Exclusive: Michael Atkinson talks Aussie game classification

South Australian attorney general says he is not the only classification minister to oppose R18+ classification; lauds current system's ability to "encourage modification."


For many Aussie gamers, Michael Atkinson is a deeply unpopular character. The South Australian attorney general has been a vocal critic of game violence, and he has blocked previous moves to introduce an R18+ classification for games down under. Without an R18+ classification, the highest game rating is MA 15+, which means that the Classification Board is forced to ban any game that doesn't meet that rating's standards. Australia's Standing Committee of Attorneys General (SCAG)--a board made up of all state, territory, and federal AGs--has the power to change this, but only if all members agree. Atkinson has been the most public voice of dissent among the group.

Last year, GameSpot AU contacted Atkinson to gauge his views on Australian game classification. We sent through a long list of questions (his office preferred a written interview) in an attempt to explore his side of the argument. Atkinson's written response (which we received only late last week) did not directly answer our questions, but instead outlined his overall rationale for opposing the introduction of an R18+ rating in Australia. (You can see our original list of questions here.) And in a key revelation, Atkinson says that he is not the only classification minister to oppose the introduction of an R18+ rating. A spokesperson for Atkinson said that the minister has been asked by a number of other classification ministers, whom he refuses to name, to be the spokesperson in this matter. GameSpot AU has contacted all state, territory, and federal attorneys general to get their individual positions, but had not received full clarification as of time of publication.

GameSpot AU will also continue to chase Mr. Atkinson for further clarification of his position, but in the meantime, his response to our original list of questions can be read below.

No Caption Provided

South Australian Attorney General Michael Atkinson:
"I don't support the introduction of an R18+ rating for electronic games, chiefly because it will greatly increase the risk of children and vulnerable adults being exposed to damaging images and messages.

"The interactive nature of electronic games means that they have a much greater influence than viewing a movie does. People are participating and 'acting-out' violence and criminal behaviour when they are playing a video game. They are essentially rehearsing harmful behaviour. Children and vulnerable adults (such as those with a mental illness) can be harmed by playing video games with violence, sex, and criminal activity.

"The South Australian government takes a strong position on protecting children (and the public) from criminal behaviour, sexual abuse, and drug use. My stance on R18+ classification is in line with the policies of the Rann Government [current South Australian government] to protect children.

"Retaining the present classification scheme for electronic games is necessary because: it keeps the most extreme material off the shelves; it prevents children and vulnerable adults from being exposed to sexual abuse, criminal activity, and extreme violence in video games; it prevents children and vulnerable adults from virtual participation in sex, criminal activity, and extreme violence; and it results in game developers modifying their product for Australian and sometimes international audiences.

"I have three sons who regularly play computer games at home--the eldest is now 22. I see my children become physically and emotionally obsessed with games, and it is difficult to drag them away from the gaming console. The repeated act of killing a computer-generated person or creature desensitises children to violence. It makes violence part of their everyday lives and what is especially concerning is that it is their re-creation. A child being able to watch sex and violence in a movie is damaging to the child, but the child participating in sex and violence in a computer game is worse.

"Extreme violence, perverted sex, and criminal activity are not essential for adults to enjoy playing electronic games. There are plenty of sophisticated games that are of interest to adults. A game is not necessarily more interesting to an adult simply because it contains extreme violence, explicit sexual material, criminal activity, or offensive language. Some of the most popular and highly recommended games for adults would not be R18+ rated.

"Critics sometimes claim that I am ruining the game-development industry. There are very few computer games that are refused classification each year. In 2007/8 just three computer games were refused classification (Soldier of Fortune: Payback, Dark Sector, and Shellshock 2: Blood Trails). This represents a very small proportion of the 961 decisions made last financial year. In fact, only 55 were classified at the top existing rating of MA15+.

"Last year the makers of Grand Theft Auto IV altered the game before submitting it for an MA15+ classification, and Silent Hill: Homecoming is under revision by its makers after being knocked back by the Classification Board. The lack of an R18+ classification is not preventing very many adult-themed video games reaching the shop shelves--but it is ensuring that scenes that don't comply with a MA15+ rating are removed. I think that's a great result for consumers and has little impact on the profitability of game developers.

