistic medium in and of itself. Atkinson's point on this matter is simple: that the interactive nature of video games results in a rather more pervasive influence on the psyche than perhaps a more passive activity such as sitting and watching a movie. It's an argument that we've seen before, when Jack Thompson decided to blame video games for the NUI shootings back in 2008.
Of course, the BBFC went on record the year before with a statement saying that "The board's position is that there is insufficient evidence to prove, as a fact, there is a causal connection between violent games and behavioural harm." Thompson's response was to whip up a good deal of frenzy by using medical reports to support his case, all of which would have been fine if they had been done in an impartial environment over a lengthy period of time. Which they weren't.
The trouble is, as Dr. Guy Porter notes, that cinematic media has had a lot more time spent on its cultural dissection, that long-term studies for film and television run . Gaming is still finding its way in the world as a legitimate medium of artistic expression - one that runs the gamut from the pulp to the highbrow, from the gaming equivalent of tweeny bopping fluff to an interactive Scorsese. Its discourse is still self-contained, rooted in pages of magazines and dedicated websites. Gaming is still perceived - and here perception is far more important than actuality - as a form of immature (that is to say not yet fully formed rather than flippantly childish) culture, or, perhaps even still, sub-culture.
Even Michael Atkinson had to recognise the efforts of Gamers4Croydon when they entered the political field - a cursory 'Good on them' had to suffice - and it is through decisive action such as this that will help to change the minds of entrenched conservatives rather than wild abuse. Gaming is still seen in many quarters as a frivolous pastime with dubious cultural merit rather than a potential experiential artform with a legitimate place in cultural society secured through mature discourse. There’s a place for sensationalism, but it shouldn’t solely define gaming in the public eye, and it is only through reasoned debate and long term cultural study that this stigma can be reversed. Atkinson and Thompson’s biggest crime is to devalue the debate and muddy the waters with shock tactics and slander disguised as cultural defence, reducing gaming to an interactive carousel of tits and gore in the widespread media.
One thing is for certain, with even more immersive experiences on the way courtesy of Natal and the new Eye Toy, synonymising the gamer even more with the actions of their avatar, this debate is going to get much more heated and the stakes much higher over the coming years.