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Interview with a new chief censor: how to ban a video game

There’s a new Chief Censor in town. David Shanks, a former director and deputy CEO for the Ministry of Social Development, has barely been in the job three months so we decided to throw Eugenia Woo at him.  

Pity the job of those they call censors. It used to be so easy when there were only two mass mediums. Now the stuff we consume is fragmented and spinning off into space in a thousand different bits via digital media and the internet. Being a gatekeeper at the door nowadays is like standing in a huge river delta armed only with a kitchen sieve.

Video games are a prime example of the problem: distribution is almost completely online now. How exactly does one measure the extent to which games affect behaviour (if they do at all)? And how do you even approach things like modding?

We’re presenting Eugenia’s interview with the Chief Censor in two parts. Part one explores how Shanks and the Office of Film and Literature Classification approach video games, while part two – to be published shortly – broadens its scope to online video streaming.

Young people can access almost anything that they want to online. How is the NZOFLC coping with its job in stopping people from having to view objectionable stuff like child pornography and terrorist videos that falls through the cracks because of just how “big” the internet is? Do you think the office will have to proactively seek out these materials in some way, like some huge search of the web that identifies problematic sites?

Yes, I think that the office has a part to play in proactively seeking out these materials and circumventing the harm that they do. However, it’s a matter of figuring out how to use our resources in a smart way in order to have a big impact on what you’ve rightly pointed out is a huge world in terms of being online. When you think about the thousands of hours of content going up on Youtube at any given time, having an individual sit through and classify that kind of material doesn’t make any sense. To that extent, we’re talking to Google about their trusted flagger programme which allows issues that are raised with us to be quickly passed on to Google so that they can remove the problematic content if necessary, or to put some protections or ratings on it.

Another example is the work that the office did in having a look at games provided by Steam. That’s a classic situation where we have expertise and a real depth of capability in terms of assessing games and as I mentioned before, the typical approach is that we’re classifying games that are released here in physical disk form because those disks need a label and that’s how we set  it up.

However, not so long ago, the office realised that the world is changing and many games are not released in physical form. We had to consider the kinds of games available to young people through a big online provider like Steam, and also whether they would need classification, and we had a process that swept through Steam and picked up some games like Hatred, Postal 3 and others like them. We reviewed those games and found that they did require classification, and that again was a situation where the office engaged with a number of members of the gaming community.

On considering the censorship of different mediums, particularly video games, is the process similar to how you describe the rating of a movie? Do people sit in the room and watch a mate play it? You did mention that you had people at the office with expertise in this area, how do you work with that?

Games present some challenges in that you can’t just sit down and watch a game in the way that you can with a movie. If you tried to sit down and watch someone play an entire game you could be there for a whole week. We have gamers who are very skilled and adept at crunching through a big game quickly. They play through these games fast by themselves but they will take screenshots and notes and produce a presentation after all that. Either I or my deputy or one of our seniors will get into a room with one of our specialist game reviewers and they’ll walk us through a presentation on the various elements of the game. They’ll go through any contentious elements and they’ll draw on other perspectives of the game to provide context for what it’s about and what it’s trying to do.

We get a good summary of what the game is, what issues it presents, and a recommendation as to what it should be rated in terms of a classification. It is really a specialised process.

In terms of these games that you rate covering more ground regarding subject matter i.e. some games covering mental illness or suicide, would the same sort of consultation process that you used for [Netflix film about eating disorders] To the Bone be also used for this medium? Would that help with the contextualisation that you mentioned or are games considered too specialised?

We would absolutely pull in expert advice on a game, bearing in mind that we would need to weigh up how wide the game’s reach would be and the sort of impact that it would have. Whether it’s a niche game or one that will have broad appeal is important. We’ve consulted on animated games with representatives of the anime community and clubs so that we can understand more about the context of those games. Games presenting particular challenges around topics like suicide would absolutely be something that we have to look at seriously in terms of pulling in specialist input. However, we have been through that previously in assessing [Netflix show] 13 Reasons Why so we can already draw on that knowledge base about the sort of risks that might be presented by such a game.

I’m going to sound like a broken record in a bit since games are my specialty, but I just had a question about consistency and the layman’s perception regarding censorship. I’m going to use a recent OFLC judgement as an example – Gal*Gun was banned and the judgement released by the Office cited the “encouragement and promotion of sexual violence” as a concern, which is fair.