"Some games, such as Grand Theft Auto IV, have been modified to meet Australian standards. The present system encourages game developers to consider what is appropriate for an MA15+ rating and adjust their product accordingly. Sometimes this modified version has become the internationally distributed version.

"Some of your readers may believe that the present system restricts adult liberty. It certainly does restrict choice to a small degree, but that is the price of keeping this material from children and vulnerable adults. In my view, the small sacrifice is worth it. Classification exists for advertising, films, and books for the same reason--to protect children and vulnerable people.

"In cinemas, the age of moviegoers can be regulated, and at the video store people must provide ID to hire R18+ videos. Once electronic games are in the home, access to them cannot be policed and the games are easily accessible to children. These days, older children (18-30) are often living in the family home with younger children (under 18). This means games belonging to older children or parents can easily make their way into the hands of those under 18.

"I'm concerned about the level of violence in society and the widespread acceptance of simulated violence as a form of entertainment. No doubt a legal restraint on the type of material available to the public in game form is only a small part of the answer, but I am loath to give it up.

"I am not alone in my view. Groups such as Young Media Australia oppose the introduction of an R18+ classification, saying that interactive violence can desensitise people to violence. Although I receive letters from the public opposing my stance on R18+ games, I also get letters of support. Some other classification ministers are also opposed to an R18+ classification but have not spoken about it publicly. I'm confident the proposal would be blocked by other classification ministers if I weren't using my veto power.

"The framework for our classification system is established in Commonwealth legislation. The process of classifying a work is done by the Office of Film and Literature Classification [sic*]--a federal government body. Films and games are classified according to the same guidelines and using the same categories and symbols under the classification codes. Games that are entertaining and challenging to adults may be found in any classification category. The classification goes simply to the strength or impact of the content. In classifying a game, only the classifiable elements are considered: violence, sex, nudity, drug use, coarse language, and (controversial) themes.

"In Australia there is merit in a national classification scheme. With state and territory borders being artificial for these purposes, once games classified R18+ are available in one state they will be readily available in others. It is important not to confuse the classification rating of a game with the game's sophistication, or the challenge or interest to the player. Depending on tastes and interests, adult gamers will find much to enjoy in all of the categories of games now available.

"Classifications are overseen by the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General. SCAG includes attorneys general from all states, territories, and the Commonwealth. Most members are also the relevant minister for classifications in their jurisdiction. Under the Federal legislation, one minister can veto changes to our classification system in Australia. Hitherto, attorneys general have not agreed to create an R18+ category for computer games.

"A discussion paper will be released to the public shortly on the proposal for an R18+ classification for video games. I support the issuing of a public discussion paper that adequately represents both sides of the argument."

For more on Australian game censorship, check out our in-depth Censory Overload feature.

* Editor's Note: The OFLC no longer exists. All classification decisions are now made by the Classification Board, which remains an independent body.

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Avatar image for casket56

Lets fight this all of the way I set up a facebook cause and we should let them know whose boss << LINK REMOVED >>

Avatar image for polodoro

superchink you are completely right. This guy has no idea whatsoever! How is it his place to tell adult Australians which games they can and can't play?

Avatar image for superchink

I wonder Mr. Atkinson has conducted consultation with SA citizens to find out what they think before he reach his decision? Or maybe this man couldn't care less what his people think, only matters what HE thinks...!

Avatar image for rockatanski

When a game is banned, it is blacklisted at customs and will not get into the country anyway. It's happened to friends of mine and I was questioned when I had a copy of Silent Hill Homecoming (Still can't tell why it's banned) as I bought it last year in the US before coming home. I had no idea it was banned and the customs guy let me have it when he saw my ID. Through the mail, I think you gotta be lucky. Either way, if worse comes to worse - there are other ways of getting these games if you really want them.

