After getting down and dirty with Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare 2 for the better part of this week, it occurred to me the game itself is plenty violent. In fact, it's one of the most violent games with a skew in real-life situations I've ever played. Now, I'm not saying it has something to answer for, for said violence as I am a proponent of free choice and common sense (in that we should be free to choose what level of violence/horror/sex et al we desire, and common sense in that people need to differentiate between playing a videogame and enacting violently in the real-world), but the infamous "No Russian" mission from the game actually impacted me quite a bit, and I felt like this was a potential turning-point in the gaming medium.
This "turning-point" comes in the form of games potentially finally seen as an artform to be revered and intelligently discussed (and not slandered and blamed). The reason for this is the context, from a narrative level, of that scene is quite significant, and it has garnered much in the way of media coverage both for and against; all largely in the thanks to the high profile of Modern Warfare 2 itself.
But it also had me questioning both its ready availability in Australia (given our RC track record), and the fact it was slapped with an MA 15+ without so much as whimper from the Classification Board. If you could argue the context of that scene where you're free to murder countless innocent people, then surely you can argue the context of a group of survivors fending for themselves against hordes of undead.
I am, of course, talking about the RC Left 4 Dead 2 received here in Australia and its subsequent resubmission in modified form (thus effectively starving Australians of the game's true form and forcing the developer to rape their opus). It's a case that has had the gaming world shaking their collective fists about in rage, and rightly so. The first Left 4 Dead was let through the censors unabated, we've seen numerous zombie games make it to Australia without a single need for resubmission, and there are also plenty of other games offering just as much (if not more) gore and violence as Left 4 Dead 2.
Seizing an opportunity, I contacted the Classification Board to ask for their justification of Modern Warfare 2's MA 15+, airport sequence in tow, against an RC for killing zombies. In effect, one game gives you the unlikely fantasy of killing the undead, while the other offers up a very real fantasy of killing people in an airport.
For the sake of getting my point across, I constructed this outline, presented to you here word for word as I submitted to the Classification Board:
To the Classification Board,
I'm concerned with the RC that applied to Left 4 Dead 2, which was appealed, but rejected thus forcing the game developer to release a lesser, modified version of the game to appease the board's objections to the game's content. My concern is that the excessive violence, related to "infected" (or zombies), caused the board to RC the game, despite the context of excessive violence being purely fantastical (in that you're killing zombies, not humans), yet Modern Warfare 2, a game with a clearly more realised vision in relaying real life, was granted an MA15+ despite being released with a mission asking players to kill hundreds of innocent people in an airport, acting out the fantasy of terrorism. In my view, as a games journalist, 32 year-old adult and avid game player, this sequence is far more riveting than the culling of zombies. If the argument from your end is relative to the violence in narrative context in that the sequence is required to drive the story forward, the same argument can be equally applied to Left 4 Dead 2, which follows the narrative of survivors fighting off hordes of infected zombies. There are countless zombie movies with excessive violence rated only MA 15+, as well as other games such as the original Left 4 Dead (arguably containing the same content in relation to violence, and was released unabated with an MA 15+ rating).
I ask that you clarify justification for the RC of Left 4 Dead 2 in its original form, and the release of Modern Warfare 2 (which also has plenty of other moments of excessive violence even beyond the airport sequence).
There are other games I could call upon relative to my argument, but given MW2 has only just been released, it seems far more relevant.
I would greatly appreciate an expanded response with the Classification Board's decisions in both cases here.
Much to my appeasement, the Board responded rather quickly (and timely given this feature), though in not nearly as robust or expansive a manner as I would have preferred. Though they clarify their reasoning and also point out that each review is done so on a case-by-case basis, their argument, in my opinion, is flawed. But before I dissect the Board's response, I have it for you here in full:
Can the Classification Board clarify their justification for the RC classification of Left 4 Dead 2 in its original form, and the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2?
The Classification Board (the Board) classifies each computer game on a case by case basis.
Left 4 Dead 2
On 15 September 2009, the Board classified the computer game Left 4 Dead 2 RC (Refused Classification).
It was the view of the Board that the game contained violence that was high in impact and therefore unsuitable for persons aged under 18 years to play.
The game contained realistic, frenetic and unrelenting violence. The player could choose from a variety of weapons including pistols, shotguns, machine guns and sniper rifles. However, it was the use of the 'melee' weapons such as the crowbar, axe, chainsaw and Samurai sword which inflicted the most damage. These close in attacks caused copious amounts of blood spray and splatter, decapitations and limb dismemberment as well as locational damage where contact is made to the enemy which sometimes revealed skeletal bits and gore. Projectile shots to infected humans could cause abdominal wounds which could reveal innards or even caused intestines to spill from the wounds.
The interactive nature of the game increased the overall impact of the frequent and intense depictions of violence. This coupled with the graphic depictions of blood and gore combined to create a playing impact which was high. As such, in accordance with the Classification Guidelines and National Classification Code, it warranted an RC classification. The Guidelines and the Code are available at www.classification.gov.au.
On 22 October 2009, the Classification Review Board (the Review Board) met to review the RC classification of Left 4 Dead 2. The Review Board upheld the Board's decision to classify the game RC. The Review Board will publish its reasons for this decision, when finalised, at www.classification.gov.au.
On 7 October 2009, the Board classified a modified version of Left 4 Dead 2 MA 15+ with the consumer advice 'Strong bloody violence'.
The Board noted that this modified version of the game contained violence with strong impact that could be accommodated within the MA 15+ classification.
The Board will classify a computer game in the form in which the distributor submits it. The Board does not direct a distributor to modify a computer game.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
On 14 September 2009 the Board classified the game Bloodhunt MA 15+ (Mature Accompanied) with the consumer advice 'Strong violence'. On 15 October 2009, the title of the game was changed to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, this change was made through an application to the Board. On occasion, the Board receives applications for title changes of material.
It was the view of the Board that this game contained violence that was strong in impact and justified by context.
The Board noted that there is a sequence where a player could also go undercover with the terrorist Makarov, and could (but was not required to) assist in the massacre of Russian civilians at an airport. During this mission, several civilians were shot with blood burst bullet wounds; civilian corpses were strewn across the airport floor, often in stylised pools of blood; injured civilians crawled away with lengthy blood trails behind them; however, corpses disappeared at random and no post mortem damage could be inflicted. The impact of this depiction of violence did not exceed strong, and in all other levels, the killing of a civilian would result in immediate mission failure.
It was the view of the Board that the impact of the computer game was no higher than strong and could therefore be accommodated within the MA 15+ classification.
Specifically, the Board managed to answer my question in the same way they review games - case-by-case. This is where I believe the system itself is flawed, because in their arguments against classifying Left 4 Dead 2 they cite many things that you are currently able to do in other games, specifically Dead Rising, which encourages the use of creative melee weapons to dismember and kill the undead. The Samurai sword, as the best example, offering equal amounts of locational damage also showing off zombie insides; a game quite easily marked with an MA 15+ upon submission. And that is but one example.
The problem here then is there's no such thing as precedent. In the Board's eyes, despite releasing both Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising as MA 15+ games (among many, many others), they hold no ground to how they should treat Left 4 Dead 2, which is why it's entirely fine to walk into an airport in Modern Warfare 2, kill innocent people and watch piles of bodies build up on the floor around you, but it's not okay to smack a zombie in the face with a frying pan.
Perhaps we should be reviewing the review methods of the Classification Board instead of wasting our time with the futile task of changing South Australian Attorney General Michael Atkinson's mind on an R 18+ rating for videogames.