Vulnerable adults

As you’re probably aware, Australia doesn’t have an 18+ rating for video games (though it does for other types of media such as films and publications). It’s not a stretch to see why. At the time the legislation was applied to video games, such games were the province of the young, and it is only recently that they’ve grown up, right?


From their inception, video games (particularly computer games) were played by all ages.

Even back when various coin-op seminal classics such as Space Invaders, Tank Command, Battlezone, Pong (and the like) were first making their way in front of the general populace, you’d find adults playing games too. The bell-curve for playing video games may skew towards the younger end of the spectrum, but parents and grandparents played back then too.

And, yes, we have all gotten older. That’s not really something we can help.

So, when ratings for games were enshrined in Australian law, the premise that kept an 18+ rating out of the legislation was a faulty one to begin with. Granted, anecdotal evidence suggests that the people least likely to play computer and video games are our elected representatives. So, while the basis might have been a faulty one, it’s theoretically forgivable.

As coin-op arcades got louder and more garish, and home computers became more readily available, adults generally shifted their gaming to the home. But many of them are still playing, and we generally know that they are. Additionally, of course, yesterday’s youth have become today’s adults, and many of them are still playing too.

Since adults are axiomatically interested in adult themes (hence the name), there are many games that cater to that. Violence, sex, tragedy and gore aren’t just tools for sensationalism. They’re also effective narrative devices for drama, suspense, horror and thematic support in storytelling, just as are comedy, romance, dialogue, surprise and foreshadowing.

You’ve watched television and movies, and you probably know this.

So, why doesn’t Australia have that 18+ category to cater to its adult population of gamers?

Well, the wheels of justice and law are often slow and rather complex. In this case, what is required is a unanimous decision from the Attorneys General of each Australian state. To the best of my knowledge, all are in favor of the new category except for the South Australian State Attorney General, Michael Atkinson.

As long as he holds out on the matter, no new ratings category can be added.

“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,” Mr Atkinson said.

The use of “vulnerable adults” immediately raised a red-flag with me.

I used to teach a class back in the early 1980s, one of the topics of which was censorship, by which was meant “media ratings and classifications systems” in the usage of the day.

In examining the motivations underpinning such ratings systems it was evident that they existed to shield those who were unable to make their own judgements as to whether certain material would be disturbing or harmful to them.

Obviously that was primarily children, but inevitably someone in the class would ask some variation of “But what about vulnerable adults?” pointing out that while calendar-age was generally accepted as a guideline for such things, that not everyone who had reached the age of 18 necessarily had acquired the implied level of judgement and competence.

And that’s a really good question, because that is most certainly the case.

Our textbooks held the answer. Whether or not an adult of 18 years or older actually does or does not possess the necessary levels of judgement to make their own, informed decisions about media and entertainment, the law holds them fully accountable for their own actions, unless they are of “diminished capacity” in which case responsibility (as for a juvenile) devolves onto a guardian.

That some “vulnerable adults” could gain access to books, films or media that might be problematic for them was… well, considered by society (or at the very least, by lawmakers) to be a ‘small sacrifice’ that was ‘worth it’ for the greater benefit. A number of “vulnerable adults” of all ages, from 18 upwards, would always exist.

What I infer from Mr Atkinson’s statement is that he feels that the number of “vulnerable adults” outweighs the number of non-vulnerable adult gamers in Australia. That the maturity of adult Australians is in question.

Yes, he feels that interactive video games are more problematic medium than movies or books, but ultimately if it is not our maturity that is at issue here, then what is it?

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