Avatar image for lachie_d

Looking at it form the perspective of Michael Atkinson, if not having this rating prevents a small amount of games on the shelves which could potentially affect "children and vulnerable adults(which is a crock in the first place)" i say its ok. The hardcore gamers will order it over the internet and play it anyway. And i dont know if any "child or vulnerable adults" could be savi enough to complete this task. Its forcing honest gamers to do illegal things (importations of R18+ games) with their hard earned money, and give to another econmy.

Avatar image for johnnyauau

Here's a reality check for Michael Atkinson. If drugs, violence, sex, course language and adult themes are not there, we be the stupidest idiots ever in the world. The population would be dead, people would be standing staring and its impossible to interact with each other without something special. No adults over 18 would be complete without all these categories. So no R18+ means what? Bullies couldn't throw a punch, guns filled with blanks and naked women covered with bleaches. That's our future. Also a jump to conclusions that children will steal R18 material is utterly ridiculous. Michael Atkinson should know better that he musn't abuse his powers because parents are "stupid" and violent games will increase in crime. For example an american kid goes on a shooting spree because of his depression and the kids don't like him. There's no evidence that he's influenced by GTA. It might be true but the logic isn't there. Well for people who lives in South Australia, the only thing I can ask you if you want you're R18+ and prove to the world that parents, teens and kids aren't idiots is to vote Michael Atkinsons out. Unless you want this double standard to continue, his philosophy will become his weakness if he goes too far with his powers.

Avatar image for The_SicKeSS

Doesn't R 18+ meant for people over the age of 18 and shouldnt be viewed by people under that age??? Also if he is complaining about his kids playing violent games the only problem is himself, but its hard for him to blame himself for his own actions so he takes the easy way out and blame something else.

Avatar image for zxssded

Up your minister, up yours. dont you think if we just let the +R18 games in, and the parents buy it for te children, wont you think if its anyones falut its the parents? why is teh government getting involved in this stupid discussion. if australia wont sell +R18 games wont people get it somewhere else?

Avatar image for the_mighty_cow

Well - this blew me away ... here are some stats from the US << LINK REMOVED >> I love the one that suggests that "Ninety-four percent of game players under the age of 18 report that their parents are present when they purchase or rent games."

Avatar image for animenerdrickey

Another thing its the parent fault for buying the game in the first place we colours codes so u know what if its from g to ma also we got movies that are R18 and he is not complaining about it so we should have the right to have R18 games.

Avatar image for animenerdrickey

How bout this as an idea south australia can suffer without r18 games while the rest of the other states can have it that what i think.

Avatar image for MarvinMacOrmick

"In cinemas, the age of moviegoers can be regulated... Once electronic games are in the home... the games are easily accessible to children". By the same token, once an R18 movie is in the home, it is just as accessible. And is it not the parent's job to police whether or not their children have access? eg. If there is alcohol in the home, the parents should keep it secure/out of sight to protect their children. His argument is flawed

Avatar image for Nemesis4747

ha! he thinks we should be satisfied with other games or the modified versions, why shouldnt we be able to play the same games people in other countries get to, it shouldnt be up to this loser what we can and can not play, its the parents responsablilty , all hes doing is anoying as many people as he possibly can, probably a power trip he is on

Avatar image for dave0015

haha this guy is so stupid does he know consoles these days have locks? you can set em to block games that are over a certain rating, or is he still living in the ps2 days... what a stooge /facepalm

Avatar image for thesnoddler

"I have three sons who regularly play computer games at home--the eldest is now 22. I see my children become physically and emotionally obsessed with games" cancel their world of warcraft subscription. problem solved. now let us have our R18+ games.

Avatar image for Leons-Hell

What I'm getting from this interview is the MA is saying "I'm not responsible enough to look after my children and everyone else is therefore going to pay." See if you don't want you kids to be playing things that you don't want them to then don't leave it out in the open. I'm guessing that MA is one of those people who leaves power tools out for his children to play with.