However, if we’re then looking at a game like this that doesn’t have realistic portrayals of its characters (it has an exaggerated, cartoony art style, in a way) and we’re coming to this conclusion, how do we feel about games like Grand Theft Auto? The graphics are rendered to be far more realistic and part of “entertainment” according to some is enacting awful violence against sex workers. My concern as a consumer is where the line is being drawn because right now that’s unclear.

It’s a much richer assessment than just considering sexual violence as a sole topic. Sexual violence has long been a staple of publications, media, content and films, and sexual violence per se is not in itself something that might mean that a publication is objectionable. There can be representations of it that can have some beneficial effects in society in terms of calling attention to it as an issue and presenting it realistically in a way that can have some advantages for the right age group. Those are all factors that we have to take into account.

What becomes more serious is when a game or a production is orientated towards promoting or fostering sexual violence in habituating the viewer to seek that as a desirable object or something to be engaged in. That’s the difference.

I understand your considerations about how Gal*Gun contrasts with Grand Theft Auto, which is very visceral and blatant in its presentation, and there are very problematic presentations in games like Grand Theft Auto which lead to high-level restrictions. Where you get into the space with Gal*Gun is that it takes the next step in terms of promotion in terms of violence against children or underage people.

From what I’m getting here, it’s when violence isn’t a factor that is part of the game, but when it’s the focus of the game’s mechanics? That’s the general point at which a game may be considered for a ban by the office?

That is one of the factors, yes. We’re really concerned with what the game is about, what its focus is, what is it promoting and what’s the potential harm that could flow from that.

How does the office view other concerns coming to the forefront in our time now? These are things like violent nationalism, for example. Do we start looking at games promoting that as worthy of a possible ban in the way that we see games promoting sexual violence as deserving of a ban?

I think that those are very important and relevant questions for where society is at right now, not just in this country but also globally. The principle taken regarding the protection of freedom of speech holds true, and there are real limitations in terms of how far we can go in respect of what could be seen as political expression of opinion. This includes, potentially, the endorsement of extreme fascist or Nazi-type ideologies.

However, what I think you’re indicating towards are the sorts of games and publications that really advocate for violent expressions of racism or Nazi-type ideologies?

Yes, that’s absolutely right.

Then yes, absolutely, classifications and treating publications as objectionable would come into the frame because if you’ve got people advocating for terrorism and extreme violence, racial abuse and the like, then they are exactly the kind of harms that the office is needing to consider in terms of its assessments. I think that’s where this office can operate and provide a buffer for society around some of that kind of material and it has in fact done so in the past in relation to publications supporting terrorism, for example.

So it comes back round to whether or not a certain kind of behaviour is encouraged when it comes to the OFLC giving a high restricted rating or a ban to a publication.

Yes, that’s right.

What about the treatment of things that don’t quite constitute a game? I’m talking mainly about things called mods, which people can use to change certain aspects of games, and how even adding extra scenes to video footage is easy now. Where does the OFLC sit on things like mods because they’ve always been historically a way for gamers and consumers to express themselves via creating a product that lets them control what they want to see in a game. That being said, they’re likely still considered a niche community. Does the OFLC step into niche communities like the modding one or the fact that it is so niche mean that it doesn’t rank highly on the office’s priority list?

We’ve actually got a blog relating to mods on our website, but yes, we’ve given that some thought in response to a query that came up around exactly that. Basically, you’re right – it’s a feature of the technological landscape that we’re aware of and that we’re giving some thought to. It’s really a matter of figuring out how major of an impact the mods will have and the like. The things that you indicated are exactly the sorts of considerations that come into play as to whether we would necessarily feel obliged to move into that space. For the most part, the approach is that a modified game becomes a new publication that is potentially unrated. The blog gives a little bit more background information but whether the creation of that new publication is significant or not really depends on the circumstances.

It’s really not a one size fits all approach, then. From publication to publication, there appear to be a lot of specialised concerns that the OFLC takes into account when it analyses cases.

I think that’s true and it has to be that way in terms of picking up some of the subtleties that you’re indicating exist when we look at different games in particular. Right across the spectrum, however, it’s got to be an assessment of what is this thing, who is its intended audience, what sort of effect is it trying to have on them, and what sort of harms may flow from that.

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