If you can say one thing about the capitalist system its that its players are risk averse when it comes to one things – that is decisions that negatively impact revenue. The rise of the publicly traded publisher was, in some ways, accompanied with a proportionate reduction in risky development projects. While the days before classification in Australia saw games like Doom and Mortal Kombat push the boundaries of what was at the time socially acceptable, the onset of legally binding ratings across the world saw games take a more conservative approach to their depictions of violence and a near total absence of sex in the medium. Rightly or wrongly it is arguable that the conservatism of shareholders in response to the changing market curtailed the rather rapid uptick in gratuity and replaced it with a more measured approach to mature content.
The refused classification status of Hotline Miami 2 down here in Australia has again put the spotlight on the classification board. While internet jockeys decrie the unfair treatment and make jokes about Australia being a nanny-state, if you look at the problem objectively, it’s hard to argue the decision even in the presence of an R18+ classification category. The question of whether consenting adults should have access to any content they choose to consume is a different one, though, and one that should be separated from the Hotline Miami 2 case. And while it’s a rather difficult question to answer, not in the least because it inherently evokes emotive responses, it is one that is easy to make a case for both from an outcomes perspective and in terms of being the best policy response.
And the rise of the independent publisher has only strengthened the case for regulation of video games. The removal or at least reduction of the financial incentive to take a risk averse approach to game publication lessens the supply response to regulation. While costs associated with video game development aren’t necessarily sunk, they are high, and if there is a moderate risk that a game will be refused classification or the potential market reduced by a restrictive rating they will respond in kind. Without shareholders this ‘natural’ regulated effect is removed, and has the potential to both increase the number of offending games and increase the level of gratuitous content in those games aimed at capturing audiences through shock and controversy But while governments can’t control the creative process and the supply of what could be considered gratuitous content in video games, they can at least have avenues to refuse classification where it is considered socially unacceptable.
The case is only strengthened when you start to consider the cowboy attitude of self publishing developers aiming to capture audience through shock and controversy.From a pure policy-making perspective open and transparent classification boards and processes are the ‘least bad’ option, designed to have the least impact economic and social costs, while still effectively meeting its objectives. And for businesses there is no better regulation: companies are able to make wise investment decisions based on a set of clearly defined rules of the playground. The guidelines provide an indication of just where their games will be able to be sold, and more importantly, who to. Shareholders are amazing profit-maximisers, and that inherent trait, combined with the move to transparent guidelines based classification systems is an efficient way of enforcing our own social values.
I should make it clear that I’m not in favour of censorship – Australia is a country that did away with socially conservative laws that banned books and other ‘offensive’ material half a century ago – nor am I in favour of overly restricting freedom of speech. But I’m also not a libertarian and I strongly believe it is a government’s role in consultation with its society to decide where the lines of freedom are and protect them according. I believe that light touch regulation is usually the most appropriate mechanism by which governments can do this and mitigate against the risks of economic and/or social harm caused by gratuitous content or socially unacceptable material. Classification isn’t censorship and it’s not silencing, but it is government intervention and intervention that invariably impacts the market. In the case of video games, the benefits far outweigh the costs, and from the perspective of a policy-maker, that’s about as good a case for action as any. Hotline Miami 2 is a victim of our classification system, but I’d argue it’s deserving of that status.