This playground is rated 'R' for uncertainty

The other week I attended a series of presentations at QUT regarding games and Australian law. Though most of the talks focused on on-line legal issues, one focused on the Australian rating system and it's failings.

For those of you that don't know, although the OFLC claims that games, film and television and rated on the same system, there is no R (18+) rating for games. This means the highest rating a game can receive is MA15+, or else it is Refused Classification, and banned.

The speaker seemed mainly interested in calling for an R rating, though he did spend a lot of time pointing out the various faults, contradictions, and inconsistencies in game ratings.

Some interesting points he bought up were:

The case of GTAIII, which was banned due to it's depictions of violence against women: you could pay for a prostitute (restoring your health), and then after you're finished with 'services', kill her and take back your money;

The case of Man Hunt (I think, I'm don't remember if this was the correct game), where the people rating the game were unable to pass the first section of the game and were worried about the ability for people to kill the same guy over and over (perhaps not realizing that most players would pass the first stage and not experience this);

The famous Hot Coffee incident where by GTA: San Andreas was banned after a third-party mod allowed users to access a sex mini-game that was cut - but not removed - from the final build of the game;

He also showed many other examples of games games were either rated or banned for various, interesting reasons.

I have often considered the problem of rating a medium based on what a user 'can' or 'might' do, rather than what content is most prevalent in the game, and the QUT presentation got me thinking about it again. The vast gap between the content of the game and the possible experience concerns me, so to this end I am calling for a ban on a game that I think allows players to use the otherwise mundane content in explicit ways: Oblivion.

Oblivion is an open-ended, swords and sorcery role playing game, a game where you can kill anyone, loot anything, and play anywhere. Indeed the tag-line of the series is 'Live another life'.

So how's this hypothetical life:

Using the face editor at the start of the game you can make a character that looks like yourself, someone you know, or better yet a psychopath, and head out into the wide open-ended world. You can then proceed to kill all of the many NPCs
populating the world, and strip them of their loot and clothing. You can then hide the bodies in the basement of your very own house you purchased in-game, and using the physics system, grab parts of their bodies and manipulate them into different positions.

But it doesn't end there! You can then open up the Construction Set, the very tools used by the developers to make the game, which is freely available online, and learn to use it with support from sites all over the web, including the official forums and Wiki. Perhaps you'll make mods that allows dismemberment, or make the NPCs drop to their knees and plead for their lives, or even add custom NPCs with the faces of people you know.

Surely this hypothetical situation represents far more gruesome, distasteful violence than most other games. This situation is disturbing and offensive ? and yet entirely possible within the game's vast possibility space.

And therein lies the problem: you cannot rate a medium as open and interactive as games they way you would other media. The content is not fixed. A movie never changes no matter how many times you watch it, even a choose-your-own-adventure
book has a fixed set of content.

But many modern games are an open playground of possibility: sandbox games, modding tools, online community play and voice-chat mean that for many games the play experience can never be absolutely assured. You can never know what the player might do ? in or even out of the context of the game.

It is troubling therefore when a games rating is influenced by these circumstances. You can certainly rate games on the actual content that ships with the game, you can perhaps even rate them on what players are encouraged to do through the
natural course of gameplay. But you certainly cannot rate games on what players might be able to do through creative application of the game space.

After all, perhaps I just want to spend my time in Oblivion skipping through meadows picking flowers.