Avatar image for tawagivercetti

I've been playing some uncut R18+ GTAIV & naughty banned MANHUNT2 today and I can honestly say that I don't feel like killing anybody anymore or less than yesterday. Freedom of choice and equality for gamers! Gamers fricken rock and we will rule the world some day mark my words. Then the world will feel our sick and depraved wrath, mwahahaha.

Avatar image for Res_3

LOL @ Hyperwired thats awesome!

Avatar image for Scarshi

Everything, and I mean everything, nowadays is controlled by the media. Not really by Atkinson, politicians and countrymen/women, but by the moguls that tell us what is happening, and what is right/wrong in our faces 24/7. Peer pressure at its finest. Fine we get our way and have R18+ games. Media will take just one bad incident after this and blow it up in everyones faces till we are hunting the "people responsible" with pitchforks and torches. In the end, no one wants the responsibility to adding ammo to the weapons of the media and their watchful/opinionated eyes. But, eh, thats life. Bring on R18+ and see where it goes! I will be still be buying games no matter the classification.

Avatar image for Shinkada

"In cinemas, the age of moviegoers can be regulated, and at the video store people must provide ID to hire R18+ videos. Once electronic games are in the home, access to them cannot be policed and the games are easily accessible to children. These days, older children (18-30) are often living in the family home with younger children (under 18). This means games belonging to older children or parents can easily make their way into the hands of those under 18." That alone kills his argument completely. There is no difference between a child acquiring an 18+ movie, or an 18+ game. There is no added difficulty, save that games do not have the rating yet. Why movies, hm? Are they less damaging? Why don't we draw more lines while we're at it? I agree with his point that games should not revolve around this, and the changes made to GTAIV could hardly have been anything bad. But I, even as a naysayer of the series, have to push forward Silent Hill as a poster child for censorship getting in the way of things. The game relies on utter shock of violence to frighten, on sexual themes to create symbolism, on the combination of these things to create confusion in the player, and to throw them off even further for the frightening bits. There are people who, already, do not find the series scary (myself included). How many more people are going to be laughing rather than screaming, waking up giggling rather than sweating, when scenes are omitted, when 'enemies' have a censor bar or pixellated blur patch over genitals, when Pyramid Head is simply killing off screen rather than brutally raping? It's not the Classification Board's job to say whether a game is tasteful or not, that falls to the reviewers and the consumers, just like with all other media formats. A small corner of games need, RELY on an 18+ rating to achieve their full affect, and I'm of the persuasion that we shouldn't be letting a group of lazy, irresponsible parents, too heaped up on pointing fingers to actually look after their children, stop us from experiencing the full affects of these uncommon titles. The 'worthy sacrifice' argument dies the instant the comparison to movies - or books, or comics, or telivision series', or plays, or music - is drawn. I've had quite enough of being told I can't do something because somewhere, an ignorant and irresponsible religious fanatic of a mother is busy writing a letter while her toddler toddles off to steal a copy of GTAIII and install the Hot Coffee mod. Ban everything and stir us into anarchy or realize the hypocrisy and raise the restriction, I don't care, just stop sitting around acting all high and mighty for championing irresponsibility and poor parenting.

Avatar image for agentgamma

This guy's arguments are completely flawed! "Extreme violence, perverted sex, and criminal activity are not essential for adults to enjoy playing electronic games." And that supposedly means extreme violence, perverted sex, and criminal activity are essential for adults to enjoy movies " Once electronic games are in the home, access to them cannot be policed and the games are easily accessible to children. These days, older children (18-30) are often living in the family home with younger children (under 18). This means games belonging to older children or parents can easily make their way into the hands of those under 18" That also means that home movies rated R18+ can get into the hands of kids "Classification exists for advertising, films, and books for the same reason--to protect children and vulnerable people." Then why don't you ban ANYTHING R18+ so it doesn't affect children and vulnerable people >_>

Avatar image for rockatanski

Trenno, that is a pretty lame post. Maybe you should ban yourself from playing computer games if it bothers you so much.

