As it stands only ten games are currently banned from sale in New Zealand but should we be looking at how we censor games with more scrutiny? Oskar Howell writes.
Content warning: Depictions of violence are alluded to in the piece.
One of the first games I seriously played was Grand Theft Auto III. It was one of the better games at the time, and other than Halo: Combat Evolved it was the only game I was serious about beating.
‘Roam the open world, complete the missions and be rewarded for your efforts,’ was the ethos of the game. Grand Theft Auto III was the first of the series to be set in a 3D world, and many consider it to be the first real open-world shooter.
Being an industry leader in 2001 meant you needed to bring something new to the table, and developers Rockstar Games did just that. They incorporated then-groundbreaking shooting and movement mechanics, an expansive open world set in a distinctly recognisable New York City, and a strong storyline that many remember fondly as a highlight of the series.
I was one of the kids in the laptop class of my intermediate, and we were all tech whizzes; constantly trading games on cracked hard-drives and the like. I can remember my excitement when I loaded this open-world wonder up for the first time in the back of class one day.
I became entirely engrossed in the game’s freedom; it’s sense of openness and ‘do-what-you-like’ attitude was what made it so appealing. This was probably what led me astray – one moment I was finishing a mission, and the next I found myself dumbfounded and bewildered after beheading a random passerby as they strolled past.
It’s this particular moment that is burned into my head.
I wasn’t alone in my reaction to the game and its violence. In the wake of the Grand Theft Auto III’s release many questioned why this kind of mechanic, this kind of freedom, was implemented in the game in the first place, especially considering the new appeal to younger or, at the very least, new generation gamers. Review titan Gamespy awarded the game the ‘most offensive of the year’ on account of its graphic violence, describing it as a “technically marvellous game that at the same time is absolutely reprehensible”.
It wasn’t banned, it sold millions of copies, and the latest game from the developer is one of the most successful in video game history. The world keeps turning, content keeps churning.
However, the topic of graphic material in video games comes up for debate every few years: this time it comes with news online gaming platform Steam has pulled social obscenity Rape Day from its digital marketplace prompted by an international outcry.
The game allows the player to “control the choices of a menacing serial killer rapist during a zombie apocalypse. Verbally harass, kill, and rape women as you choose to progress the story,” according to Rape Day’s splash page on Steam.
Valve, the owner of Steam, hastily pulled the game from their library following pushback from the community.
Valve said they “simply have to wait and see what comes to us via Steam Direct,” which is industry code for reacting to controversial content instead of screening it before being exposed to consumers.
“After significant fact-finding and discussion, we think ‘Rape Day’ poses unknown costs and risks and therefore won’t be on Steam,” the Valve statement continued.
“We respect developers’ desire to express themselves, and the purpose of Steam is to help developers find an audience, but this developer has chosen content matter and a way of representing it that makes it very difficult for us to help them do that.”
Like any company distributing content into the world, whether it be a retailer or a streaming service, Valve has an inherent responsibility to screen content on its platform before putting it out into the world. Their reactive attitude goes against their duty of care for consumers.
It’s one thing for Valve to scold the game developers for producing content they don’t agree with, but they must be able to back it up with proactive action that tells consumers they’re willing to protect their interests when it comes to new releases.
On the other side of this: How far can game developers push the threshold for graphic content before the New Zealand authorities push back?
Pretty far, according to Paul Hung of the Office of Film and Literature Classification.
Hung said the process tends to be lenient toward these kinds of games, and it has become quite difficult to get a game banned in New Zealand.
“There is little discretion in this area for classification advisors such as myself. The threshold for content to trigger this subsection is high.”
Hung says one of the main issues is New Zealand’s market simply isn’t significant enough for game developers to warrant changes to their content. In other words, they don’t make enough revenue in New Zealand to tailor content for our consumers.
“The reality of the situation is that most distributors who are submitting content into New Zealand are unlikely to have the rights to be able to change/adapt games, and the market within New Zealand itself is simply too small for most distributors to bother.”
The total number of games on the list of games banned by the Classification Office in New Zealand, according to Wikipedia, stands at ten. Valve pulled Rape Day from availability – it technically was not banned in New Zealand, although it’s unavailable for purchase on any platform.
Of the ten games, six were banned due to graphic sexual content, the majority of these including rape or sexual exploitation of minors. Games like Gal*Gun: Double Peace and Three Sisters’ Story found themselves on the list and off the shelves because of the sexual exploitation of minors.
The Classification Office seems to competently handle games with sexual violence or abuse, but what makes sexually explicit games worse offenders than violent ones?
Scenes of gore or violence tend to be taken more lightly in New Zealand than sexual violence. Most games have never really struggled against censorship, despite having gory or violent scenes that shake even the sturdiest of stomachs, or the most jaded of gamers.
The other five games on the list were banned because of extreme violence, also a hard no with the Classification Office. Violent games included Postal and Postal 2, high-end games that were popular in overseas markets. Another notable title banned from New Zealand shores is Reservoir Dogs, an adaptation of the popular Quentin Tarantino movie of the same name.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 had the protagonist shoot up an airport in a terrorist attack. Resident Evil 7 had the player reach into a rotting corpse to obtain a key hidden within its stomach. Outlast 2 depicted a woman being tortured on a medieval rack. The Evil Within 2 required you to dismember a person with a chainsaw to advance.
None of these games are banned in this country. None of them are censored. You can buy pretty much any of them at any retailer who sells games.
Over the Tasman, Australia’s censor list is a much longer and has less leniency for violent and graphic video games. Saints Row IV, State of Decay and South Park: The Stick of Truth made it through the New Zealand Classification Office, but were caught up in Australia’s tighter content-law net.
Conversely, some truly legendary, million-selling games like Left for Dead 2, Fallout 3, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Mortal Kombat and Outlast 2 were initially banned in Australia, before having the bans overturned in later years. Yet none of those games were ever even up for debate in New Zealand.
Even Grand Theft Auto III, that game that rocked me to my core, found itself on Australia’s naughty list before being appealed and overturned later for general consumption.
New Zealand has a relatively high threshold for gruesome scenes – higher than countries like Japan – but we lack the international standing to change scenes that cross the line. For most consumers the difference between controversial and plain wrong is a stark line in the sand, but for a market that enjoys graphic content, the line couldn’t be any blurrier.
New Zealanders seem to baulk at the idea of censorship: it feels like an infringement on what we can and can’t put ourselves through.
The sad reality is often it’s our young, unsupervised, curious minds who will see what they can never un-see. It is the young, impressionable people who will suffer the real effects of seeing things they shouldn’t. It’s the kids trading cracked hard-drives at the back of class.
We love to preach the personal injustices of censorship, but isn’t protecting our young people from seeing what they can’t un-see more important?
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