This week, many of you will no doubt be knee-deep in virtual pools of blood and small, icky bits of brain matter, thanks to the release of Mortal Kombat. This game's grotesque violence can elicit gasps from even the most desensitized; however, Australians will get no such thrills, with our nation's Classification Board deciding months ago that the revamped fighter has no place within our fair shores. Of course, this is not a good thing, but it doesn't make Australia the worst place in the world to be gamer.
Like the fictional game of knifey-spooney, Foster's beer, and Russell Crowe, game censorship is now something most people associate with the land Down Under, whether or not it's appropriate. It's easy to see where this misconception comes from--Australia, in gaming terms, is small potatoes. And, the unfortunate reality is that the only time most people ever read about Australia in a global news story is when the word "banned" is part of the headline. You may laugh and point at Australia when you read these types of stories. If you're American, you'll likely type something about freedom in the comments section, profess your love for the good-ol-US of A, and then sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" while setting off fireworks in your living room--or something like that.
But here's the reality of the situation. Australia may be the current poster child for game censorship, but the issue is not an Australia-only problem. Censorship--in one insidious form or another--is widespread globally. While Australia certainly deserves a great deal of attention, it doesn't deserve to have the spotlight all to itself.
First, here is some clarification. If you think Aussie gamers are suffering under the yoke of an oppressive regime determined to deprive us of anything remotely violent or salacious, then here's a fact: There is no yoke. While the perception from the outside may be that games are banned here all the time, the reality is much different. Before Mortal Kombat, the most recent game to be completely and utterly smacked with the ban hammer was not Bulletstorm, Dead Space 2, or even Aliens vs. Predator; it was Crimecraft (released September 2009 in the US). And before that, it was Risen (released October 2009 in the US). And before that, it was Sexy Poker (released August 2009 in the US). The vast majority of titles--Mortal Kombat being the high-profile exception--make it through here unscathed. In rare cases, such as with Left 4 Dead 2 (no blood spray for us Aussies) and Fallout 3 (morphine changed to Med-X), slight changes were required to pass our rating system, but the games were otherwise untouched.
The ideal situation, of course, is for an adult rating for games to be introduced in Australia so changes and bans become a thing of the past. There's vigorous debate underway right now Down Under to change the system, which is significantly more than what's happening in China. Australia may be strict, but the communist government in the world's most populous nation takes the idea of strict and adds several more levels of wacky on top. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government has a long list of "don'ts" that need to be adhered to for any game to make it into the nation, and it's not just about violence or sexually explicit content. No-no's include any themes that threaten national unity, anything that may damage China's reputation, anything that may disturb the "social order," or even games that make animals "dominant to humans." These rules result in strange decisions: Football Manager 2005, for example, was banned because Tibet was a selectable nation, while World of Warcraft had to make numerous changes to character models, particularly to creatures that had visible skeletal structures (this was seen as "not healthy").
But it's not just vast communist regimes that try to control gaming. Germany also has strict laws when it comes to violent content (and it is particularly sensitive about anything with Nazi imagery). It has banned such games as Dead Rising, Manhunt, Soldier of Fortune: Payback, and both of the Condemned games. Germany's rules have become so infamous that some game publishers don't even bother releasing their games in the nation, with recent examples being Sega's MadWorld and, you guessed it, Mortal Kombat. Other notable "banners" include New Zealand (both Manhunts and Reservoir Dogs); Malaysia (Dante's Inferno); South Korea (both Manhunts, Grand Theft Auto 3); and Saudi Arabia (all the God of Wars), not to mention numerous other countries where game developers are forced to change content to suit local laws.
And before any of our US-based readers get out their American flags, the land of the free isn't exactly squeaky clean when it comes to game censorship. Other nations have content restrictions written into the laws of the land, but the US is in an ideal position in which freedom of expression is enshrined in the US Constitution. While the government isn't censoring in the US, game companies have stepped in to be their own censors. Self-censorship of supposedly contentious content has a long history in the US. Nintendo was a key offender in the '80s and early '90s, setting down guidelines for content appearing on its systems and changing games it deemed breached its own self-imposed guidelines.
In the SNES version of Mortal Kombat, for example, blood was changed to sweat, and all fatalities were removed. Female game characters would mysteriously find more clothing on their frames in US Nintendo versions of games, and even the port of classic adventure game Maniac Mansion had significant dialogue changes imposed upon it. Major retailers in the US, too, get in on the self-censorship action, refusing to stock games slapped with the ESRB's highest rating: AO (as was the case when the Hot Coffee scandal exploded with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas). Additionally, Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony all forbid third-party publishers from releasing AO games on their respective platforms. And, of course, there's the ongoing legal battle regarding California's law to prohibit sales of violent video games to minors, which is just the latest move by politicians around the nation eager to use video games as a scapegoat for all of society's ills.
Game censorship is a complex issue, and it's naive to simplify the argument into plaintive cries about "freedom" and "rights." And it's not just Australia's problem either--this is an issue we all have to face, some more urgently than others.
Reality Check is GameSpot's recurring editorial column. Each week, members of the GameSpot editorial team sound off on current gaming events as well as various topics that surround the gaming industry.
Reality Check: Duke Nukem Forever Isn't Sexist
Reality Check: 3DS vs. IOS