Avatar image for likenlock

"Those who would sacrifice Liberty for Security deserve neither" - As pretty much everyone else does, I have plenty of arguments against him, but ill just stick to that quote for now

Avatar image for hyperwired

The article in summary: "I, Michael Atkinson am a very opinionated man. I do not seek conclusive empirical scientific evidence to back up any of my claims. I care not for a public vote on this issue. I would much rather have my kids watching R18 gay-animal-pornography-gore-flicks (which are perfectly fine with me), but I hate the thought of having a video game with drug references or graphical violence. I will simply assume that video games are more damaging, without actually finding evidence." "Gamers are young and stupid, they get addicted and then kill people. It happens all the time. I'd say that game-invoked violence far outweighs film-invoked violence and that games are the problem - addiction and mental conditions have nothing to do with it." "Violence never used to occur before video games came out. Violence is obviously not part of the human condition, it actually is a new invention born from video games. There is a lot of violence today, ... and come to think about it... there was a lot of violence 10 or 100 or 1000 years ago, but... who cares about history?... " "I am the boss with veto power, so obviously, I'm going to use it, regardless of what the majority wants. Do your best."

Avatar image for trenno2529

i agree with pretty much everything this guy says. would've been nice if he answered the questions though. and i don't care who you are or what u think, sex does not belong in games.

Avatar image for basquiatisking

"Extreme violence, perverted sex, and criminal activity are not essential for adults to enjoy playing electronic games. There are plenty of sophisticated games that are of interest to adults." I wish he wouldn't tell me what to do with my time. If i CHOOSE to play a game that has "Extreme violence, perverted sex, and criminal activity" then so be it. That is my choice and ill be damned if a man claiming to be looking out for the greater good, is going to stop me. Your right Rochie101, if Australia really is a democracy, should there not be some form of vote/poll where we, the people, can decide what content is appropriate and what is not.

Avatar image for Payback7

While I understand his argument regarding children being exposed to these types of games, that should not be used as an excuse to let people who ARE of age to play these games if they so choose. At the end of the day, it's in the hands of the parents to make sure their children aren't exposed to violent/graphic games. I'm sick of being treated like a child when it comes to video games. It's a legitimate form of entertainment and games should be given the respect they deserve. People blamed books for the downfall of society, then movies, now games! Well I tell you what, there was violence and crime LONG before there was even electricity. EXPLAIN THAT MR ATKINSON?!?! Now back to GTA IV :)

Avatar image for tuker001

kk Rochie101 its all good mate

Avatar image for RaidensTechSupp

After reading this, I think atkinson is right, we really don't need the R18+ rating.

Avatar image for Rochie101

Tuker001, Please don't think that I was saying you are immature, that’s not the case, I understand that you were joking and it was an amusing thought, but people like Michael Atkinson and Jack Thompson are out there waiting for something like that to use in the wrong context to draw more people over to their uneducated, intolerant and over opinionated side! This guy just enjoys the sound of his own voice, how else can you explain the fact that in the1, 146 words that he wrote not one of the 26 questions asked were answered?

Avatar image for maliGGs

If we were all to come together as a whole, like the entire gaming community of Australia, and kill him, I dont know how, maybe we would all have a piece of string attached to a knife that inflicts the fatal blow or something. But say we did and we were all held equally accountable, would it be possible to prosecute us all?

Avatar image for maliGGs

Michael Atkinson is a complete moron who gets off on his position of power over the Australian gaming community, due to his lack of control over his own children's gaming habits. Someone should make a mod for COD4 where no matter what team you choose, the enemy all have Michael Atkinson's head.

Avatar image for DVIENT

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Avatar image for Rikstah

Hes got good reasons but i still think that by making video game stores give ID for R video games is just as safe as ID in cinemas or at video stores. He does have a point you shouldn't let kids play adult video games, but thats not the responsibility of the government as much as it is of the parents.

Avatar image for rockatanski

His alternative measures should be that he starts to grasp reality rather than to grasp himself.

Avatar image for Australians

i can understand he's reasons but he can take altiritive measures then just banning the games